The Bird’s Nest is the Shirley Jackson’s third novel, published in 1954, and it is just as quirky and oddball as you might expect if you’ve ever read her before. It’s the fifth one I’ve read by her so far and it is my least favorite, but still it is more thought-provoking and entertaining than many novels published today. Jackson has a way of describing human relationships and the human mind that is deliciously off-kilter and insightful. In this tale of a young woman’s deepening mental illness Jackson explores what it means to be human and how trauma can affect the mind.
Elizabeth Richmond had a corner of an office on the third floor; it was the section of the museum closest , as it were, to the surface, that section where correspondence with the large world outside was carried on freely, where least shelter was offered to cringing scholarly souls. At Elizabeth’s desk on the highest floor of the building, in the most western corner of the office, she sat daily answering letters offering the museum collections of pressed flowers, or old sea-chests brought back from Cathay. It is not proven that Elizabeth’s person equilibrium was set off balance by the slant of the office floor, nor could it be proven that if was Elizabeth who pushed the building off its foundations, but it is undeniable that the began to slip at about the same time.
Living with her aunt Morgen and working in a hum-drum job at a museum, Elizabeth starts experiencing perplexing and frightening symptoms, like losing gaps of time and horrendous headaches and backaches. She also starts receiving threatening notes at the museum. Her aunt takes her to a doctor, who recommends a psychiatrist, Dr. Wright. Dr. Wright suggests hypnosis to try and get at the root of the problem, as “Miss R” (the doctor’s initial name for Elizabeth) insists there’s nothing wrong with her. When he puts her under hypnosis for the first time, Dr. Wright sees something that leaves him shaken:
…I wonder, though, how I ever thought her handsome. Because she was not, I saw, at all handsome, and as I watched her in horror, the smile upon her soft lips coarsened, and became sensual and gross, her eyelids fluttered in an attempt to open, her hands twisted together violently, and she laughed, evilly and roughly, throwing her head back and shouting, and I, seeing a devil’s mask where a moment before I had seen Miss R.’s soft face, thought only, it cannot be Miss R.; this is not she.
Little by little the hypnosis starts revealing that Elizabeth’s personality has split into four distinct personas: Elizabeth, Betsy, Beth, and Bess. There is a hinted trauma in Elizabeth’s past involving her mother, which Dr. Wright thinks is perhaps the origin of her mental illness. One section of the book is narrated by Betsy, who is the most lively and interesting personality. She takes off for New York City trying to find her mother. This was one of my favorite parts of the book because I had no clue where the story was going, and Betsy experiencing total freedom and control of the other personalities was entertaining, like a naive child out in the world for the first time.
I won’t spoil any more of the plot but I’ll just mention that Dr. Wright himself occupies a large share of the book, and he’s really not the most interesting character. He likes to hear himself talk and Jackson gives him too much of the book’s real estate. He’s not malevolent but instead self-important and irritating. Betsy aptly calls him “Dr. Wrong.”
If you’ve never read Jackson before I wouldn’t start with this one. It could use a bit of editing and Jackson honed her craft as she wrote more, becoming better at characterization and narrative drive. However, if you are already a Jackson fan and want to read everything she’s written, you will probably enjoy this, if for nothing else than to see the ways in which her skills developed over time. It is a strange exploration of identity and I liked it.
Elizabeth spoke very slowly, feeling her way. “What he’s going to have when he’s through is a new Elizabeth Richmond, with her mind. She will think and eat and hear and walk and take baths. Not me. I’ll maybe be a part of her, but I won’t know it – she will.”
“I don’t get it,” said Morgen.
“Well,” said Elizabeth, “when she does all the thinking and knowing, won’t I be… dead?”
“Oh, now, look,” said Morgen, and then sat helplessly, facing the definition of annihilation.
(This is the 16th book from my 20 Books of Summer list and the 7th book from my Classics Club list. I know that today – Labor Day in the U.S. – marks the official end to 20 Books of Summer, but I have one more review to post. Expect my thoughts on George Saunders’s short story collection CivilWarLand in Decline sometime later this week.)