Friday, October 14, 2011

We Have Always Lived in the Castle

I put off reading Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle for a long time because I built it up so much, & the anticipation was fun. The longer I waited, the more I was sure it was going to be an amazing book. The building up was totally unprovoked. No one had told me it was a great book; in fact, a friend who posted it on Goodreads gave it just three stars. The buildup came from the fact that it's one of the best titles I've ever heard, I enjoyed Jackson's story "The Lottery" however many years ago I read it, & after receiving a copy of the freaking gorgeous Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition (pictured directly below), I was even more convinced it had to be great. Yeah, I totally judge books by their covers. 

I've posted three covers, by the way, because this book has a beautiful cover history all around. Not many old books (Castle was first published in 1962 and was Jackson's last book) can say that. So anyway, I finally read it. This book is everything I love: It's off-putting, it's unnerving, it's dark, it's weird, it's somehow charming. It's a horror story without being overtly scary. The horror is in the characters Jackson portrays. The book's narrator is 18-year-old Mary Katherine Blackwood, or Merricat, who lives with her sister Constance & Uncle Julian in a large house, empty of the rest of their family who were poisoned with arsenic years before. Constance hasn't left the house since then, Merricat braves the leery townspeople to keep the house stocked with supplies, & doddering Julian writes & rewrites notes about the family's last days.    

It's hard to imagine two scarier characters in literature than Merricat & Constance, & much of this is due to the fact that they seem so innocent. Their quiet, mundane life in isolation isn't peaceful, just ominous, as Merricat is constantly alluding to the upcoming "last day." Merricat is 18 & Constance is 28, but they both feel much younger, 13 or 14, like they've been in arrested development since their parents died. Merricat is one of the most brilliantly written protagonists I've ever encountered. She's superstitious and believes in magic, though this reads almost as more of a severe case of obsessive-compulsive disorder, since she ritualizes everything. Her thoughts are sometimes frantic, she slips into near-hallucinations, and she gives off a constant aura of danger. Being stuck in her head for the duration of the book is a scary place to be. Yet in her head, her madness is justifiable - inviting almost. Constance mothers her. They adore each other, & their happy home life is disturbed by the entrance of Cousin Charles, who's got his eye on the family's money.

While the underlying question for much of the book is, of course, "Who poisoned the family?", when we finally find out, it's almost secondarily of interest, because so much more has been put on the line. How is Merricat going to get rid of Charles, whom she distrusts & hates? Whose side is Constance, who's smitten with Charles, going to choose? How long can Uncle Julian stick around in poor health? How will Merricat react to the major upheaval that's coming? Are the townspeople, who love to persecute the Blackwoods, going to do something drastic? The whole book is a question of "us versus them," but which side is the safe one? Are these girls ever going to live a happy, normal life again? Do we even want them to? Do they deserve it?

This book is absolutely unforgettable - the ending is chilling - & worth a million rereads. Merricat's almost fevered thoughts read like dark poetry. I'll leave you with one of my favorite sentences, & hope that you'll be intrigued enough to pick it up yourself. Oh & one last thing: If you do get the Penguin edition, don't read the introduction until after you read the book! It's excellent, but it gives away everything!

Like children hunting for shells, or two old ladies going through dead leaves looking for pennies, we shuffled along the kitchen floor with our feet, turning over broken trash to find things which were still whole, and useful.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Click these!

I'll be back later to talk about Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle, but for now I just want to share these two links. They're must-reads for you children's lit fans.

The first is an article from the New York Times by Maria Tatar, "No More Adventures in Wonderland." I enjoyed this article so much because her thesis is something I've never considered: that the darkness in today's children's literature is more sinister than children's lit of say, 100 years ago, because there's no silliness to balance them out, & that this is perhaps because the authors are speaking to their own adult thoughts & feelings rather than speaking to their child audience. In many ways, Barrie's Peter and Wendy (Happy 100th! I love you more & more with each reread) & Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (I love you, too) are so tragic, to me, so it's interesting to think of them as having elements that assuage grief, whereas something like The Hunger Games does not. Thoughts on this?

The second is a New Yorker article, "Broken Kingdom: Fifty Years of the Phantom Tollbooth." The Phantom Tollbooth, written by Norton Juster & illustrated by Jules Feiffer, is one of the only books I don't think I could ever look at through a critical lense. I can remember exactly when I fell in love with the book, & that same kind of unabashed, innocent love is what I still feel every time I read it. I feel like a child again, & have no desire to make it mean anything more or less than that. Actually, to be honest, I fell in love with the movie first. My parents taped the movie when it came on Sci-Fi, & my brother & I probably watched it a million times before I even knew there was a book. The movie is wonderful! & that's saying a lot, considering how great the book is.

But I digress. This article is pretty great, as both an interview & a critical piece.

Feiffer and Juster, both born in 1929, are like a pair of wryly benevolent uncles, with Norton the dreamy, crinkle-eyed, soft-spoken uncle who gives you the one piece of good advice you never forget, and Jules the wisecracking uncle who never lets up on your foibles but was happy to have you crash on his couch that night you just couldn’t bear going home.

Isn't that exactly how you'd imagine them?! The interview portion of the article makes me feel sheer delight about the book all over again. Did you know Juster had synesthesia? Or that Feiffer & Juster lived in the same apartment building during the writing of the book?

The book was published in 1961, and no one had much hope that it would find an audience. “Everyone said this is not a children’s book, the vocabulary is much too difficult, the wordplay and the punning they will never understand, and anyway fantasy is bad for children because it disorients them,” Juster said, four million copies later. “I thought, O.K., it will come out, and end on the remainder table.”

I love that. I have so much respect for any author who respects kids & doesn't talk down to them. & fifty years in, it's a classic. Take that, close-minded grown-ups!

The only part of this article I find problematic - & I might be alone here - is the author's assertion that the book's stance on education makes it such a magical classic & that the "point" of the book is "that normal school subjects can be wonderful if you don’t have to experience them as normal schooling." This is such an adult viewpoint. It is true - but it is true for the adult who is handing the book to a child, not the child himself. Did anyone fall in love with The Phantom Tollbooth because they realized school could be a wondrous thing? I'm going to guess no, because I sure didn't. I feel it's that magical combination of adventure story, a marvelous cast of characters, & neverending wordplay (much like Wonderland, eh?) that makes the book so great. I learned a lot reading Tollbooth - what the words din & doldrums mean, for instance - but the celebration of a liberal arts education is such an adult reflection of the book. To a child, the story is funny, scary, magical, rollicking, cute & cuddly & at the same time monstrous (Did anyone else never know whether to think the Lethargarians were adorable or frightening?).

It's like saying the Alice books are classics because they taught Alice to question authority. Sure, the books accomplished that, but that's not why they endure. They endure because of the children who read & reread the stories hoping that Alice will be able to stay in Wonderland forever, that Milo & Tock can stay in the Lands Beyond forever, just screwing with the sunrise & hanging out with talking animals & jumping to Conclusions. No young reader of these books is happy that Alice & Milo get to go home & go to school. Or are they?

I'm going to launch into a full-blown rant if I keep going. So yeah! Read these articles! & share your thoughts if you feel so inclined.

& despite the fact that I said I have no desire to look at The Phantom Tollbooth critically, I can't wait to get my hands on a copy of The Annotated Phantom Tollbooth, annotated by Leonard Marcus. So exciting.