HANGSAMAN

This book's weird title comes from an American folk song.

This book’s weird title comes from an American folk song.

Hangsaman
by Shirley Jackson

One of the things I find most interesting about adolescence is the fact that it’s such a new phenomenon. The teen ages (and puberty) have always existed, but for the majority of human history, ages 13-19 were considered a part of a person’s childhood or adulthood, not a separate developmental stage. While there isn’t an exact moment in history when the teenager emerged, in the U.S., it was really not until the mid-20th century that teenagers became a separate group. There are a lot of reasons for this. As earlier 20th century economies shifted from an agrarian economy to an industrial one and the Great Depression took hold, laws mandating compulsory education and child labor protections went into effect. Suddenly adolescents from a wider range of social classes were attending high school in much greater numbers and through this shared experience, a communal culture began to form. Marketers caught on and in the 1940s, they coined the term “teenager” for their newfound customer. The rise of the automobile is also considered a major factor in all this.

It was with some of this context in mind that I recently read Shirley Jackson’s 1951 novel, Hangsaman. You’ve probably all read The Lottery, Jackson’s short story about a town that holds an annual lottery to determine which of its members will be stoned to death by their neighbors. Hangsaman is equally dark in its own way. Its simple premise is this: a young woman begins her freshman year of college at a fictional version of Bennington (at the time, an all-women’s school for daughters of the upper class). But this is not your standard Bildungsroman, my friends. The story is much closer to a psychological thriller. With humor. It’s pretty bizarre.

But a mid-century gothic horror story is hysterically appropriate for a book that follows a hypersensitive, hyperaware young woman as she analyzes every last painful detail of both her family life and her introduction to college. Because what could be a greater “terror of the soul” than adolescence? It’s fair to say that this oddly named, oddly written book captivated me until its clever conclusion. I enjoyed Jackson’s metaphor of female adolescence as a neurotic nightmare.

And then I realized that 1951 was also the year that The Catcher in the Rye was published. It occurred to me that Catcher could be seen as the teenage boy’s neurotic nightmare. Yet The Catcher in the Rye is, well, The Catcher in the Rye—a classic, a part of the canon—and meanwhile who the hell has ever heard of Hangsaman, even with a title so weird it would be hard to forget.

Now you may be thinking, oh boy, here she goes, she’s going to try to tell us it’s some sort of a gender thing and that if Shirley Jackson had been a man, we’d all have read this blasted book back in the 10th grade and it too would be a modern classic. Honestly you guys, I’m not sure it’s quite as simple as that. First, I could never deny the genius of the narrative voice in J.D. Salinger’s book. Jackson’s book is good, but I don’t think I’d use the term “genius.” And I don’t know enough about the history of either book’s publication to say what would have or could have been. But I do find the duality of the two books interesting.

Both Salinger and Jackson were doing something utterly unique when they wrote their novels – they were chronicling the anxiety and alienation of a new demographic, the adolescent. Both were years ahead of the social upheaval of the 1960s, a time when many social factors would converge to create its particular climate. Certainly one of the biggest of those factors was the disillusionment of the teenage population. Both authors understood the psychology behind that disillusionment years before the zeitgeist caught on.

 

TWO GIRLS, FAT AND THIN

Two Girls, Fat and Thin
by Mary Gaitskill

You may remember a previous post about some books I’ve been carrying around for the past twenty years, the contents of which I could not recall. Let’s refer to these books as my “amnesia series.” On my second go-around, the following excerpt leapt out at me from the pages of Two Girls, Fat and Thin:

“ … for every imperfect entity, be it human or material, there exists a perfect counterpart; a lovely princess for every pimply shop girl. This perfection was not an annulment of the shop girl, but an ideal for her to aspire to … That is why advertising is deeply moral; its smiling billboards are neat openings into the air-brushed world of perfect beauty that we can all strive for and attain, to one degree or another, depending on our individual components.”

It’s been more than a week since the finale and I’m still thinking about Mad Men, the best novel I’ve ever watched. (If you haven’t seen the show and/or the series finale yet but plan to, you may consider some of the following a spoiler. If you haven’t seen the show and don’t plan to, I suggest reconsidering.)

Joan

Photos courtesy of AMC

There are so many things we could discuss about Mad Men, but the thought that lingers for me was how, somewhat to my surprise, Don turned out to be more cipher than hero or villain. This man who looked like a prince but acted like a pimple had an entire decade to reconcile his inner demons and emerge the better for it. But he couldn’t. He gained self-awareness, but not self-actualization. He just got better at being the same old Don.

Joan and Peggy’s demons, on the other hand, were external and while they each chose very different ways of handling those demons, both triumphed in the end. So while Don was our protagonist, the women were our heroes. They didn’t just “keep moving forward” as Don loved to say, they survived by learning and growing, ultimately realizing their full potential.

