Three Books

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Negrophobia by Darius James. Cover design by Katy Homans, employing All Cats Are Black in the Dark by Natasha Xavier. Trade paperback, NYRB, 2019.

Darius James’s Negrophobia, first published in 1992, is ugly, hilarious, abject, and gritty, a deep comic dive into American racism and the ways that massculture and urban living propagate and feed off of racism. NYRB’s blurb rightfully compares the novel to the work of William S. Burroughs and Ishmael Reed, but, in its hallucinatory film script form (an apocalyptic angles), it also recalls Aldous Huxley’s overlooked novel Ape in Essence. I loved it and am too much of a coward to attempt a real review.

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The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. Cover photograph by W. Eugene Smith; designer uncredited. Penguin Classics US trade paperback, 2006.

Jackson’s spooky 1959 novel has some of the best opening lines of a novel I’ve read in recent years. Hills’ final section answers to its weird opening, dramatizing fraught consciousness in turmoil, disintegrating in a ping-pong free indirect style that leaves the reader stunned, puzzled, and wishing for an extra chapter against his better judgment.

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Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin. English translation by Michael Hoffmann. Book design by Katy Homans, featuring Georg Grosz’s painting Down with Liebknecht (1919). NRYB trade paperback, 2018.

I picked up Döblin’s 1929 Berlin Alexanderplatz on a whim a while ago at a bookstore and picked it up off the shelf today on a different whim and laughed in sympathy through the first two chapters. It’s a long book but I think I’ll keep going.

 

 

Blog about the opening lines of Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House (even though it’s been done before)

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Nearing the end of Shirley Jackson’s 1959 American Gothic novel The Haunting of Hill House, and not having blogged that much in September of 2019, I thought that I’d write something about its perfect opening sentences, which I’ve returned to a few times (and used in my classroom).

Here are those opening lines:

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against the hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

I shared the opening on twitter when I first read it the other week and one of the replies to the tweet linked to Random House copy editor (and author of Dreyer’s EnglishBenjamin Dreyer’s annotations of the first paragraph of The Haunting of Hill House. I didn’t read Dreyer’s annotations at the time, but as I sat down to write this blog, the memory that someone had already written about the opening of Hill House wormed its way into my soft brain. I read Dreyer’s appreciation twenty minutes ago, and then decided Not to Write this blog.

And then I decided to write anyway.

My fascination with the opening paragraph of Hill House has only increased as I’ve read the novel (the first I’ve read by Jackson, admittedly). When I first read the opening I was struck by Jackson’s forceful use of semicolons. There are three semicolons (and three periods) in the series of sentences, creating a strange stilted tilting rhythm.

Let’s consider the first sentence, comprised of two independent clauses:

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream.

Our novel begins with that magic word No. Phrases like “exist sanely” and “absolute reality” begin to sketch the novel’s themes. Jackson then pivots from the abstract to the concrete with her “larks and katydids”; in his annotations, Dreyer wonders “how many combinations of fauna Jackson experimented with before she landed on ‘larks and katydid.” I suspect those five wonderful syllables had lolled around her brain before the novel’s gestation.

And now our middle sentence, again two independent clauses tentatively joined by a semicolon:

Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against the hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more.

“Hill House, not sane” is a genius of four syllables, expressing again the theme of Jackson’s novel in terse curt prose. Dreyer finds fault with “the Hill/hills repetition right here,” writing that “it just doesn’t sing to me,” and suggesting that if he were the novel’s editor, he’d have “asked her whether she’d consider deleting ‘against the hills.'” That deletion would be a rhetorical mistake, I think, because the doubling of “hills” formalizes another of the novel’s tropes—twins and doubles, cousins and doppelgänger. Jackson’s punctuation instantiates this doubling in the first two sentences, both in the repetition of the semicolons and in the twinning of the phrases “by some” and “not sane.” (The repetition of “eighty years” serves as kind of syntactic echo, reverberating the ghostly theme from lifetime past to a generation beyond one’s own death.)

Here is the third and final line of the opening paragraph of Hill House, in which we get a rush of independent clauses—and another semicolon:

Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

The descriptions and events in the novel ultimately ironize this description: Hill House is hardly “upright,” nothing meets “neatly,” and the doors don’t seem to be “sensibly shut,” at least to the quartet of visitors who come to stay at Hill House. This quartet is led by and includes Dr. Montague a committed yet somewhat embarrassed paranormalist, who recruits three others: Luke Sanderson, heir to Hill House, wild Theodora (no last name), and Eleanor Vance, the viewpoint character who, cracked before the events of the novel begin, cracks even more.

(There is a part of me that would love to argue that the three opening sentences, sundered in strange twos by semicolons, represent Eleanor, Theodora, and Luke—but no, that’s ridiculous. Right?)

The final phrase of the last sentence, “walked alone,” set off by a comma (which Dreyer points out is unnecessary and perhaps ungrammatical) balances the other two-word nonessential elements (“by some” and “not sane”), highlighting its rhetorical importance. Hills is a novel of loneliness and companionship, of alienation and belonging. Our viewpoint character Eleanor navigates a walk alone in a world that may or may not be sane. And yet Eleanor doesn’t walk fully alone in this twisted house, with its infirm floors and unneat bricks and crooked walls. Hills vacillates between gloomy lethargy and kinetic ebullience, manically ping-ponging, thriving strangely, radiating a larky katydidiad dream of absolute unreality.

