Friday, June 7, 2019

Scribe | Alyson Hagy

After the world has met an ambiguous near-end, a small community worships a dead woman by placing smooth white stones at the base of her property. This woman used to be a healer, a profession that she was forced into after her father died and the migrant community had no one else to turn to. 

She was loved.

Though in many ways the story is about this healer, it follows her sister, instead. The healer's sister lives in a house full of telescopes and pots of ink, guarded by a pack of stray dogs who feel a sense of fidelity to its only occupant. 

In the story's barter/trade society, this woman is a scribe. She exchanges her letter-writing skills for necessary and hard-to-find items and has survived this way for a long while. 

Yet, the migrant community who camps on the edge of her property fears her, their innate disdain for her only corralled by a tenuous mutual respect between her and their elders. Soon, a man seeks her help to write a letter to his wife.

Hagy's style is dreamy and ghost-like, the pacing of the story quick to change from hazy description to carefully brusque dialogue, the narrative flowing in and out of itself like an unpredictable tide. Some parts of SCRIBE read like magical realism, some like science fiction, some like a diary entry told in the third person. 

Though I enjoyed the book, its tone often felt nebulous and opaque, and it took me a while to trudge through the story in its more obscure moments (I think in particular of the journey sequence mid-way through the book). Yet it's a quick read at just around 180 pages, so even the sloshy parts are not a complete hindrance to the book's readability. 

My favorite parts of SCRIBE were the moments in which it departs from its main plot line (the scribe and the man) to quick flashback, where we meet the protagonist's sister and watch their family interact. We are taken through myriad instances of inheritance (the telescope, the red trumpet, the abstract concept of responsibility), and still there’s never any valor in the act of continuing a tradition. 

It seems that SCRIBE is less about the world that Hagy has presented to us and more about how humans process the remnants of other people, distant symbols that are diluted as they're recounted or passed down (and how these things are invariably passed down whether they’re meaningful or not). This book is deeply centered around storytelling: the act and impact of telling a story, the responsibility of the storyteller, the manipulation of meaning. 

Of all of the books that I've read this year, this is the only one I'll read again.

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

We Have Always Lived in the Castle | Shirley Jackson

"Merricat, said Constance, would you like a cup of tea?"

WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE by Shirley Jackson was published in 1962. It is narrated by Mary Katherine "Merricat" Blackwood, an eighteen year old girl who lives in a large manor with her older sister Constance, her ill elderly Uncle Julian, and her cat Jonas. Constance and Merricat have a set schedule of gardening, tidying, dusting, and cooking: Merricat visits the town on Tuesdays and Fridays to purchase groceries and check out library books; Constance tends the vegetable garden and cares for Uncle Julian. Six years ago, the rest of their family were poisoned by arsenic in the sugar bowl. That night, Merricat had been sent to bed without supper. Constance did not care for sugar on her berries, and Uncle Julian only had a taste of it. 

Soon, cousin Charles arrives on the Blackwood property (a place intentionally closed off by the isolationist Blackwoods) and invades their careful life. He is quickly invited into Constance's good graces despite his outward disdain for Merricat's odd tendencies (burying silver dollars or tacking gold chains to trees as protection over the house, running wild through the woods to her creek, existing overall), and his residency in the Blackwood home affects Merricat and Constance's lives irrevocably. 

WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE is written in such a way that you will feel absolutely aligned with Mary Katherine Blackwood. You will not know for certain how you feel about this. Just as she prays that Charles will disappear if she gets rid of everything in the house that he has touched, so will you. Just as she wishes that the townspeople will drop dead when they crowd her lawn, so will you. Her magic words and magic objects will lead you to your backyard to find your own. 

I appreciate this quality of Jackson's writing, how she's always able to leave you with a lingering sympathy for characters who may not deserve it. In a way, this sympathy fills in the gaps of motivation left by Jackson throughout CASTLE; she does not have to tell you why Merricat began to ponder what her life would be like on the moon for you to understand it (the flip end of this lies in the triumph that you will feel when some of the characters do truly horrific things, which you will find yourself rooting for, exalting, even). 

The beginning of the book before Charles' arrival is a bit slow, but this exposition is important for establishing the tone of Merricat's narration as well as the attitude of the townspeople, a cultivated kind of hatred that feels both egregious and well-deserved by the end of the novel. (Still, as it's just under 150 pages, slow bits go by quickly anyway.) 

If you plan on purchasing this book, I recommend you first read Jackson's short story "The Lottery" to get a sense of her style. 


“All our land was enriched with my treasures buried in it, thickly inhabited just below the surface with my marbles and my teeth and my colored stones, all perhaps turned to jewels by now, held together under the ground in a powerful taut web which never loosened, but held fast to guard us.” 

“The trees around and overhead were so thick that it was always dry inside and on Sunday morning I lay there with Jonas, listening to his stories. All cat stories start with the statement: "My mother, who was the first cat, told me this," and I lay with my head close to Jonas and listened. There was no change coming, I thought here, only spring; I was wrong to be so frightened. The days would get warmer, and Uncle Julian would sit in the sun, and Constance would laugh when she worked in the garden, and it would always be the same. Jonas went on and on ("And then we sang! And then we sang!") and the leaves moved overhead and it would always be the same.”

“I was pretending that I did not speak their language; on the moon we spoke a soft, liquid tongue, and sang in the starlight, looking down on the dead dried world.” 

“Poor strangers, they have so much to be afraid of.” 
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