Peggy

The quote above describes exactly why we love duality in storytelling (and duality is a huge theme in Mad Men). Deep down, most people think of themselves as the pimply shop girl though they long to be the princess. Don understood that psychology as well as anyone, which is what made him the perfect ad man. It’s also why Bert Cooper, Ayn Rand devotee, loved Don so much – he knew how to feed the capitalist utopia.

So is this Mary Gaitskill book anything like Mad Men? That would be a no. There are some interesting coincidental parallels: a duality theme, a subplot involving a fictional version of Ayn Rand, some backstory about growing up a (very tortured) girl in the 1960s, but that’s where the similarities end.

And yet I kept the book all these years out of a form of nostalgia. Like a lot of things from the past, it was reassuring to read the book again and recognize that I hadn’t remembered it because I didn’t need to. I was okay without it. In one of Mad Men’s most iconic episodes, The Wheel, Don tells a room of Kodak execs that the word “nostalgia” means “the pain from an old wound” in Greek. I suppose we’re nostalgic for the things we’re still trying to sort out in our minds. Really good stories give us a lot to sift through.

Mad-Men-finale-690

This is my last post for a few weeks, I’ll be on sabbatical for a while. Read something good while I’m gone or re-watch Mad Menyou pick up a lot the second time around.

THE STORY OF A NEW NAME

SOANN

I love these books but this cover is so random

The Story of a New Name
by Elena Ferrante

Have you ever had a friend—someone you’ve known for a long time–whose life, for better or for worse, has diverged dramatically from your own and you’ve thought: that could have been me? If only I’d done one thing differently, maybe I would have ended up like her. Or maybe you’ve been in a relationship where it seemed as though every time one of you succeeded it doomed the other, like there was only enough in the well of good fortune for one of you.

In the second of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, The Story of a New Name, the two protagonists, Elena and Lila, enter their late adolescence and early adulthood with lives, once so similar, on very different paths. (Warning: The rest of this post has some spoilers from the first book in the series, but not this one) At 16, Lila marries one of the neighborhood’s wealthier men, the local grocer. Without the education that her friend Elena continues to receive, it appears that the marriage is Lila’s best option for escaping her family’s poverty and abuse. That theory is quickly dismantled. Meanwhile, although she has struggles of her own, Elena goes on to achieve academically and garner an education far beyond that of anyone else in her community.

Both women have their moments of soaring joy and plummeting disappointment, but never at the same time. The universe seems to have only enough good will for one girl at a time. Or is there more free will, maybe even ill will, at work? Though never verbalized, the girls have always harbored a strong sense of competition and as much as they wish for each other’s happiness, they wish for their own more. As her situation devolves further, Lila’s actions become more irrational to the point of pathological, but there’s so much desperation behind her behavior that one can understand how it is hard to be generous when one has so little to give.

In the first of these books, we see Italy’s economic growth of the 1950s and 60s trickle into the girls’ poor neighborhood and we watch how this affects its residents. In this book, each of the two girls seems to represent a version of the changing country. Although Lila is the first to benefit from the amenities of an advanced, wealthier Italy, ultimately her traditional choices keep her tied to an old way of life. Yet Elena, more rational and pragmatic, blossoms into a representation of a new, more modern version of Italy.

I want both characters to succeed, even if one is a little harder to love. I can’t help but feel for the rougher Lila and I found myself circling back to a moment from the first book that seemed to change everything for her. It is at the end of the fifth grade, when both girls are invited to take the admissions exam for middle school, an unusual step within their community. After some debate, Elena’s parents agree to let her take the test and Lila’s do not. From there, their trajectories seem to be set on divergent paths that read like a feminist tragedy.

It’s stomach churning to consider: if this one decision by Lila’s parents did change the course of her life, how tenuous life is. I’m not convinced that this is what Ferrante is trying to say, especially given some of the promise that fills the final pages of this book, but thus far her heroines seem to be having trouble sharing the glory.

MY BRILLIANT FRIEND

Brilliant cartoon by Alison Bechdel

                              Brilliant cartoon by Alison Bechdel

My Brilliant Friend
by Elena Ferrante

There are so many different directions I could go with this gorgeous book, but what I keep coming back to is the Bechdel Test. Have you heard of the Bechdel Test? One of my clients introduced it to me recently. Named after the cartoonist and graphic novelist Alison Bechdel, who coined the idea in her 1985 comic Dykes to Watch Out For, the Bechdel Test measures whether a work of fiction features at least two women talking to each other about something other than men.

Now I’ve read my share of books that feature interesting, smart women talking about interesting, smart things, but I’m not sure I’ve ever read a book before in which two girls’ lives are so singularly driven by their intellect and desire for knowledge. My Brilliant Friend may as well have been written in direct response to the Bechdel Test.

