Something I’ve noticed since establishing my library room is that I’ve been being a bit more selective when choosing my next read. Previously, I would examine the books uppermost on my teetering stacks and take into account ease of removal from said stacks as well as the quality of the book and whether I was in the mood to read in any particular genre, subject matter area, and so on. No longer am I limited to such a method! As my books were pulled from their boxes, some of which had gone virtually untouched since I packed them up upon leaving undergrad, I thought carefully about those poor unread volumes, purchased with care when I was very low on book-buying funds and then shoved out of sight for years and years. Which to read first?
I chose a book by Shirley Jackson which I hadn’t yet read (though I was sorely tempted to do a reread of The Haunting of Hill House which is one of my favorites ever and which is the novel that brought me firmly to the Shirley Jackson fandom) but I wanted something fresh to me in anticipation of Ruth Franklin’s new biography of Jackson (released just today!). The first Jackson novel I unpacked that I hadn’t yet read is her earliest published novel and the one least critically acclaimed, The Road Through the Wall. (A word of warning: there are minor spoilers ahead but this is particularly the sort of book for which the concept of spoilers is irrelevant; this book is much more about tone than about plot.)
The Road Through the Wall tells the tale of the various off-putting inhabitants of a street in a middle class Californian suburb during a summer in the ‘30s when all of the children are home from school. There is a very large cast of characters which includes nearly everyone in the neighborhood, from young Caroline Desmond, a golden haired toddler who is the seeming envy of every mother on the block, to old Mrs. Mack who recites Bible lessons to her dog every evening and seldom leaves her rather embarrassingly (in the consideration of the streets’ other residents at any rate) dilapidated home.
The plot consists primarily of unsettling anecdotal incidents, which Jackson always does better than just about anyone. The children, particularly the girls, bully each other mercilessly and often craft their barbs to mimic the racist and classist comments made by their parents who are nearly all portrayed as cruelly oblivious to the realities of anything but their own progress toward upward mobility. When their daughters are found to be writing innocuous love letters to the boys in the neighborhood, or when some of the girls are discovered befriending a man of Chinese descent who lives in a nearby apartment building, or when it is learned that one of the girls has been chummy with the Jewish girl on the street, the parents create brief moments of upheaval but otherwise the plot moves smoothly from bizarre social interaction to bizarre social interaction. The strangeness of these social interactions can be partly explained by the fact that several of the characters seem to be mentally disabled in some way and are taken advantage of or otherwise abused by the neighborhood, but otherwise there is little distinction made between characters’ motivations for acting as they do, and, indeed, the characters who seem most “off” emerge as the most understandable and likeable characters by the end of the book. As the novel draws to a close, some children disappear and one is found murdered; Jackson manages to make this outcome seem somewhat inevitable despite the relative mundanity of the narrative’s previous terrors. This is the entire plot of the book in its most basic outline.
As I said above, this is one of Jackson’s least critically acclaimed novels and it’s easy to see why. The cast of characters is simply too large for a book of this relatively short size. It is Jackson’s style to purposely leave many of her characters open-ended in their development—this is part of what makes her creations both so uncannily lifelike and unnerving. But with so many characters, none of whom seemed finished or even approaching satisfactory development, reading this book at times felt more like swimming through an early draft than reading an accomplished, purpose-driven novel.
That said, it read like an extremely good early draft. Jackson was obviously already an accomplished observer of life, and her ability to precisely and succinctly present oddities and outrages as the commonplace occurrences that they are, though no less uncanny and horrifying for their ubiquity, is strong in this novel as in others. The novel opens, for example, with this throwaway aphorism that’s borderline blood chilling: “No man owns a house because he really wants a house, any more than he marries because he favors monogamy…” (1). This sentiment put me in mind of Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives (which, published in 1972, I imagine owes a great deal of debt to Jackson), and I settled in for a goose bump raising morality tale about the horrors of suburbia, but the novel closes on a distinctly Jacksonian note, highly reminiscent of the lessons imparted in “The Lottery.” The case of the missing children has been mostly solved to everyone’s satisfaction, and as the adults stand about awaiting the arrival of the police, the narrator observes that “Pleasure was in the feeling that the terrors of the night, the jungle, had come close to their safe lighted homes, touched them nearly, and departed, leaving every family safe but one; an acute physical pleasure like a pain…” (181).
I simply am unable to imagine how a reasonable enjoyer of literature could fail to love Shirley Jackson with the same enthusiasm as I do, and therefore I cannot imagine that someone might purposefully leave this book off their lifetime TBR. This is because, to me, to love Shirley Jackson is to be excited for and about all of her writing, even the early and marginally less accomplished stuff. That said, for those new to Jackson, this is most definitely not the book I would recommend embarking with. For new readers, or readers who have only had schoolroom experience with “The Lottery,” I would suggest beginning with The Haunting of Hill House or Hangsaman. In these, Jackson is at her undisputed best and it is of course always nice to first encounter one at one’s best, isn’t it?