Why’s Alaska’s Death Made Me Feel Nothing but Some Over-Exaggerated Lines Did: John Green’s Looking for Alaska

Am I the only one who‘s not in complete awe of John Green’s Looking for Alaska?

Young Adult literature has always been a spiteful subject for me. I understand Children’s Literature, and their importance in society in forming the cognitive mind of children and in the construction of their moral sense of reality, so I have no qualms about it. But Young Adult literature? Ack. I know its purpose, but somehow, it never made much sense to me. Maybe this stems from the fact that I never had the opportunity to read Young Adult literature, having jumped head-on to canonical novels, to authors like Jules Vernes, J.D. Salinger and Mark Twain. Maybe it’s because I never saw the need to do all the silly dilly-dally with the entire hullabaloo about what kids should read or what they should stay away from. Apart from Harry Potter (which is a questionable piece of Young Adult fiction), I’ve never really enjoyed any Young Adult novels. They always end up rather short, shallow and uninteresting.  Moreover, from a bookselling perspective, man, you should see the loads of young adult crap the US publishers are publishing to continue the ridiculous and cursed tradition established by Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight. Seeing the catalogs makes one lose faith in the whole genre. But then came Looking for Alaska. Its publication brought with it a whole cadre of positive reviews and an acclaim. Some hailed the book as this generation’s Catcher in the Rye, similar to how Perks of Being a Wallflower became our cultural lowlife manifesto. Moreover, the book was highly recommended. So I thought to myself: Why not try the genre once more?

Looking for Alaska is the story of Miles Halter, a young man who recently started attending a prestigious boarding school in Alabama. In the first few minutes as a new student, both elated and terrified at the thought that finally he has the opportunity to mold his own identity the way he saw fit it should be, he befriends the Colonel, who then introduces him to Alaska. Alaska, of course, is the poster hipster who all the boys fall for. During a cigarette break in their first at the school, Miles expresses her attraction towards Alaska through a short discourse on her beauty:

“And now is as good a time as any to say that she was beautiful. In the dark beside me, she smelled of sweat and sunshine and vanilla, and on that thin-mooned night I could see little more than her silhouette except for when she smoked, when the cherry of the cigarette washed her face in pale red light, But even in the dark, I could see her eyes—fierce emeralds. She had the kind of eyes that predisposed you to support her every endeavour. And not just beautiful, but hot, too, with her breasts straining against her tank top, her curved legs swinging back and forth beneath the swing, flip flops dangling from her electric-blue painted toes. It was right then, between when I asked about the labyrinth and when she answered me, that I realized the importance of curves, of the thousand places where girls’ bodies ease from one place to another, from arc of the foot to ankle to calf, from calf to hip to waist to breast to neck to ski-slope nose to forehead to shoulder to the concave arch of the back to the butt to the etc. I’d notice curves before, of course, but I have never quite apprehended their significance (19).”

Clearly, it shows the ramblings of a boy enslaved by his hormones. Eventually, as with any story of this nature, Pudge falls in love, and quite predictably, Alaska doesn’t reciprocate his emotions (the standard equation for all gen-x and post gen-x romance [Chuck Klosterman would agree with me, im sure]). Despite that, Alaska and Pudge continue to hang out, and their friendship develops between shared cigarettes, the hours they spent planning their pranks and the gratuitous amount of time they spent hiding and drinking cheap wine. He falls further, despite Alaska’s promiscuity, her penchant for mystery and secrets, her issues with her family, the trauma from her mother’s death and her need to fall on this dwindling narrow hole towards her own death.  On a night of drunken stupor, they kiss, and Alaska plunges into a bout of anxiety, proclaiming, in tears, that she forgot something and that she has to leave. Pudge, along with Colonel, allows her to leave, leading to her horrible death. The last hundred pages are dedicated to Miles’ and the Colonel’s search for the motives behind her flight and the ordeal they went though as they tried to come to grips with a reality without Alaska.