This novel, the first in a series of four, depicts the childhood friendship between Elena, the book’s narrator, and Lila, who come of age in 1950s Naples, Italy. The girls live in a poor neighborhood on the edge of the city from which they never wander. Some of their friends take trips to the beach and other “outings far away,” but “Ours [their parents] weren’t like that, they didn’t have time, they didn’t have money, they didn’t have the desire.” In fact, they aren’t even aware that such a thing as high school exists until Elena’s teachers encourage her to attend.

By this time, Lila, the more naturally gifted of the two girls, has already been constricted to a life of work in the neighborhood, so the promise of higher education is beyond her reach. But it is Lila who continually sparks Elena’s academic pursuits and, although Elena doesn’t understand it at the time, her advanced studies in turn inspire Lila to educate herself so she can keep up with her friend. Their relationship is one of great intellectual stimulation and deep-seated competition – because using their brains is what truly matters to them.

This emphasis on knowledge translates to every facet of their lives. When they first discover Little Women (Jo March being the perfect protagonist for these two), they determine that if they can someday write books like Louisa May Alcott, they will become rich and escape their limited circumstances. To these girls, a life of the mind equals wealth, freedom and romance. As they grow into teenagers, Elena falls in the love with the smartest boy in school with whom “I wished I could talk every day to a boy on that level …”

There’s so much more I could tell you, like how the changes that the girls begin to witness in their neighborhood are a mirror for the changes throughout Italy at the time or how people can’t help but compare Ferrante’s series to that of Karl Ove Knausgaard or how Elena Ferrante is a pseudonym for an anonymous Italian author. But mostly I want to tell you that I loved this book and you’ll probably be hearing more about the other three.

A shout-out to my brilliant friend Justine for recommending it! Thank you!

Until next time, I’d love to hear about your favorite book featuring interesting, smart women?

MY MISSPENT YOUTH

my-misspent-youthMy Misspent Youth
by Meghan Daum

Between those social-media-loving Millennials living in their parents’ basement and penning award-winning HBO dramas, and the whiny Baby Boomers fueling demand for films like The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, it’s easy to wonder what happened to the voices of Generation X.

We’re the original latchkey kids, old enough to remember the dawn of MTV and the Internet, we’re the country’s most-educated generation and many of us bought our first house right before the market crashed. Like every generation, we’ve got something to say. So where have we been?

If we’re Meghan Daum, we’ve been here all along, writing candid and insightful work about our experiences as someone who “exerts a great deal of energy trying to get my realities to match my fantasies, even if the fantasies are made from materials that are no longer manufactured, even if some governmental agency has assessed my aspirations and pronounced them a health hazard.” Upon reading those words in Daum’s 2001 collection of essays, My Misspent Youth, the question I had to ask myself was: where have I been?

That excerpt quoted above is from the eponymous essay of the collection, which details Daum’s experience moving to New York as an aspiring writer fresh off the MetroNorth from Vassar and the years she spent in the city, living beyond her means as her writing star rose. In her funny, self-deprecating and straightforward way, Daum faces up to the superficial trappings that often lie at the root of our motivations.

It is just these sort of trappings–from those ubiquitous tote bags of the 1980s that read “Music Is My Bag” to wall-to-wall carpet to fantasy gaming to being a shiksa—that intrigue Daum. In the book’s foreword, she explains that the collection “concerns the tendency of contemporary human beings to live not actual lives but simulations of lives … operating at several degrees of remove from what might be considered authentic if we weren’t trying so hard to create authenticity through songs and clothes and advertisements and a million other agents of realness.” The trend now is to blame social media for encouraging this sort of inauthentic or double life. But Daum wrote those words before social media existed. She knew who the real perpetrators were – us.

This universal quality is one the of the best aspects of Daum’s writing, but I’m also sticking by my assertion that the details of her specific experiences can’t help but be shaped by the time in which she’s lived. We graduated from college during the peaceful and prosperous Clinton administration, we were operating with what was at the time a reasonable amount of optimism; the fact that same optimism might now be categorized as poor judgment is another matter.

Also in the book’s foreword, Daum writes about how there was a time when the “glossy print publications” for whom she wrote would frequently ask her to write fluff pieces about the mores of Gen X, but these requests eventually tapered off when it was determined that our particular age group didn’t occupy enough market share (this was when we were in our 20s, now that we’re old established, we occupy a lot of market share, baby). A page later, she gives the disclaimer that the term “Generation X” would not appear again in the book. Her desire not to be pigeonholed is fair enough, but reading this collection 15 years after its publication, I can’t help but note how well Meghan Daum managed to chronicle the experiences of our generation, call it what you will.