Shirley Jackson: “Paranoia” from TNY 8/5/13

TNY Art by Simon Landrein

TNY Art by Simon Landrein

Mr. Halloran Beresford, pleasantly tired after a good day in the office, still almost clean-shaven after eight hours, his pants still neatly pressed, pleased with himself particularly for remembering, stepped out of the candy shop with a great box under his arm and started briskly for the corner. There were twenty small-size grey suits like Beresford’s on every New York block, fifty men still clean-shaven and pressed after a day in an air-cooled office, a hundred small men, perhaps, pleased with themselves for remembering their wives’ birthdays.

 

I didn’t notice until preparing this blog post that this story starts and ends with the wife.

It’s Halloran, though, who’s the subject (though it might be interesting to consider if he’s just the lens through which we see the subject). Jackson goes to such pains to paint him as a small, grey man, his nondescriptness is as distinctive as a flashing neon sign on his head: “I’m a Nobody!” And yet, as the main character in the story, he becomes Somebody. He becomes Somebody who’s being followed… maybe.

We follow him through his stages of paranoia. First, he notices the man in the light hat, then wonders if a chance movement was taken as an offense. He then realizes it’s possible the guy’s been following him for longer than he realized. He can’t find a rational structure for what’s happening to him. He heads for safety – down a street, in a store, a bus, a subway, a crowd – only to discover there is no safety. And no rescue: the store keeper, the bus driver, the subway riders, all seem to collude with the man in the light hat, whether intentionally or not. Neither is there any appeal to higher authority:

Halfway to the policeman he began to wonder again: what did he have to report? A bus that would not stop when directed to, a clerk in a souvenir shop who cornered customers, a mysterious man in a light hat – and why? Mr. Beresford realized suddenly that there was nothing he could tell the policeman: he looked over his shoulder and saw the man in the light hat watching him.

It’s a pretty classic scenario. I was caught up in the story at first, but as the little twists and turns went on, I started to get bored. There was a progression, to be sure, but in following that progression, it seemed to me there was an unspoken promise that something would happen to defy expectations: some corridor of safety would be different, some turn would surprise me. That didn’t happen. So I felt cheated.

I’m not sure that’s a fair assessment, though. If this story is, as Jackson’s son believes, from the 40s, it might’ve read fresher then. At this point, if you want to play the “am I paranoid or am I really in danger” card, you’ve got to get more creative with it, but as a historical marker, it’s a worthwhile artifact. Then again, it was “previously unpublished,” and maybe there was a reason for that.

I felt particularly cheated by the very end of the story, because it offered no solution; it was like the end of Twin Peaks when I realized the writers, who probably never expected things to go beyond Ep4, had no complete construct of what was happening. I felt very let down that Jackson didn’t have some grand scheme in mind, a scheme she’d cleverly hidden yet hinted at all along, a scheme that I just wasn’t clever enough to discover until she revealed it to me. She’d violated my trust.

And again, I wonder if that’s a fair assessment: isn’t that, after all, exactly the situation in which Halloran finds himself when his wife re-enters the picture at the end of the story? Confusion, not knowing, trapped by someone who seems to have a devious plan but isn’t revealing what it is? Hmmm… maybe it’s a better story than I thought.

Regardless of the merits of this particular story (at best, the blogosphere reaction can be described as “mixed”), the accompanying Page Turner article about the original publication of “The Lottery” was highly informative. I read “The Lottery” in, oh, about 1968 I’d guess. I never heard about Shirley Jackson again until I started hanging out with short story enthusiasts; somehow I’d always put her in the same category as Emily Dickinson, a woman from way back in the pilgrim days (hey, it was all a blur to me in 1968 and somehow I ended up with a 19th century-Crucible-Lottery mashup). But when the story was first published in TNY in 1948, it received more letters than had any other story to date – many of them angry, most of them confused. Given that, it’s pretty remarkable the story ended up in my junior high curriculum anyway.

This story, and the two Page Turner articles that accompanied it, have accomplished what my junior high school English teacher didn’t back in 1968: I’m curious about Shirley Jackson. Next time I’m looking for a short-story collection, I just might pick hers.

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