Monday, March 10, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: The Road Through the Wall by Shirley Jackson (1948)

"I delight in what I fear." --Shirley Jackson

This book can be found on Amazon
According to Ruth Franklin's foreword, Shirley Jackson once told her daughter "the first book is the book you have to write to get back at your parents . . . Once you get that out of your way, you can start writing books."

Well . . . Boom! Shirley Jackson's parents, you have been served!!!

Jackson's first novel, The Road Through the Wall, does just that. This slice of weird literary fiction often comes across as an autobiographical stab at the way she was raised, consisting of themes that subtly resound through the rest of her career--social pressures, living as an outcast, the importance of raising children, etc. And boy do those themes stand up and smack you in the face in this book. Some fiction is character-driven, some plot-driven, some even seems driven by atmospheric effect. But The Road Through the Wall is a theme-driven locomotive.

Meet Pepper Street

The book opens with a seven-page info dump where we learn about a street that might represent any middle-class street in the 40's. I'd even say some of it still applies today. 

Jackson uses her stunning (and I do mean stunning--like, stop reading to gawk at how frickin stunning) prose to pull us into Pepper Street, which is capped by a dead end on one side and the intersecting Cortez Road on the other. In the process, she manages to make us feel like the world might just end outside this suburban intersection. The words bleed away as you read and it's almost as if you, the reader, were trapped there, too. It's well done and it sets the mood. But, in the end, it's still an info dump and, like many prologues, it proves to be useless.

Meet the People of Pepper Street

The prologue is wasted space because Jackson does a fine job of setting the scene and mood in chapter one. We meet the characters, they are moving about the neighborhood and their lives, and the same effect from the prologue is rendered. But, meh, it's a small complaint, one that today's writers are learning to avoid.

This is where Jackson takes out her 'themes' hammer and starts whacking away. Pepper Street has layers, see. The young girls living there, all roughly the same age, have a mean-girl hierarchy. One girl rules the rest with her tyranny. Girls who don't conform to her are outcasts. But she's nothing more than a big fish in a rain puddle. 

The moms, see, they have their own hierarchy. And though they pretend to be more adult than their daughters, they're really the same. 

But wait! They're just big fish in ponds. The never-really-seen husbands are the next step up. No matter how important the head momma thinks she is, she still must answer to her husband. Because, you know . . . the 40's.

But that's not all--the ocean is right outside of Pepper Street where much larger fish swim freely. Bordering the middle-class intersection is a large privacy wall meant to keep those middle-class dogs from peeking in at the upper-class heroes. The wall's presence, and those beyond it, lays over everyone like a shadow--a shadow that constantly whispers in the ears of the middle-class, telling them that they aren't good enough, that they will never move up from where they are, mocking them for being trapped on Pepper Street and even dreaming of living beyond its confines. A serious case of the never-satisfied-with-what-I-have blues has set in for most Pepper Street residents.

The young boys, who are destined to one day fall into the background as their father's have, call those people who live on the other side of the wall "our better neighbors".

And, oh yeah, there is the maid one family hires--she's so lowly that she doesn’t even get a body of water; she is left to socially suffocate on dry land.

As we see this infrastructure of perceived power in action, Jackson keeps it lively with odd interactions and interesting dialogue.

One character, Harriet, who might just be Shirley Jackson's younger self in disguise, oozes self-loathing with lines like: "Harriet had chosen George to write to because he was dull and unpopular and she felt vaguely that she had no right to aim any higher than the one boy no one else would have . . ."

Other characters, like those at the top of each social food chain, ooze loathing for everyone but themselves. The wives sit around their sewing circle, judging their own children with the same bare ferociousness they use when talking about people of another race, like that shifty Chinaman down the block from them.

Then there are the men, who she makes really clever use of stock characters with. Normally, stock characters are a bad thing, a sign of clich├ęd writing. But here, they are meant to be silhouettes of real people, and in this way it says a lot about the attitudes and relationships of the time.

Things Fall Apart

Another grand theme is that change happens and that fighting it is foolish.

When a popular family moves out and a new family moves in, structures are shaken. The new neighbors are ignorant to the fragile eco system of Pepper Street. And it's the children who feel the impact most. A party reveals cracks--people argue, a husband gives a little too much attention to one of the daughters, and another daughter goes missing. When the girl is found dead, a boy, who has always been the social outcast, is immediately, and wrongly, blamed . . . and dispatched in kind with the dead girl.

But worst of all, to some of the Pepper Street residents, (the priority is never on the children, even after they start running away or acting out or dying) is the road being built through the wall of the rich neighborhood! Gasp!!! The adults can't stand the idea of change; their insulation and illusion of control must be maintained. But, as anyone who has moved away from a childhood home can tell you, things do change; the old neighborhood can look alien when you return years later. New houses go up, old ones go down, people move, the street develops potholes, the neighbor's dog takes to pooping in your yard, and life moves on. . .

All-in-all, The Road Through the Wall is a compelling read with a satisfying ending, sometimes funny, sometimes creepy, but not the best of Jackson's work. It tries too hard to make a point and loses some of the story as a result. But the prose is worthy of being studied, so, for anyone who's a fan of The Lottery or House on Haunted Hill, this is worth a read. If you're not yet a fan of Shirley Jackson (which you should be, the woman is down-right awesome), this wouldn't be the place to start.

Score: 7 out of 10


  1. Thanks for the great review! Shirley Jackson is my favorite writer, and this is my favorite of her books (love them all).

  2. Hey, thanks for reading, Mary Ann! I adore everything Shirley Jackson does. I plan to read The Sundial next, if I can get my hands on it.