Sunday, April 6, 2008

Unfinished Novels

I just read Shirley Jackson's unfinished novel, Come Along With Me. It's only thirty pages, though, so maybe it should be in quotation marks instead. It's one of my favorite kind of novels: a woman with a mysterious past leaves it all behind and starts a new life. Gosh, how many books have I read like that? Not enough! That's one particular theme I can't get enough of.

Jackson had a wicked sense of humor and a real misanthropic streak she managed to keep tamped down most of the time. She let it rip for these few last pages. Her protagonist -- a medium who talks to the dead -- lies about everything, compulsively shoplifts, and doesn't have a nice thing to say about anyone. It's tragic that it's over so soon, rather like Jackson's life.

(For years I didn't read any of her novels because I had to read "The Lottery" in high school, and I hated it. It seemed so heavy-handed. But then I read We Have Always Lived in the Castle and was a convert. In an essay in the same volume as Come Along With Me she describes getting the idea for "The Lottery" while pushing her daughter up a hill in a stroller, so now I have new respect for it.)

There aren't that many unfinished novels published. I know that something of Hemingway's was published a few years back, but I didn't read it. The reviews weren't so great, but anyway, who wants to read something with no ending? Dickens's Edwin Drood is a murder mystery, but you never find out who did it. Ugh!

But some writers, like Shirley Jackson, have such a slender oeuvre that every paragraph seems valuable, and I certainly enjoyed her unfinished book a lot more than many finished ones. It makes me wonder about what makes a book worth reading in the first place. How much of it is the ultimate satisfaction of an appropriate ending? How much is just getting to see through the author's eyes?

7 comments:

bookfraud said...

i, too, never got past "the lottery." when i first read it, at all of 14 years, i thought it was "cool," but ultimately turned me off to jackson. you're about the fifth person to recommend her, and i daresay that comprises a trend.

i can't think of any unfinished novels i want to read, except ralph ellison's, which is supposed to be amazing. june 17 release date, supposedly...

5 Red Pandas said...

Now that I've read a bunch of Jackson's work I feel bad that people don't read her more often because they had to read the Lottery in school, but I can understand why people are turned off by it.

I also enjoyed the novel snippet and wished it didn't have to end so abruptly. There are a few short stories in that collection you mentioned, Rhian, that really caught my attention. That first story, the really short one about the girl who can't go back to school, and another one about the couple that decides to stay at their vacation home after labor day really stuck in my head.

I've read about half of her memoir, Life Among the Savages, and it's very funny even when she chronicles the mundanity of domestic life. There's a part where she takes herself to the hospital herself when she's having her third child and when the nurse asks her her occupation Jackson answers, 'Writer" and the nurse says, "I'll put down housewife." And then Jackson repeats, "Writer," and the nurse puts down housewife. That killed me. I could sense the tension Jackson felt being a "housewife" and writer.

Anonymous said...

Not unfinished, but how about unedited? I just read A Big Storm Knocked It Over by Laurie Colwin, who it seems might have been very sick or even dying when she wrote it, as it's her last novel. I know this because I kept stopping and thinking, WTF, this lady is supposed to be good and turning the book every which way looking for clues on what I was missing.

By the end, all I could think was, well, they wanted to get one more buck out of her while they could...

And speaking of bucks, who is the novelist whose son is finishing his books now? Dr. Suess (sp?) comes to mind, but there are more...

C. Leigh Purtill said...

Count me as one reader who was influenced at the right age by The Lottery. I have since read everything about or by Jackson I could get my hands on. Her short stories are brilliant and The Haunting of Hill House is probably one of the creepiest horror novels of all time. It is also nearly impossible to translate well to the screen.

James said...

Anonymous -

Brian Herbert (son of Frank) has cowritten several novels in the Dune series (started by his father). They are based (it's claimed) on notes written by Frank Herbert before his death. I haven't read them (I'm not even interested in reading the original books past the first one), but a broad consensus opinion among science fiction reader seems to be that they are not very good.

jrlennon said...

hey c. leigh...check out our recent posts on The Haunting of Hill House! We both just read it. Personally, I think it's flawed, but fascinating and hugely enjoyable.

Kofi said...

I hated "The Lottery" myself. In retrospect, based on what I read in high school I wouldn't read much of anything.

Speaking of unfinished novels, I finished Kafka's "The Castle" last week. Even though it stops midsentence, the story still felt complete to me. I wasn't left with a feeling of wondering what happened next.