Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Shirley Jackson’s “Paranoia” was originally published in the August 5, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.
This week’s issue features a never before published story by Shirley Jackson, who died in 1965. Jackson’s “The Lottery,” published in the June 6, 1948 issue of The New Yorker, is one of the most notorious stories ever published in the magazine; it received more mail than any story had ever before received (read Ruth Franklin’s Page-Turner post about the story’s history here).
When she died, apparently Jackson left behind a lot of unpublished work. “Paranoia” was only recently discovered, and is likely to have been written in the early 1940s, according to her son (see here).
As is often the case when The New Yorker publishes found material from a deceased writer, the story is well written but not particularly great. It lacks the polish it might have received had it been prepared more vigorously for publication. But “Paranoia” is a fun story.
The story begins as Mr. Halloran Beresford leaves his New York office at “after a good day in the office.” His world is so fixed on routine and so untroubled, it seems, that he still looks clean-shaven and his grey suit still looks freshly pressed. A small untroubled man in a grey suit, he joins a crowd of small untroubled men in grey suits headed home after their own pleasant days at the office.
This day is special, though. It’s his wife’s birthday, so he’s had to break his routine a bit, buy her a box of candy, and try to get tickets to a show. The worst part, though, is that in his need to hustle home he may have to forgo his normal, leisurely bus ride. As he searches for a taxi, hating the “public display and violent exercise,” he notices, without caring much, a man in a light hat who is “funny-looking.”
This is the beginning of paranoia. As Mr. Beresford makes way home, attempting a taxi, a bus, the subway, this man in the light hat keeps turning up. In fact, it seems everyone is out to get him, and he has no idea why.
The best part of this story, for me, was the build-up. Jackson has a natural ability to make us scared of things that are probably not there, to make a routine commute home a nightmare. As I said, it’s a fun story.
I think my main problem with it, though, is that over the years — and this is not Jackson’s problem — we’ve seen this played out many many times in stories and in film, and this story, to me, simply plays it out again, albeit pleasantly. Not much was added to the by-now familiar formula.
It also called to mind the most brilliant case of paranoia and unclear menace I’ve ever read, the first, fantastic chapter in The Melancholy of Resistance (see my thoughts here). In that masterful chapter, which begins on a train platform and the train is a bit late, Laszlo Krasznahorkai not only builds up the menace, but he also examines the existential dread that comes from a seeming breach in reality and connects this to existential dread in general. Brilliant. Jackson’s “Paranoia,” on the other hand, is a fun diversion. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that.
Trevor, your review of Shirley Jackson’s “Paranoia” works so well for me that my second reading seems superfluous.
But there I sound like Mr. Beresford, whose inner voice says “small” to him twice in the first paragraph, and later points out to him, as “always” the fact of “his own small size and inner cautiousness.” Mr. Beresford, who likes the company of men (having had a nice lunch out with three or four fellows from the office), seems to seek out strength in male numbers — given that he imagines himself to be one of twenty men in small-size suits, one of fifty men still clean-shaven and pressed, and one of a hundred men who have remembered their wives’ birthdays.
Therein appears his conundrum: facing his wife.
In the first paragraph, he announces to himself his intention to take his wife out to dinner. Any reader who is a cook, however, wonders why he hasn’t called her early in the day to arrange the night out. In the very sentence in which he imagines being the gallant husband who takes his wife out to dinner, he also makes the leap of thinking he was “going to see if he could get last minute tickets to a show . . .” This is all very ineffectual, though. What he is planning seems downright unlikely. In fact, “the ineffectuality of the ordinary man” is the case he pleads a page or so later, although by that time, this thought is cloaked in the possibility that the man in the light hat is trying to get him. Jackson allows Beresford the luxury, when he admits his most secret fear (his ineffectuality), of the company of all “ordinary men.”
The nature of this ordinary man’s “ineffectuality” peeps out at us amid all the obfuscation of his travails. When Mr. Beresford ducks into a department store in his efforts to shed the man in the light hat, he is, in the nature of a very bad dream, faced with the images of his own most secret fears: the “thin and tan and black and gauzy” nature of women’s stockings, and “huge almost human figures wearing obscene trusses.” Where another man might have purchased some black stockings for his wife to wear, with all the affectionate expectations that the stockings might represent, Halloran Beresford runs “hollering” from the sight, smack into his worst nightmare. The trusses most surely represent how he feels — trapped, tied up, tied down, and, dare we say it, impotent.
She’s laid the basis of this “ordinary” man’s impotence in his voice, which he hears mostly in his head, and which in fact is not firm, and occasionally, “falsetto.” This weakness devolves into feeling, at one point, “breathless.” This is a man who goes through life not trusting his own voice, but only “trying to make [it] firm.”
Jackson, despite the clarity of the prose, manages to convey from the git-go the wobbly nature of this man’s psyche. This is a man who in paragraph one imagines his duty, taking his wife out to dinner, but by paragraph two he’s forgotten all about it, thinking he’d have to hurry “if he were going to get home before dinner was on the table.” So we are not surprised, near the end, when he imagines (or not) that his wife has locked him in the living room: “Never knew that door had a key . . .” he thinks, more wobbly than ever.
But this is a man who does not use a key to open his own front door, yelling Honey, I’m home! No, this is a man who rings the bell to his own apartment! Thus summoning his wife to his attention, much as he also expects her to fuss over him and bring him a drink, much as when she does, he “glor[ies] in all this attention.”
One imagines the sophisticated forties reader enjoying this Freudian business with the keys, and in fact, I enjoyed it, too. But as you point out, Trevor, the story feels in need of an editor. Despite her immaculate and tight sentences, with their layers of tones, Jackson does not seem to have a steady grip on the reader’s attention. The plot, so to speak, gets lost in itself.
As a source for inquiry into the writer’s development, though, its publication is a valuable contribution. I would like to look further into the way she uses Freudian mythology, and how she understands human impotence. Beresford’s seeking shelter in his imaginings of being one of twenty or fifty, no wait — one hundred! — men speaks a fascist longing. So if I were reading everything she ever wrote, I’d be looking to hear the Freudian note, the fascist theme.
Another thing that would interest me would be her age at the time the story was written and the place the story held in her development: in 1940 she would have been 24. Just what had she already written?
Ruth Franklin’s upcoming biography holds some interest for me. I wish The New Yorker had been able to publish an excerpt from that along with this story.
The story’s last paragraph of plot is the corker, and as you point out so well, Trevor, regarding Jackson’s gifts, pure entertainment. Perfectly pressed little hollerin’ Halloran was worth a good listen. So I’m hoping that some more unpublished Jackson stories are still to come.