Considering how fond I am of The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, it’s embarrassing that I was unaware until a few years back that Shirley Jackson had written other novels. She did, though, and I’ve been saving a couple for special occasions. Recently I’ve had a short attention span for books, and working on my concentration seemed a special enough occasion, so I picked up The Bird’s Nest.
The Bird’s Nest turned out to be Jackson’s entry in the tiny genre of mid-twentieth century psychiatric melodramas also including the movies Spellbound and The Three Faces of Eve, as well as a comics-code-era comic book series from the same publisher that brought you Vault of Horror. These stories hang their plots on an oversimplified model of psychoanalysis that works like a detective novel. The patient is a mystery, their psychiatrist is a detective, the climax is the revelation of the buried trauma which caused all their problems. The Bird’s Nest doesn’t stray far from this template: Elizabeth Richmond develops multiple personalities; after months of treatment a Dramatic Climax is reached and a Trauma confessed; Elizabeth is, if not entirely well, at least much better.
So the plot is, for Jackson, trite. On the other hand, as anyone who’s ever summarized Moby Dick knows, sometimes the important thing about a book isn’t the premise but how it’s executed. Even before her most famous novels, Jackson was good. The Bird’s Nest starts with a dryly comic portrait of the museum where Elizabeth works–sinking on its foundations, a hole running through the wall of her office–before pulling in to her point of view. There are three characters of any importance–Elizabeth’s psychiatrist, her aunt, and Elizabeth, subdivided into four distinct selves (Elizabeth, Beth, Betsy, and Bess). They all get chapters from their points of view (first-person case studies from the psychiatrist, the others in close third) and they’re not smoothed over into a stylistic monolith; every point of view comes with a distinct narrative voice. It helps that when Jackson opts for close third person she really gets into her characters’ heads, describing their thought processes with scrupulous precision. At the same time, she describes what they’re reacting to in enough detail for the reader to understand more than the narration; in the middle of the novel Betsy takes a long side trip to New York that comes off completely differently to the reader even in the absence of information outside Betsy’s perceptions.
For a writer who can be, at times, mercilessly sardonic, Shirley Jackson also sometimes shows a lot of empathy. The aunt and the doctor are both, at first glance, ridiculous–him pompous, swinging between self-congratulation and false humility; her overly satisfied with her own eccentricity and prone to drink slightly too much. Some novels would leave them at that. In a lot of fiction the point of including a buffoon is to provide the audience with a convenient outlet for their bottled-up contempt. Someone whose faults we can dissect with uncomplicated disapproval. But by the end of The Bird’s Nest Elizabeth’s aunt and doctor have filled out, revealed hidden parts of their histories and characters, without ever actually ceasing to be the people they originally seemed. This is one of my favorite effects in fiction: when a previously limited character reveals unsuspected depths, or someone who came off as a walking joke turns out to be surprisingly compassionate or heroic.
Stories centered on psychiatry often treat the subject way too glibly. If The Bird’s Nest falls mostly on the right side of the line between glibness and sensitivity, it’s probably Jackson’s empathy for her characters doing most of the work. Given the history of fictional treatments of multiple personalities this may be a low bar, but of all the stories with The Bird’s Nest’s premise, The Bird’s Nest is probably the best of the lot.