My review of this novel by Shirley Jackson could perhaps be summed up thusly:
?????? What even was that?
Not much of a post, though, so I guess I’ll say more. Hangsaman (what does that title even mean??) is the story of Natalie Waite, who is 17 years old and preparing to go to a college for women. Her home life is strange and creepy in a way I can’t put my finger on, other than to say her father is a domineering ass who has taken great care to mold Natalie into precisely the daughter he wants. When Natalie goes away to college, she struggles at first to make friends, but then eventually finds herself in a small circle that includes a popular English professor, his wife, and two older students. The unease continues. Then she makes a solitary friend, a fellow student named Tony. They decide to go on an adventure together, and it is all unease all the time, and then a thing happens, and I don’t even know what it was.
Yet I liked this book.
There are several things that I think made this book work for me, regardless of how baffled I am by it. First, Jackson does sinister weirdness extremely well. She could write a book in which nothing bad at all happens, and it may still give me the creeps. Second, much of the narrative about Natalie’s journey to figure herself out seemed really true to life and very wise about the difficulty of extricating yourself from parents and finding your own way. Natalie, for lots of reasons, is not well-equipped to do that. Her father manipulates her well, and she’s dealing with a secret trauma that would throw anyone off. (At least, I think she is. Pretty sure she is.)
As unsettling as Natalie’s mind is, I enjoyed some of the things she did. One of my favorite scenes involved her being drawn into an initiation ritual and just refusing to participate. It doesn’t do her much good, but I loved it. And there’s something beguiling and understandable about her drive to solitude, her way of taking possession of her room and seeing it as a refuge. It’s only late in the book that we learn that her form of taking possession involves things like having most of her furniture removed and hanging her wastebasket out the window. As the underlying feeling of strangeness builds and builds, it’s hard to tell what is actually happening.
I don’t know if it’s fortunate or not that I read this immediately after Human Croquet, in which an incident with a tree sets a story in motion. This book, similarly, has a wood that appears near the beginning, where Natalie is (probably) sexually assaulted, and there’s another near the end where Natalie and Tony go together. When I got to that final scene in the wood, I kept flipping back wanting to see the connection between these two woods, but the dots are never quite connected. The echoes are strong, however, strong enough for me to wonder how much of the story actually takes place in the wood. And then there’s this, the morning after she’s first attacked (seduced? raped?) in the woods. Natalie is at the breakfast table, observing her family and thinking about what happened:
She knew, incredibly, that if she spoke she would tell them what had happened; not because she so much desired to tell, that she wanted to tell even them, but because this was not a personal manifestation, but had changed them all in changing the world, in the sense that they only existed in Natalie’s imagination anyway, so that the revolution in the world had altered their faces and made their hearts smaller.
If you’ve read Hangsamen, what did you make of it? Was any of it even real? Have you ever really enjoyed a book that made no actual sense?