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New Yorker Fiction Reviews: "Paranoia" by Shirley Jackson

Each week I review the short fiction from a recent issue of The New Yorker. But in every other way, I'm just like you...

Issue: Aug. 5, 2013

Story: "Paranoia"

Author: Shirley Jackson

Plot: A humble little office-worker type guy named Halloran Beresford -- in 1950s New York -- leaves his Manhattan office at 5:00 p.m. trying to get home as fast as possible to celebrate his wife's birthday with her. However, he soon develops the idea he's being followed by a man in a "light hat." Light hat-man seems to be around every corner, and Beresford becomes more and more frantic. Finally, he makes his way home, where in relief, he flops down in his favorite chair...only to find his paranoia has continued, as he is convinced his wife is working for the man in the light hat (or someone else who is out to get him).

Review: First off: Yes. This is that Shirley Jackson, author of "The Lottery" among other things. Like most high school students, I read "The Lottery" and, yes, it's little plot twist at the end really got me. I've never read another word written by Jackson until yesterday evening when I read this story. Obviously, she was a great success in her time, as her work was anthologized for millions of high school students to read, one of her stories even became (eventually) a film, and she's still getting into The New Yorker fifty years after her death. So, with all due respect to this fine, late author, I've got a kvetch to make about this story.

Frankly, it just pisses me off because there is literally NO major literary magazine that would publish this story today, if it were written by a no-name young author born in 1985 or whatever. Forget it. At best, this story is a creative writing class exercise: a sketch. The character is ill-formed, the situation implausible and trite, and the resolution non-existent. In other words, it's not even really story. Even as pure entertainment it doesn't fit the bill. There is no pay-off whatsoever. It's like being led by a trail of bread-crumbs to an crate of moldy clementines.

I'm not gonna rant for 1,000 more words about how unjust it is that shit like this gets into the NYer instead of good, new fiction. I don't have the time. But, I just don't understand the use of publishing stuff like this. My guess is Shirley Jackson kids needed help paying the property taxes on their vacation home in Cape Cod and just decided to "discover" this story among her "papers" and bestow it upon the world for a few thousand bucks or whatever you can gain monetarily from doling out a 50-year old, not very compelling story by a somewhat famous, dead author.

Please. Give me a break. You're telling me of all the thousands of people who are hopefully (but foolishly) submitting unsolicited fiction to the NYer, there wasn't a single person whose burgeoning writing career you could make (and I mean make) by publishing in your august publication? Not a one?

Bah. It's Friday afternoon, it's late summer and I'd rather be floating on my back in the pool, baking in the sunshine, instead of whining about who gets published in the NYer and why. See you next week.

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