I felt a severe disappointment during the reading of the novel and most of it comes from the narration. It’s actually the same problem I have with Jonathan Safran Foer’s works. The prose tends to become too emotional, too involved, too “in your face.” Distance and heavy-handedness is not a concern for the narrator in this piece. It, in fact, revels in the pool of hormonal rage brought about by Alaska’s existence and death. It prefers to be hyperbolic, even when it doesn’t need to. Most of the initiation stories that I adore employed the 1st person POV. Examples of these are Jonathan Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude and Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. However, in those works, they kept their narration in check. They knew when to stop and when to explode. John Green overdid the POV. There was no restraint whatsoever and there were moments where I just felt righteously irritated at the deep cesspool of emotions that desperately needed an elegant and eloquent handling. Everything was designed to be excruciatingly painful that when Alaska died, I felt nothing. I felt no sympathy, even though I was crushing on her a little bit. This is the danger of being too loud in prose. The narrative becomes too muddled up in the narration. The story gets buried deep in the fancy and cool, hipster-like prose.

I admit that there were moments when I liked this book. John Green’s rendering of Pudge’s self-flagellating adoration is spot on. The author’s portrayal of Alaska is excellent, conveying why she is desirable, despite the dozen of issues she has. And there are beautiful lines, god damn lines that just blow you away with its extreme poignancy, saving the novel entirely from crashing and burning, like this one below (which I swiped from some website I can no longer remember):

Problematizing Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom

Having read Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom twice already, a novel which I obsessed about even before I have read it, it is easy to know why, despite the critical acclaim, it has been shunned by most of the award-giving bodies, like the Pulitzer and the National Book Awards.  Freedom, to heretically paraphrase the whole narrative, is the story of Patty and Walter Berglund, a middle-class suburban family trying to come to grips with mediocrity, infidelity, politics, economic decline and the threat of climate change in post 9/11 America.  Patty (who I am slightly attracted to) is a bipolar overachiever who, in a twist of fate, settled for the geeky and population-obsessed boy, after her knee injury which forced her out of a bright basketball career. Walter, on the other hand, is a responsible man and an awkward father, eager to change the world for the better by preserving the natural world and saving what’s left of the Cerulean Warbler. Their kids, Jessica and Joey, are emotional train wrecks, immensely traumatized by their mother’s need to be overtly-maternal and their father’s sternness and self-righteous outlook in life. With an amusing and riveting cast of characters, including the crass and sex-craved Richard Katz, the eager-to-please Connie and the lovely and intelligent Lalitha, Freedom is a precise and beautiful rendering of contemporary American life.

So why didn’t it win any awards?  Certainly, Franzen has the knack for language. His narration is evocative, beautiful, oddly poignant most of the time, but intelligent. He’s does not have the incredible vitality and the poetic bravado that Updike has, but his prose can give David Foster Wallace a run for his money (ironically, he did, as they both admit to being rivals, as well as good friends). The novel also  tackled all the great themes of present American life: marital strain, the condition of the middle-class, the economic regression,  the great republican and democrat debate, the war on terrorism, the post generation-X funk of today’s youth and, of course, the Jewish-American experience. He explored issues of striking relevance, lingered on the issues, and attempted to cover the most important aspects of these social concerns, and he did it eloquently, with interest, so as not to bore any reader. Finally, as with any Franzen novel, his characters spring out the page. I for one, cannot help but fall in love with Patty and all her complexities and faults. I am unable to do nothing but be seduced by Connie’s charm, her alluring personality and unwavering, sometimes foolish, loyalty towards Joey. And I wholeheartedly understand Joey for the hatred he harbored for his family. Freedom is a great novel, worthy of being read over and over again. But the things is, it’s simply too traditional. Besides telling one hell of a story, it is a traditional narrative. It’s incredibly linear, the manner of narration simple, consistent and rooted in the traditional  American novel. There are no playful exercises in form and language here. To be quite honest, it actually reminds me of the modern novel, the works of Mark Twain, Gustav Flaubert, and most of the novels before James Joyce and Virginia Woolf.  It resembles the “grand narrative,” the narrative which earnestly tries to encompass the entirety of the human condition. The only new thing which Franzen offers is its willingness to address the eschatological subject of climate change, via Walter’s attempts to save the Cerulean Warbler and his other concerns regarding the environment, echoing Frank Kermode’s sentiments in The Sense of An Ending.

