Let Me Tell You by Shirley Jackson

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Reviewed by Simon

This is the third Shiny New Books issue in which I’ve had the privilege of writing about Shirley Jackson’s works – and, indeed, I’ve bolstered out those two previous reviews with five books. It’s fair to say that I’m a fan, and love her dark, surreal books and her cosy domestic memoirs more or less equally. Well, here is a massive treat for Jackson aficionados (and also those who have yet to make her acquaintance): a bumper book of stories, essays, and other writings, many of which have never been available in any format before. Cue balloons, streamers, and much celebration!

When writing about her other books, I’ve been able to talk about their style, tone, and audience, while acknowledging that Jackson was a creature of many talents. In Let Me Tell You, all the facets of her writing capabilities are brought together. Here is the dark alongside the light, the surreal alongside the mimetic, and the funny alongside the threatening. (Having said, even in her most unsettling stories – like the opener, ‘Paranoia’ – she can’t avoid the sharp wit of her writing.)

Let’s start with the short stories. Those collected here are every bit as impressive as those in The Lottery and other stories, and some are quite staggeringly good. ‘Mrs Spencer and the Oberons’ is the one I’d pick out for especial praise, and a masterclass in restraint. It tells the tale of a society woman who resents the arrival in town of the Oberons, and ignores their attempts to introduce themselves as friends of friends. As the story continues, and the Oberons’ popularity in the town grows, Jackson demonstrates the stubbornness and foolishness that leads to Mrs Spencer’s alienation – without ever seeming to state anything directly. It ends with a brilliant set piece, in which she drives up and down a dark, unnerving road, trying to find the Oberons’ party but only being able to hear laughter in the distance. I can’t praise this story enough; Jackson takes subtlety and skill to a new level.

It may seem odd to detail a single story at such length, but it is indicative of what Jackson achieves. Some of the stories occupy only three or four pages; some (like ‘Mrs Spencer and the Oberons’) are rather longer; almost all are great successes, showing how much she mastered this format.

Elsewhere in the collection come those short stories which are half-fiction, half-fact – the sort of anecdotes familiar to readers of Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons, where her family take centre stage. Indeed, I’m not sure why these accounts weren’t included in those ‘memoirs’. They show her wry mother persona as amusingly as anything found there. For instance, here is the opening section of ‘The Pleasures and Perils of Dining Out With Children’.

I have four children, and I do not believe that parents who take children to dine in restaurants are necessarily insane. I can think of several adequate reasons for taking our children out for dinner. Perhaps the house has burned down and there are no neighbours charitable enough to take us in. Or our helicopter has crashed on the outskirts of town and the mechanic says, after the manner of mechanics, that no replacement parts can possibly be procured any nearer than Schenectady. Or dragons have invaded our kitchen and eaten everything in the refrigerator. Or I have announced, slamming the breakfast dishes around in the sink, that I am good and sick and tired of cooking meals and washing dishes and tonight I am going to have my dinner in a restaurant – although what I actually have in mind at the moment does not, of course, include the children.

Glorious – and hard to believe it comes from the same pen as that which composed a family situation as dark and complicated as ‘Mrs Spencer and the Oberons’.

The third variety of material in Let Me Tell You is the least represented, but also my favourite: essays and lectures that Jackson gave on the topic of writing. I am always keen to read the behind-the-scenes glimpses given by favourite writers, and particularly prized ‘About the End of the World’, which explains the genesis of The Sundial in an all-too-brief chapter.  But there are a handful of other accounts she gives about writing individual books or writing in general. For instance…

I cannot find any patience for those people who believe that you start writing when you sit down at your desk and pick up your pen and finish writing when you put down your pen again; a writer is always writing, seeing everything through a thin mist of words, fitting swift little descriptions to everything he sees, always noticing. Just as I believe that a painter cannot sit down to his morning coffee without noticing what colour it is, so a writer cannot see an odd little gesture without putting a verbal description to it, and ought never to let a moment go by undescribed.

And, again, another snippet:

One of the nicest things about being a writer is that nothing gets wasted. It’s a little like the frugal housewife who carefully tucks away all the odds and ends of string beans and cold bacon and serves them up magnificently in a fancy casserole dish.

Having spent years wishing more of Jackson’s novels were easily available in the UK, I have felt very spoiled over the past couple of years. Not only can I now buy all her fiction off the shelf in my local bookshop, but this beauty of a collection is also there. Thank goodness Jackson is getting the attention she deserves, and thank goodness again that these stories and essays – which could so easily have stayed unpublished or uncollected – have been brought together. Praise be to the editors Laurence Jackson Hyman and Sarah Hyman Dewitt, and to Penguin for publishing it!

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Simon is one of the Shiny New Books editors, and now a Jackson completist.

Shirley Jackson, Let Me Tell You (Penguin: London, 2015). 978-0241198186, 416pp., hardback.

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