Hangsaman, with its odd title and even odder plot, feels like a close approximation of what it actually must be like to be insane. In free indirect discourse, Jackson takes the reader into the mind of 17-year-old Natalie Waite as she leaves home for the first time and starts studying at an all-girls college. Natalie is a creative, lonely girl with a domineering writer for a father and a mother who burdens Natalie with her many regrets in life. At a party thrown by her father something traumatic happens to Natalie. Her subsequent denial of the event sends her lively imagination into overdrive, with some worrisome results.
Jackson deliberately keeps the reader off-balance with her prose. Her sentences veer off in unexpected directions and she goes on extended digressions that bear no relevance to the plot. Natalie’s thoughts and imaginings are interspersed with the real conversations she’s having, casting doubt on everything. The reader can’t ever be totally certain what is happening at a given time, much like Natalie herself.
The plot is basically beside the point, as Jackson is far more interested in depicting the way Natalie’s mind works, or doesn’t. At the college, she befriends her English professor’s young wife and two wealthy students, but struggles to understand the dynamics between them. She retreats further into herself and resists spending time back at home with her parents.
Natalie’s madness builds up and Jackson’s prose correspondingly gets harder and harder to parse. The last third or so of this short novel feels like a fever dream. The reader can’t be sure what or who is real as Natalie heads toward a crisis point.
Hangsaman is an impressive display of talent. Jackson is flexing muscles most writers don’t even have, but that doesn’t necessarily make for the most enjoyable reading experience.