With that, is it possible to conclude that Freedom is actually a devolved form of the novel? Maybe it is. Comparing it to Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, one gets the sense that Freedom is a bit too safe, a bit too straightedge. With Egan’s chapter made up of PowerPoint slides, its disjointed narrative, its odd sequencing, its erratic point of views and its ever-shifting tone, not to mention its speculative look on music twenty years from now, Freedom looks a bit boring, too comfortable and too unoriginal.

In terms of profundity though, I think Freedom still has it in the bag, but that is my problem. Is fiction at that state now that it’s giving up content for form? Is it giving up the depth and grandeur for the gimmick of form?   Are we now wired to think that a good story is simply not enough?

On Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho

I’ve been putting off reviewing this novel, but now I’m done with all my deadlines and the extended period of procrastination that I experienced, I really can’t offset it any further. What else can one say with a novel that makes the readers feel the immensity of nothingness? And take note, this is not the nothingness that reminds one of the existentialist and nihilistic pseudo-philosophical perceptions of reality that gained popularity in the 20th century. The nothingness one acquires from this novel is simply a void, a a hollowness, a black hole in one’s mind and soul, and nothing else but that.

The novel begins with a statement scrawled on a wall saying, “Abandon all hope ye who enter here,” which not only sets the mood of the highly-disturbing novel American Psycho, but also acts as a suggestion, before anyone pursues reading this piece. The intelligent reader would do well if he/she does “abandon all hope,” because here is a narrative where that abstract, highly-idealistic concept is not found. It is ultimately irrelevant once we enter Patrick Bateman’s head. There is no hope for Bateman, for the people he surrounds himself with, and finally, there is no hope for the fictive world brilliantly and accurately rendered by the author.

Most of us are already familiar with the plot of this narrative due to its film adaptation starring Christian Bale (I doubt anyone can forget that scene where he whacks Jared Leto with an axe while discussing the fine points of the newest Huey Lewis and The News album, while the band’s single, “Hip to be Square,” blares in the background). Patrick Bateman, the protagonist, is an executive at Pierce and Pierce, a very important business firm in New York City. Publicly, he spends his days obsessing over the latest trends in men’s fashion and trying out the newest and most promising restaurants in New York City. On nights, he hangs out with his friends drinking scotch, snorting cocaine in bathroom stalls, in luxurious nightclubs all over the Upper East Side. He works out frequently, makes certain his tan is just right for his skin, and ensures that he preserves his good looks and masculine appeal. Finally, he holds a great fascination for The Patty Winters show and its brand of cheap gossip masking itself as relevant news. His private life is a different story altogether. Bateman possesses a contempt that could rival that of Adolf Hitler’s. He hates the sight of beggars and bums; he treats women as if they’re objects, and thinks that all homosexuals should meet the sharp end of his knife. In addition, he’s not simply those angry, prejudiced pricks that repress all their rage and hatred. He is the one who finds utter pleasure in letting it all out. He goes into killing sprees and revels in the whole process. Worst of all, he is imaginative, devising new ways to torture men, women, children and dogs.

A good half of it is a discussion on men’s fashion and subjects regarding lifestyle, including the beauty of a well-made business card, the functionalities of suits and pants, what to wear to match the article of clothing one is sporting on, and the many benefits one gets from using a particular type of moisturizer or facial mask.  It reads like an issue of a men’s magazine like GQ, Esquire or Men’s Health. But then, we see something that would make a French Transgressive Film look like an episode of Dora the Explorer. All of Bateman’s unconscious intensities, the nonchalant manner he has when threatens people, his fascination for serial killers and psychotics, and the anger he hides in daylight, all comes  out whenever he has chosen for himself a prey. An old girlfriend lies naked on the floor, her hands nailed to the apartment floor, her jaw torn apart, holding on to the last breaths she still has as Patrick continuously curses her and takes advantage of her. A prostitute and another girlfriend is drugged into making love with each other, and after, a horrible series of torture occur, including one which involves a rodent entering someone’s anus. A gay man and his puppy are shot in broad daylight. A child in a zoo is horribly slashed to death, leaving his pitiful mother to wail as he loses blood. Everything he does is, for a lack of a better term, fucked up. It’s disgusting, commanding the hair of the readers to stand on end. One finds no pleasure in reading these scenes, but at the same time, one doesn’t have the strength to actually put the novel down. Nobody can truly ever know the extent of Patrick Bateman’s psychosis. Nobody can ever really tell if everything he’s saying actually happened or is a product of his delusions, his dependency on drugs, or the vapid nature of his existence, which makes the novel more troubling as it already is. The sole fact that we don’t know, the idea that we can never be certain of his motivations, is disturbingly unsettling. Certainty is always one’s connection to reason and rationality, and if that is missing, one is left grappling with an unknown enemy in the dark, is more terrifying than facing a monster we can see.