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Jackson/James/Portis (Three books acquired, 5 Sept. 2019)

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I had not intended to pick up any more books.

I’d been cooped up all week, or kinda sorta cooped, with a very mild cabin fever. This cooping and fever were the fault of Hurricane Dorian, which was slowly slowly slowly heading our way, although in the end, at least for us, not really. I’m deeply thankful and also very sorry for the many people who did meet Dorian. It fucking sucks.

We kept power and internet and everything though, and we also kept our kids, as school and work was cancelled, and everything closed down. We enjoyed a few rare 73 degree bike rides and pretended it was fall. We played card games and pretended like the power had gone out, although our air was coolly conditioned. We invented chores. I culled some books, a whole bankers box full. And I think the four of us (moi, wife, daughter, son) grated on each other after four days of this.

I got out for a bit on Thursday to do some made-up errands, including dropping off the culled books box. I said to myself, We will just drop off the box of books and then drive to the Publix to pick up our meds. We will not browse. I dropped off the books, and then I said to myself, We will browse, but we will not acquire. So I browsed, sticking at first to the weird margins I rarely visit of this big sprawling used books—travel writing and food writing, historical fiction and short story anthologies—before saying, Hey, maybe they have a copy of Charles Portis’s Gringos. They had a copy of Charles Portis’s Gringos. I said to myself, You will regret it if you don’t pick this up. (That same morning, I had tried to make a go at John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces in the hopes of getting more Portis flavors, after finishing True Grit a few days ago. Alas, it didn’t take. Maybe later? I don’t know. I want to read Gringos.)

As I was picking up Portis I overheard a mother and her daughter trying to find Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. They were not in the right place. They were in the westerns, an aisle or two over. The daughter was telling the mother how much anxiety the book produced in her. They turned into my aisle, still struggling against the alphabet, when the mother said to the daughter, We just need to find somebody who works here. I do not work there but I said, Hawthorne is down there, and pointed roughly east, where only a few meters away were literally hundreds and hundreds of copies of The Scarlet Letter. This indication was too vague though, and a few steps in the general direction were needed. The mother and daughter team found their way to Hawthorne though, and I lingered in the Js, where I remembered that I’d been meaning to read Shelly Jackson for years now. I had wanted to read We Have Always Lived in the Castle but there were no copies. There were two copies of The Haunting of Hill House. I got the one without the Netflix logo on it.

My eye is very good at scanning NYRB spines, and, while picking at Jacksons, I spied a book called Negrophobia by Darius James. I had never heard of Negrophobia, but the title alone warranted a pull. I opened the book up somewhere in the middle, flicked through—visually wild, cut up and strange, it reminded me a bit of Burroughs or later avant garde stuff, like Kathy Acker. I flipped it over. Kathy Acker blurbed it. Paul Beatty blurbed it. Kara Walker blurbed it! (More visual artists should blurb books.)

I picked up all three books of course. Then I went home and read another chapter of Sylvia Warner Townsend’s The Corner That Held Them.

 

Read Shirley Jackson’s short story “Charles”

“Charles”

by

Shirley Jackson


 

The day my son Laurie started kindergarten he renounced corduroy overalls with bibs and began wearing blue jeans with a belt; I watched him go off the first morning with the older girl next door, seeing clearly that an era of my life was ended, my sweet-voiced nursery-school tot replaced by a long-trousered, swaggering character who forgot to stop at the corner and wave good-bye to me.

He came home the same way, the front door slamming open, his cap on the floor, and the voice suddenly become raucous shouting, “Isn’t anybody here?”

At lunch he spoke insolently to his father, spilled his baby sister’s milk, and remarked that his teacher said we were not to take the name of the Lord in vain.

“How was school today?” I asked, elaborately casual.

“All right,” he said.

“Did you learn anything?” his father asked.

Laurie regarded his father coldly. “I didn’t learn nothing,” he said.

“Anything,” I said.

“Didn’t learn anything”

“The teacher spanked a boy, though,” Laurie said, addressing his bread and butter. “For being fresh,” he added, with his mouth full.

“What did he do?” I asked. “Who was it?”

Laurie thought. “It was Charles,” he said. “He was fresh. The teacher spanked him and made him stand in a corner. He was awfully fresh.”

“What did he do?” I asked again, but Laurie slid off his chair, took a cookie, and left, while his father was still saying, “See here, young man.”

The next day Laurie remarked at lunch, as soon as he sat down, “Well, Charles was bad again today.” He grinned enormously and said, “Today Charles hit the teacher.”

“Good heavens,” I said, mindful of the Lord’s name, “I suppose he got spanked again?”

“He sure did,” Laurie said. “Look up,” he said to his father. “What?” his father said, looking up.

“Look down,” Laurie said. “Look at my thumb. Gee, you’re dumb.” He began to laugh insanely.

“Why did Charles hit the teacher?” I asked quickly.

“Because she tried to make him color with red crayons,” Laurie said. “Charles wanted to color with green crayons so he hit the teacher and she spanked him and said nobody play with Charles but everybody did.”

The third day—it was Wednesday of the first week—Charles bounced a see-saw on to the head of a little girl and made her bleed, and the teacher made him stay inside all during recess. Thursday Charles had to stand in a corner during storytime because he kept pounding his feet on the floor. Friday Charles was deprived of blackboard privileges because he threw chalk.

Read the rest of Shirley Jackson’s short story “Charles.”