Sundial, The

by Shirley Jackson (1958)


A fascinating, unique allegory about a dysfunctional family facing the Apocalypse. Jackson’s writing is really good, perhaps not as much structurally but certainly lyrically and in service to her characters.

It took me a while to figure out that most of the dialogue and character interactions were supposed to be funny, I guess because I was expecting something darker and more sinister. But after being confused by character motives for the 1st quarter or so of the book it hit me: this is theater of the absurd! The humor was altogether unexpected and delightful. For example, after removing all of the books in the mansion’s library in order to make room for their stockpile of food and supplies, one of the characters thinks, “A library is really a very good place to store things. I had never realized it before.”

And I mentioned theater — it really did read like a play most of the time. The whole setting is isolated and insular. . . a limited cast interacting almost solely with themselves. The way they talked past each other or ignored each other’s bizarre rantings reminded me a little of Beckett or Raymond Queneau even. The dialogue was fun, snappy and more authentic than most fiction from this era. The fact that nothing ends up really happening is another way it resembles absurdist theater. I don’t personally happen to be a big fan of these sorts of uneventful narratives, but I appreciated this one more than most.

Overall I liked-it-didn’t-love-it and am eager to experience more of Jackson’s writing. Her mainly pessimistic attitude — that even getting a chance to “reboot” with a clean slate after the Apocalypse we’ll probably still manage to mess it up in the same exact ways — fits right into my cynical wheelhouse.  It is also surprisingly timely.  Sure there are some etiquette quirks that date the characters a bit but thematically it fits in whatever time period you want.  Also, I loved the random, bizarre interpretation of the “Hansel & Gretel” fairy tale that Jackson inserts as Mrs. Halloran’s dream sequence.  Totally unexpected and equally delightful.

So pick it up because she’s a well-respected classic scifi/horror author, but stick around because she was a better, edgier, less conventional writer than most of her male counterparts of the era. My search for edgy female authors is finally beginning to bear fruit! Imagine: I only needed to go back 60 years or so to find one. . .

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