September 21, 2010
DH: I’m going to share my reactions to the short stories of Shirley Jackson’s classic collection The Lottery. I want to understand why these stories are considered classics. And I want to do my small bit to rescue these stories from high school reading lists, where they frequently appear, by discussing them on a blog. Why? Because I never liked anything in school that I was required to read. I only enjoyed a book if I read it on my own.
The first sentence is wonderful because no opportunity is lost to set up a complex situation that contains considerable propellant. There’s always a risk that the set-up will bore the reader before the storyteller can get to the good stuff. But here it’s all good stuff.
A guy is tipsy at a party but knows the house he is in well enough to lurch toward the kitchen. He’s pretending to get ice but he really wants some space to pull himself together. You know, therefore, that he feels vulnerable. What reinforces this feeling of vulnerability is that he a familiar guest but not really one of the family. He can’t just pass out on the couch. That’s why he’s headed for the kitchen to pull himself together.
We get all this in sentence number one. A less skillful writer would take a paragraph or two to set this up. Moreover, this situation is not just mechanical plot wheels turning.This setup seduces the reader. The staggering drunk makes us feel drunk, questioning our perceptions of what’s going on.
SJ’s stories are not very strong on closely observed detail. They have the sketchiness of folktales or fairy tales, also the same sort of ritual quality. The mise-en-scene just presents the essential details, the bare minimum. If that’s all Jackson could do then these stories would be mediocre. It’s J’s ability to do psychological warfare in her characters’ heads and in the heads of her readers that makes her fiction interesting.
In the kitchen, the guy encounters the Other in the form of the young daughter of the house, doing her homework. His social awkwardness in talking to the girl, being drunk and wondering what you say to a young kid anyway, colors the dialogue that occurs, tints all the sentences between them with an air of uncertainty. A great lesson in writing dialogue, SJ has set up the encounter between the drunk guest and the daughter so that ANYTHING they say to each other is much more likely to be emotionally charged. The characters just don’t talk. They talk in a situation that is already interesting to the reader, already seductive. Now Shirley Jackson sort of stumbles the conversation into a mid-twentieth century vision of the apocalypse, then stumbles it back again to a mundane party in some anonymous suburban living room. You’ve been brilliantly set-up. That’s why when SJ delivers the punch, you really feel it.