When Harold Bloom allotted a few paragraphs to Shirley Jackson in his book of short story criticism, it was to explain why her work fell short of his carefully guarded idea of the canon. Jackson was skillful but too obvious; she lacked depth, even in the work for which she’s best known. “[H]er art of narration stayed on the surface, and could not depict individual identities,” he concluded. “Even ‘The Lottery’ wounds you once, and once only.” Dwight Garner quoted those sentences in his 2015 New York Times review of a collection of Jackson’s early writing, as though needing backup in his efforts to hold the line against an authorial reputation that’s nevertheless grown over recent years.
Jackson was an agoraphobe and a self-proclaimed witch who banged out light domestic essays to pay the bills in addition to unclassifiable, weird, genre-adjacent fiction. The reassessment she’s experienced has coincided with an acknowledgement that her professional and personal life amounted to a guide to getting disregarded by the literary establishment. And still something eddies in the recurring anxiety about her merit (“Is LOA about to jump the shark?” Malcolm Jones wrote in Newsweek about the Library of America releasing a volume of Jackson’s work). Jackson’s best known for horror, but for some, the scariest thing about her seems to be the idea she might be labeled as great.
Late in Shirley, an interestingly woozy new film about Jackson from director Josephine Decker, there’s a scene in which the writer, played by Elisabeth Moss, sits at a table and waits for her husband to read the novel she spent most of the movie writing. Jackson actually married a critic — Stanley Edgar Hyman, who’s played with louche cunning in the movie by Michael Stuhlbarg. The camera holds on Moss’s remarkable face as Shirley braces as though undergoing an unanesthetized surgery. When Stanley comes up from the background into focus to deliver his approval, she weeps with relief and exhaustion as he assures her not just that he thinks it’s good, but that it will be the work that makes her reputation. “It hurts, this one, it hurts more than the others,” she tells him brokenly, this formidable woman who’s spent so much of the runtime sunken in depression or slicing people up at social events. She understands her own talent, and is pinned, impossibly, between desiring recognition for it and renouncing the sanity-splintering unfairness of the world she wants it from.
Shirley isn’t quite a biopic. Based on a novel by Susan Scarf Merrell that was adapted by Sarah Gubbins, it’s as much about an idea of Jackson as it is about her life, playing a little loose with its timeline and vanishing her children (Jackson and Hyman had four) from existence. The film takes place after “The Lottery” was published in 1948 (“The most reviled story the New Yorker has ever printed,” as Shirley describes it), and after the couple has settled in Bennington, Vermont, where Stanley is a professor and Shirley is essentially a figure out of campus folklore. The work Shirley is struggling to complete is 1951’s Hangsaman, about a young woman experiencing a maybe-breakdown during her freshman year at college. Hangsaman will not turn out to be “the one,” as Stanley puts it, though what that means for Shirley is not covered in the limited window the film offers into her life. It is instead more interested in the way the author herself contends with her feelings of being an outsider and going unseen. To fail to conform to normalcy as a woman, a theme running through Jackson’s work, is to risk being branded an outcast, an aberration, and a scapegoat — but to warp yourself to fit its confines requires feats of self-delusion.
The film approaches the Hyman-Jackson household from the outside — from the perspective of Rose Nemser (Odessa Young), the pregnant new bride of budding academic Fred (Logan Lerman). Fred, whose life of privilege has left him as formless as a blob of dough, is set to work under Stanley, and what starts as a temporary stay in his house becomes a more involved arrangement when Stanley asks Rose to help with the housework and keep an eye on his wife, who hasn’t left the place in two months. Stanley is Shirley’s biggest supporter and her greatest tormenter, cheerleading her work while also fucking around with her full knowledge, though not her approval. It doesn’t take long for the dynamic to go full Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, with Rose dropped into an ongoing psychodrama and Fred often absent. Shirley enjoys cutting people to the core and making a scene — “She’s a fucking monster,” Rose mutters to her spouse after they’ve made a retreat to their room. And Stanley, though he pretends to be above the fray, enjoys the chaos while never paying the social price for it. He’s considered bohemian; she gets looked at as the madwoman in the attic.
But Shirley’s knife-edged perceptiveness, at first put to use strictly for the purposes of cruelty, leads her to see something of herself in her younger houseguest. The relationship between the two women morphs into an uncertain rapport, and then a tentative friendship, and then something almost like a romance, as they spend long stretches of time alone in the house together, their days the dominion of women. It brings to mind the slippery relationship at the center of Decker’s last film, Madeline’s Madeline, an experimental gem about a brilliantly volatile teenage girl and the theater director treating her as a muse in ways that verge on the vampiric. Shirley is a more restrained and less vibrant work, though it shares the same smeary edges and spongy sense of reality. What we see on screen doesn’t seem like it can always be trusted, though it’s unclear to whom its subjective point of view might belong.
There are times when Rose blurs into the main character in the book that Shirley’s writing, and times when both Rose and the Hangsaman character intersect with the real case of a young girl who disappeared mysteriously from campus not that long ago. Then there are times when it seems like Rose might exist solely in Shirley’s tumultuous mind, though that’s not a reading other parts of the film really support. This imprecision is one of the frustrating aspects about this claustrophobic and otherwise entrancing movie, which tries to keep one foot planted in the experimental and the other in the conventional. It doesn’t straddle these modes so much as it shifts its weight between them aimlessly.
Still, with the support of Moss, who’s become a specialist in deconstructing the idea of feminine hysteria, and Young, who plays Rose like the flushed heroine of a grim fairy tale, Decker ends up in a place that’s strange and satisfying. Shirley, writing feverishly in her office, may see the designation of genius as a way out of the terrible bind of her existence — but even if that were true, she wouldn’t get it, not in her curtailed lifetime. Jackson died in 1965, at the age of 48, decades from critical reclamation and possible entry into the annals of major writers. She might make it there, though Shirley makes you wonder if what she would have appreciated more is being freed from that need for recognition entirely.
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