Going Ape Shit Over A Book: On Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad

There comes a time when it’s just so damn difficult to write a proper review just because you are too in love with the subject of the piece. That’s the situation I face with Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, which recently won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. When I first heard of this novel in 2010, back when Random House initially released the hardcover edition, it immediately got my attention.  Critics praised its publication, despite the uproar and celebration brought by Franzen’s Freedom. When everything else published suffered the ignoring eye of critics and reviewers, Egan’s work gained notice. Some even hailed it as “a new classic of American fiction.” However, that is not the reason why I possessed the incessant need to read the novel. I think I’ve heard and seen the phrase “new American classic” too many times to believe that a book could actually embody such a heavy-handed comment. My desire to read it stemmed from the fact that the work oddly enough sounded like a Cameron Crowe film, or a book penned by Lester Bangs. And by god, I was sold to that idea.

The narrative primarily focuses on Benny Salazar, an aging music producer and the former bassist of “The Pink Dildos,” and her assistant Sasha Taylor, a young woman with a serious kleptomania problem and a terrible past which includes a brief prostitution stint in Naples and a long addiction to heroin, marijuana, among other things. In the course of telling their stories, we are also told the stories of the other characters connected to the two protagonists: Lou, Benny’s mentor, one of the great music executives of the 70’s who lived the “Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll” lifestyle that became rampant in the during that era, Dolly, A PR specialist trying to regain her popularity and dignity after her tragic downfall, Lulu, Dolly’s daughter, who will eventually work for Benny in 2020, and Rob, Sasha’s suicidal best friend, who plays a pivotal role on how Sasha will pursue her life. In addition to that large cast, there’s also Ted, Sasha’s uncle who will search for his niece aimlessly in Naples while reflecting on his love for art and his family, Scotty, Jocelyn and Rhea, Benny’s band mates in The Pink Dildos,  and Kitty Jones, a popular actress who fell off the spotlight after she was almost raped by a journalist.  The multiple narratives of the story are set against the backdrop of the ever-changing American music scene, from the heydays of the punk movement of the seventies, to a speculative take on what the music will be like in 2020.

I began the novel expecting to read something like High Fidelity or Love is A Mixed Tape or even Almost Famous.  I opened the novel feeling relaxed, feeling laid back, anticipating that this will be a light reading, which was a foolish stance at that time. As the pages went on, I delved into a narrative far different from what I initially thought.  This may sound like a cop out, but the thing is, I love every damn section of the narrative. I like its Proustian vibe, on how it tries to tackle the subject of time, memory, its intertwined relationship and the effect brought on by its passing. I like it even more that the basic idea of an exploration was inspired by, of all things, an Elvis Costello song. I love how rock music plays a dominant role in the piece, how the power of this art form actually becomes an essential element in the assembly of one’s life and the structural integrity of a whole community, how one song can transcend its form of being a mere vehicle for entertainment and enjoyment and become a drive force that connects human beings to one another. I love the gimmicks, the so –called literary devices employed in the writing of the novel, how it resists labels and the concept of a genre, as the readers are never  made aware if the text is a novel, a collection of short stories, or a collection of interlocking short stories (From a bookselling and publishing point-of-view, Amazon lists the hardcover edition of this book as a short story collection, while the trade paperback edition is listed under novels, while in the Random House catalog, it’s under short story collections, even is the front cover of the book says it’s a novel). I like the sheer Bakhtinian feel of the novel, the multiplicity of voices (literally and literarily), the abundance of forms used, the constant shift from one decade to the other, to this place and that, to this character and another, and I love how there is no real structure to this seemingly endless shifting, embodying the chaos of their lives, and the pandemonium of the reader’s life. And damn, there’s a short story made entirely of PowerPoint slides, a short narrative focusing on the pauses of several great rock songs, told by Sasha’s daughter. What is the most gimmicky of the entire collection, also turns out the best, as it not only gives us a staggering amount of freshness, it’s also fun, enjoyable and slightly poignant as it tries to delves into the relationship of the family by using pie-charts, bar graphs and statistics.  The characters are instantly relatable and sympathetic. The structuring of the narrative is amazing. The points of view chosen, appropriate. Each detail is exact and precise. For me, the novel can do no wrong. It is perfect, so perfect that I’m starting wonder if what I’m saying is right, or I’m just saying this for the sole reason that this is the kind of novel I have always wanted to write.

