The Road Through The Wall is Shirley Jackson’s debut novel. It follows a small community on Pepper Street, their everyday until the everyday shifts into something different, darker. Jackson’s known for her sinister, creeping style of writing – putting suburban drama into a light so bright you can see all of the ugly details, the unsettling sides to the individuals within her stories. Although the suburban drama is clearly present in this novel – the build-up was less impressive than my prior experience with Jackson, it didn’t feel seamless. Actually for the most part I felt the novel followed ‘normal’ suburban drama, with the kind of drama that is simply part of any community – even more so perhaps if the community is small and isolated. But the ending put the classic twist on everything, yet it felt like it came out of nowhere for me. Were there clues to get to that point? It might’ve been and I missed them. But unlike her other writing where I’ve felt dread the entire time even when I hadn’t necessarily known anything was going to happen, I didn’t while reading this book.
The story reminded me a bit of The Virgin Suicides. As I said, it’s the whole suburban drama thing but also that it follows the children of the community as closely as it does the adults. The novel opens up with some of the girls having written the boys in the community, letters – love letters, and the parents find these letters – spoiler, they’re not happy. Scandal! Shock! Disappointment! So the first 50 pages or so largely circles around these letters – although other things happen too, but it’s seen as a big deal by some of the adults in the community, where love letter writing apparently shows a lack of moral, and break of decorum.
On the whole I thought the suburban drama thing was enjoyable enough to read – it’s a bit like reading those #richpeopleproblems type stories where people are cheating on each other left and right, going bankrupt, have addiction problems, etc – you know the stories, it’s all good and fun since you know you’re from a distance, and also Jackson definitely makes fun of a lot of things and plays with things in her writing, and makes it therefor more relatable and poignant. Like for example how the people react to the end – the twist if you will – her description of the group reaction is so on point.
Unfortunately there was more I didn’t like about it. There was the sometimes questionable use of stereotypes and of people’s ethnicity, religion, or even mental states, things like that, as plot points that I wasn’t too keen on. Like the “Chinaman” who two of the girls of Pepper Street meet – what was the purpose for having him in the story? Why was he described and dealt with in such a stereotypical and problematic way? Was it meant to be a parody, or was it just outright racist? What I mean is that it wasn’t clear whether things like that was part of the story to add to the uncertainty of this community and dread of the time of having foreigners as part of their communities – in which case, problematic – or whether it was part of the exploration of the communities, if that makes sense. I get this was published in the 1940s, but I haven’t come across this sort of issue in Jackson’s writing before. It wasn’t just the “chinaman”, there was the way people reacted to some people in the community, sometimes I feel like there was hints of someone having a disability and I’m not sure I liked the way they portrayed the person. Even the ending I had some issues with, the implications of it. Like you can or are supposed to be able to predict a certain outcome from a certain set of attributes or personalities – which is I suppose a whole other story but it bothers me, especially because it’s damaging to have such a black and white sort of view on causality. Anyway, long story short – there were some things in the details I found questionable – did they have a purpose or not, were they a reflection of Jackson’s thoughts and her context, or where they there to drive the story, to highlight the communities reactions, to highlight the issues – but I’m going to leave it at that.
The major problem comes from the way the story was told, and sort of the aim of the novel. Jackson basically tries to do the same thing as J. K. Rowling does in The Casual Vacancy in that they create an entire community, try to delve into and explore community relations – group dynamics – and especially with tragedies or events happening within the community – the reactions to said events. While Jackson is clearly less ambitious, both novels share a weakness because of the way the narrative is written – the characters have less airtime, they shift very often, there’s a lot of people to keep track on, and you don’t really get to spend that much time with anyone – you only see glimpses of them at different times during the time span they follow. Which means it’s hard to get to know any of the character’s in any meaningful way. And for me this resulted in not caring about any of the characters. Since I didn’t care about any of the characters, even when shit started happening, it literally created no reaction from me.
Clearly I don’t like the narrative that I described above – while I like the idea of group dynamics and I find it fascinating as an object of scientific research and study – I don’t enjoy it as much in fiction because of the impact it has on character development. I think I would much rather read a story like this is a nonfiction format, than fiction.
So on the whole, it was an okay book and definitely entertaining while having some parts that were hitting my warning lamps, and other parts that were the dullest of dull – Skip the prologue! – but there you go. Now that I’ve read Jackson’s debut, I’m eager to return to the stories of hers I have enjoyed.