by Katharine Coldiron
Where to begin with Riddance, a book that calls on an extraordinary plethora of resources and introduces a set of circumstances almost too complex to explain? An exhumation of influences—19th century spiritualism, Moby-Dick, Jane Eyre, Dennis Cooper, H.P. Lovecraft—would be a start, but it wouldn’t do justice to the author’s incomparable inventiveness. A tagline—”it’s about a school for stuttering children, and the premise is that stutterers can speak to the dead”—does not communicate that collage drives the novel far more potently than plot does. A background on Shelley Jackson might interest some readers, but honestly, this book exists on a plane independent of its author’s history. It’s a totally unique achievement, coincident with Jackson’s status as a writer of the postmodern weird, but not dependent on it. However, it is not a book engineered to satisfy a reader—merely one to occupy her slavishly until the final page.
Riddance itself is a collage, a book assembled from multiple sources; all of these sources appear to be created by Jackson. Certainly all the text must be, but it’s accompanied by photographs, diagrams, maps, architectural drawings, and other visual ephemera that go uncredited on the book’s title page (the book’s design and physical qualities are sumptuous—even the paper stock is rich and wonderfully smooth).
The pictures are suitably old-fashioned to the book’s setting (New England in the late 19th and early 20th centuries), and might have been staged by their author with models. They might have been sourced in antique shops and digitally altered to add bizarre devices attached to mouths and ears. They might truly derive, unaltered, from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a time when spiritualism was widely practiced and studied, and when medicine experimented with all manner of devices that harmed more than helping.
Aside from the visual aspects of the novel, the chapters are collaged as well, assembled from an infrastructure of books and documents that Jackson has invented altogether. These include a book, Principles of Necrophysics, that explicates the land of the dead dryly and without clarity (“when we say that the dead are in the recent past, we do not mean the past present that preceded our own present…We mean the past past, the present’s past”); a series of letters from Sybil Joines, the headmistress of her namesake school and one of the book’s two protagonists, to Gothic authors and characters; and three lengthy, first-person narrative documents. The three documents are “The Final Dispatch,” a record taken of Sybil’s last hours by her stenographer and successor, Jane Grandison; “The Stenographer’s Story,” an autobiography by Jane, who is the novel’s other protagonist; and “A Visitor’s Observations,” a collection of notes by a guest at Sybil’s unusual school. All of these sources are broken into small pieces and gathered in clusters of chapters.
The infrastructure of these fictional sources gives Riddance a powerful authority and confidence. World-building is a tough thing to keep interesting, and Jackson’s method—to obfuscate, via a formal, Victorian prose style and a complex network of documentation, the dull task of putting together an alternate universe that the audience will understand—is successful, but not new. However, her execution, and the world she builds, are definitely new. She posits that stuttering is a method of stopping time, and that it opens, inside the stutterer’s mouth, a portal to the land of the dead.
Although the book spends a great deal of time and energy on the land of the dead, it never becomes a recognizable landscape. It doesn’t resemble familiar underworlds from Western sources; not Hades nor Dante’s nor the Bible’s. It’s partially this lack of familiarity that contributes to the book’s pervasive and deliberate mood of unease. Another contributing factor, though, is child abuse, which appears in the book with extraordinary frequency, in forms from blatant to implied. Both protagonists are victim to it, and perpetrators of it; Sybil is not kind to her students, but demanding and aloof, while Jane, a student, bullies and jockeys for superiority among fellow students and even staff. Both characters offer a window on the ambition of women, on seizing power despite profound powerlessness.
Which brings us back to spirituality. Barbara Goldsmith’s Other Powers pointed out that the 19th century spirituality craze was meaningfully linked to women’s empowerment. Women dominated the séance table, and it was partly out of those gatherings that early suffrage and temperance movements grew. Jackson is well aware of these connections, and they enrich the context of the fiction she builds. Women – ambition – witchcraft – spiritualism – speech – necromancy – education – Riddance.
This book does have a plot, involving a missing child, a kind of supernatural drug ring, Sybil’s dead parents, and other elements. The plot loops between and among the book’s chapter clusters, making use of time signposts to orient the reader minimally. It’s still pretty hard to follow. And it’s simply not the point of the book. It’s a book of atmosphere, of fetishistic detail, and of the same kind of postmodern tap-dancing practiced by David Foster Wallace and Dubravka Ugresic.
Such a book is meant to be shown off, if not necessarily enjoyed. Riddance enthralls and engages without delighting. The playfulness of postmodernism has a gritty edge in Jackson’s book, a menace that the reader can’t quite shake. I think the main reason for this is a lack of kindness. No characters are kind to each other in this book—I don’t want to say not once, not ever, because acts of kindness might have slipped by once or twice. But as I think back, I cannot remember a single moment where characters interacted without ulterior motives (or open hostility). Kindness is a difficult thing to forgo for 500 dense pages. Even when the book proves itself metatextual, it does so at the expense of the reader:
“In the land of the dead, a person might well experience her life as a book, and not even her own book, but an anthology of fleeting impressions, speculation, and hearsay taken down by minor scholars and anonymous record keepers. She might, further, go so far as to heap this book with baffles and blinds, introductions, footnotes, etc., so that by the time the putative reader reached the crux of the matter she did not even recognize it.”
This passage appears on page 458. I did not smile in pleasure as I read it. I did not wonder in an intrigued, Matrix-y way whether Jackson was pulling my leg, and whether, if I read it again, I might sort out what was real (in her fictional world) and what wasn’t.
Instead, I felt desolate. Perhaps all of the time and energy I invested in this stunning puzzle-box of a book might have been in vain. Perhaps no meaning, none at all, had been made from Riddance. We will all die, the book reminded me, and no one, not even Sybil Joines, will hear our words ever again.