Obviously, my biases have yet again taken over me. And I’ve only had my way with the novel once, so, following Nabokov’s paradigm for reading, I have barely touched what the novel really is. Months from now, I will go back to Egan’s work, and I might have a different opinion on the text, on those that I am in completely in adoration of. I might have my qualms about its structure, about how little time was given to a particular character, or about how the balance of the narrative(s) is just off. I may say shit about the whole PowerPoint narrative. Things could go awry and that much is true. But right now, at this very moment, I am completely in love with the book, something which I have not experienced for quite a while in my reading life.

*The book was sent to me by the generous people over at Random House, and will be available in Powerbooks after Holy Week.

Hail the Dirty Old Man: On Charles Bukowski’s Post Office

I’ve never been a huge fan of Charles Bukowski’s poetry. I’ll admit it. I own five of the almost two dozen collections published by Ecco Press, and I haven’t found the consistency in beauty, language and thought that makes me a fan of a certain poet. From my reading experience, in every ten Bukowski poems, there’s three that’s good and seven that quite simply is forgettable. Sure, they’re funny, entertaining as hell, I mean who wouldn’t snort at the image of DH Lawrence taking a piss, right? However, in the other works I’ve seen, I couldn’t figure out for the life of me what the hell he’s driving at, where’s the sound that makes a verse a poem or the just where is that freaking restraint I have come to love in the genre.  He is not my favorite poet and I doubt he will ever be. It’s a different story when it comes to his prose. I have come to love Bukowski’s fiction ever since I met Henry Chinaski. Post Office, another novel which features the loveable and insane son of a bitch is no exception.

Post Office make up twelve years of Henry Chinaski’s life. In that span of time, he spent it working in the US Post Office, where as an employee of the United States Post Office, he is required to “act with unwavering integrity and complete devotion to the public interest.” It is a job that expects him to “maintain the highest moral principles, and to uphold the laws of the United States.” Of course, when one is familiar with Henry Chinaski, one is aware that he is the complete opposite of whatever the Postal Service Code of Ethics demands of its employees. He is a sleazebag. He is a low-life. All he cares about is women, booze and gambling. In the first chapter, as a mail man, all he ever wants is for the arduous day to end just so he could “stick it up to Betty’s (who has been Chinaski’s lover for years) ass.” In the next, free from the job he loathes, he lets Betty works, and simply just drinks and screws at night and gamble at the racetrack in the afternoon. In the succeeding chapters, after Betty has left him and Henry has acquired himself a new lover, one that has unquenchable thirst for sex, and a new job, at the post office, this time as a clerk, all he wants is to lounge around in bed to rest his sore back. He is a bastard, probably one of the biggest bastards of them all. He is everything that is wrong with the male gender. He is crass and vulgar. Yet despite all of that, seeing his character, seeing him revel in his drunken and disgusting manner, is the only reason why I’d pick up a Bukowski novel. He is utterly enjoyable. Say what you want about all of Henry’s macho and chauvinistic crap, but his shit and idiocy is entertaining. Sometimes, it’s a relief to stray away from all the eternally narcissistic, pseudo-intellectual and emotional male characters one finds in the great American novels after the Second World War, and just actually have a dumb, decrepit and despairing imp.

In one character, Bukowski was able to sum up a generation beat up by the war, by the “post-depression depression,” by the society that lives in constant fear of another global conflict. Henry’s bleak view of the world is the way the adults of that era looked at the world. It was utterly hopeless. All they had was the fleeting ecstasy of sex, the numb one gets from alcohol and the thrill of the unknown, which they acquired through gambling. These are the men who Ginsberg referred to in his masterpiece, Howl, the “best minds of his generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, /dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,/.” Tarnished and imperfect Chinaski may be, he remains to be the gem of Bukowski’s fiction, a perfect and accurate rendering of just who the children of the generations were and who we just might we be in the near future.

