Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 22: Shirley Jackson, The Night We All Had Grippe (#71)

Shirley Jackson, "The Night We All Had Grippe" (1952) from Shirley Jackson: Novels & Stories:

I have to start with this, from Jackson's story about her trip to the hospital for her third pregnancy:
“Name?” the desk clerk said to me politely, her pencil poised.
“Name, “ I said vaguely. I remembered, and told her.
“Age?” she asked. “Sex? Occupation?”
“Writer,” I said.
"Housewife,” she said.
“Writer,” I said.
“I’ll just put down housewife,” she said.
AUGH! Although Jackson shows a remarkable amount of restraint and quiet humor in that excerpt, which was apparently something she had a little sideline in. "The Night We All Had Grippe" is in that comedic--and domestic--vein. It's only six pages of very little story: Jackson, her husband, and their three young kids all have the flu and go through a night of wandering from bed to bed with all of their accoutrements--juice for the kids, brandy for Jackson, water for her husband, a blankie for one, a cardboard suitcase with cards and other toys for the baby, etc.

This story would be tedious, since it's just various people moving from bed to bed, but read this:
I went back to sleep, but some time later the baby came in, asking sleepily, “Where’s Jannie?”
“She’s here,” I said. “Are you coming in bed with us?”
“Yes,” said the baby.
“Go and get your pillow, then,” I said. She returned with her pillow, her books, her doll, her suitcase, and her fruit juice, which she put on the floor next to Jannie’s. Then she crowded in comfortably next to Jannie and fell asleep. Eventually the pressure of the two of them began to force me uneasily toward the edge of the bed, so I rolled out wearily, took my pillow and my small glass of brandy and my cigarettes and matches and my ash tray and went into the guest room, where my husband was asleep. I pushed at him and he snarled, but finally moved over to the side next to the wall, and I put my cigarettes and matches and my brandy and my ash tray on the end table next to his cigarettes and matches and ash tray and tin glass of water and put my pillow on the bed and fell asleep.
There's something quietly hilarious (and restrained) about mom's need (or instinct) to keep track of everything (because you know at some time someone is going to ask you, mom, where things are). Because she's not just a renowned writer, she also has to do this second, unpaid job. Which brings me to the second brilliant choice that makes this short story so compelling: she presents the whole thing as a riddle, like it's just good fun. But it's not just fun. No one else in the house can let the dog out? No one else can prepare a hot drink or bring a snack up to people? On the surface, this is a light non-story, just a slice of domestic life; under that, though, I feel there's a big unanswered riddle: why does mom have to do everything?

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