What Am I Reading? #1 of whatever
Me and Dave Lentz, aka half of the Registered Weapon brain trust, were the special guests at Robot 6’s What Are You Reading? over the weekend. I hadn’t read any comics in forever and so, when faced with a few days in which to read something and then talk about it in such a way as to entice curious/bored readers over to my webcomic, I decided to go with some random Spider-Man trade from six months ago instead of literally anything else on my bookshelves. But hey! I have read some stuff I forgot to mention in that column!
Like, did you know that I have somehow made it to the age of 33 1/3 without once having read Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery?” I MEAN EXCEPT FOR WHEN I READ THE BOOK AND SAW THE MOVIE WHEN IT WAS CALLED THE HUNGER GAMES. Okay I do have a persistent mental association of the story with this summer writing class I took when I was 15, but if I actually read the story then I flat-out don’t remember it. But anyway the point is I finally read the thing a couple of weeks ago, and uh everything you’ve heard is true. It’s good! Shocker!
“The Lottery” has been talked about to death so here’s the thing I really liked about it that I’m going to mention. I think the story’s power comes from the tension between the ambiguous and the specific, between what we’re told and how we’re told. Jackson’s writing has a reportorial matter-of-factness: it could almost be a news story, except that of the 5 Ws (and 1 H), all but the What is maddeningly incomplete. The scene is painted with such care and clarity that we feel like we’re there, that we actually know these people who have gathered in the town square for their odd ritual; but any attempt to nail down When or Where this is taking place, Who these people are (in a larger sense; we know their names and faces), and How or Why this practice started, only leads us into dark places. It is news from which all context has been leached; all we have to go on are the facts on the ground, and the unshakeable sense that something sacred has been irrevocably broken.
It’s no wonder, then, that the story had such a profound effect on The New Yorker’s readers when it first appeared in the magazine in 1948. In addition to “The Lottery,” the Library of America’s edition of Jackson’s Novels and Stories contains the 1960 essay “Biography of a Story,” in which Jackson recounts the volcanic reaction to her story. Reading the always amusing, mostly desperate letters from readers begging to know those omitted Ws, is like getting a glimpse at a pre-Internet version of Literally Unbelievable, the blog that collects incredulous Facebook reactions to stories from The Onion. Both afford us the spectacle of people laying bare their darkest fears: presented with fiction, they refuse to accept it as such, because it is simply too horrible not to believe.