“The Hopeless Emptiness of Everything”: On Richard Yate’s Revolutionary Road

On a wistful and drizzling Saturday morning, two hours before I had to trudge on to my fiction class at the academe, I took my Everyman’s edition of Richard Yate’s Three Novels (Revolutionary Road, The Eastern Parade and Eleven Kinds of Loneliness) with me, eager to bask in the “deep self-deception” and “contemporary alienation” which Michiko Kakutani spoke of when she described Yate’s writings. It was a surprise. Instead of simple feeling that which Kakutani said, instead of being entertained, instead of being amused, instead of being engaged critically, all I felt was sheer emptiness, absolute sadness and melancholy, and desperation, most of all.

The novel is the story of Frank and April Wheeler, a young couple, living in a quaint village outside of New York City. Stuck in a life of repetitions and sterility, aware that they are so much better than the rest of the drones that fill the heartless landscape of America in the 60’s, they decide, after a harrowing argument, to escape to Paris, where Frank, who’s been working for the past seven years or so to support his family, will finally have the adequate time he needs to search for the man he’s supposed to be. In order to do this, April decides to take a job as a clerk once they get to Paris. Risky and uncertain, they set out to do their plan even when their friends begin arguing about the unrealistic and absurd nature of their decision. Only John Givings, the son of Howard and Helen and a mental basket case, sees the profundity in their escape, and both of the Wheelers are completely fine with that. In years, their life takes a positive turn, and finally, they can see their chance at happiness and fulfilment manifesting in front of them.  Quite suddenly, April finds herself pregnant, which throws a wrench in their grand plan. April decides to terminate her pregnancy. Frank finds out. Another visit from John Givings makes it all worst as the lunatic taunts them for their cowardice and inability to pursue their original proposal. A fight ensues. Frank begs them to stay, for practical reasons. April argues that if the fetus is taken care off, they can still push through with their trip. In the end, April takes matter in her hands, producing dire and tragic results.

I don’t really believe that whole bullshit concept of a novel that can’t be “put down.” I’ve always had the ability to close a book, whether it is my favourite Magic Realist, my adored American narcissistic novelist for that year (I’m talking to you Phillip Roth), or my preferred short story writer of that month. Revolutionary Road was different. In the tricycle, sandwiched between an old lady and this guy who resembles the stay puft marshmallow man in the colorum, before class, after class, while waiting for Ida, in mid-commute, while eating, it was one of the first novels that I could not close. It was that magnificent. It was that enchanting. Was it the slow, beautiful but very simple prose, filled with declarative sentences, devoid of sentimentality, neutral in the presentation of each character’s desire and plight that did it for me? Was it the setting that captured the mundane world of the 60’s, the hat, coat and tie, cigarette-filled, Mad Men like reality, which Yates captured so perfectly that compelled me to read? Or was it the utter stupidity, the compassionate journey, the desperation, the inescapable predicament, the self-flagellating nature of the Wheelers, or the idealism in Shep and Milly, or the gullibility of Mr. Howard and Mrs. Helen Giving’s, which completely reeled me in?

Upon finishing the novel, I immediately felt like John Givings, the mentally disturbed son of Howard and Helen. First thing I said was “wow,” and I began to echo what he actually uttered halfway through the novel:

“Now you’ve said it. The hopeless emptiness. Hell, plenty of people are on to the emptiness part; out where I used to work, on the Coast, that’s all we ever talked about. We’d sit around talking about emptiness all night.  Nobody ever said ‘hopeless’ though; that’s where we’d chicken out. Because maybe it does take a whole hell of a lot more to see the hopelessness. And I guess when you do see the hopelessness, that’s when there’s nothing to do but take off. If you can.”

Richard Yate’s first novel, Revolutionary Road, is indeed about that hopelessness. The novel concerns itself with the exploration of the prison we find ourselves in, the jail which society and culture demands of us to be confined in. The Sisyphus-like demeanor men and women succumb to be in once they become adults, once marriage happens, once they bear children, and the dozens of escape one can pursue and the hundred more circumstances that could happen to make individuals fall back into that stupor.  It is a pale view of humanity, given that we pride ourselves on our ability to choose the paths that we forge, given that we think so highly of our freedom and intelligence. In the end we see that hopelessness, that futility, that petrifying notion, all around us, lurking in our every action, in our thoughts, stuck on the vandalized and sticky seats of the bus, the cold pole of the train, the computer monitors that we stare at as we type away the hours of the day, the business and corporate jargons that we drop during meetings, and embedded in the smile on our faces every time the fifteenth and the thirtieth of the month comes and we collect our salaries. It is a truth of the contemporary times, and it is a devastating fact that we have to live with, constantly.

Mary Katherine, You Are Rosemary’s Baby: On Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle

I have always loved Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery.  As it is one of the most widely anthologized short stories, it was one of the first narratives I’ve ever read, and one of the first that really made a profound effect on how I see reality. The horror evoked by that piece hits me every time. Although I read that piece at least every six months, I can still feel the mounting tension as the lottery draws near, the terror, isolation and alienation at the realization that one’s life will end because of a foolish unfair tradition, and the relief, and guilt, acquired in knowing that one’s existence has been given an extension.  The courageous exploration of these human experiences was the reasons why I fell in love with Shirley Jackson, even with just one short work, and when I received my copy of We Have Always Lived in the Castle, the last novel the author completed before her untimely death, I eagerly hoped that I would read something of that nature. Luckily, I read something more, something far darker, and something far more appalling than what The Lottery is; a narrative whose terror and coldness reaches down to the dark corners of our soul.

The novel focuses on the remaining members of the once great Blackwood family who live in a gargantuan estate on the top of small American town: the narrator, Mary Katherine, her sister Constance, and their ailing Uncle Julian. Hated and feared by the town, they have mostly kept to themselves in their fortress, only venturing into the town to get the necessary supplies they need in order to survive. In their solitude, they attempt to drive away the memory of their horrible past, which was the unfortunate death of their entire family, during a dinner, after they used sugar mixed with poison. During the course of the novel, we are given the impression that the shy but warm Constance was the wicked criminal behind this act, despite Mary Katherine’s fascination for sorcery/witchcraft, poison and her penchant for wishing death on everybody. Constance was even charged with murder and was almost imprisoned. And the blame on Constance would have continued if it not for the untimely visit of their cousin Charles.  Slowly, the world they have constructed for themselves becomes compromised. Under the weight of Charles’ presence and sheer need to question the manner in which they live, it crumbles, which great displeases Mary Katherine. Finally, the secrets are exposed, the readers are made aware of Mary Katherine’s true form, and the men and women of the small town, the people they have kept at bay for so long, just about had enough of their existence.

The appeal of the novel lies in the narration and characterization of Mary Katherine. She is someone obsessed with preserving the power she acquires through her youth and innocence. As she is the youngest in the Blackwoods, she has been treated most of her life like a princess. Everything has to go her way. Everyone must love and adore her. Everyone must adapt to how she acts and what she feels.  When a circumstance, or someone, poses a danger to this setup that she has come to known as what reality should be, she destroys that threat in the quickest way possible.  Often, when she thinks about the townspeople, when she hears them talk about her family in hushed tones, she wishes that “they were all dead and walking on their bodies,” but she does this in such a guiltless manner so staggering and terrifying. She is, in every sense of the term, blameless, unaware that her actions are maleficent, unaware that her fascination for poisons and the death cup mushroom is disconcerting, unaware that her fascination for witchcraft and sorcery is unusual.  And she has been constructed this way that when we finally learned that she was the one who killed all the Blackwood, we do not blame her. We accept it willingly, despite what our moralities dictate. It is in her nature to protect her life, it is an act of survival, it is simply right that she preserve what she has grown accustomed to. It is her privilege to be indulged. In that particular world, “Mary Katherine should have everything she wants… must have anything she likes… Mary Katherine must never be punished. In the novel, “everyone must bow (their) heads to (the) adored Mary Katherine.” A terrible idea, granted that, but one that is just, appropriate, and correct, making the novel much more horrifying than what it already is.