Friday, November 07, 2008

The Big Read IV: Shirley Jackson's "My Life With R.H. Macy

The Lottery: And Other Stories The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson

My Life With R.H. Macy

Why did I do this? I looked up the title before reading, and found out that this one is autobiographical. This is clearly going to affect my reading of the story. True to my alma mater's method, I prefer to read a work on its own merits. No forwards, no prefaces, definitely no cliff's notes. Ah well, I can't close a door I've already opened. I did so because these readings are so short (that means there's still time to get the book from your library and catch up!) that I planned to read and blog at the same time. Indeed having just caught up with the last Big Read, I am grateful that this one has such short readings. I do have to think about them, though, perhaps longer than the time it takes to read them.

They gave us each a big book with R. H. Macy written on it, and inside this book were pads of little sheets saying (from left to right): "Comp. keep for ref. cust. d.a. no. or c.t. no. salesbook no. salescheck no. clerk no. dept. date M."
Immediately I thought of the old movie scene in which the clerk hired at the holidays can't write up the sales ticket so she has them sent C.O.D. Isn't that Auntie Mame? When she meets her Beauregard Burnside?

So this nameless woman...all the clerks are referred to as numbers...lasts only two days at Macy's. Her first day she received seven numbers, one number of which was a letter, K, for her cash-register drawer. Other numbers included her locker number, her time-clock number, her cash-register number, and her cash-register-drawer-key number. Her second day she gets a question that is beyond her knowledge, so she pretends to ring up the sale and pockets the money. She falls down the stairs, is told she could be reimbursed for her torn stocking, but it involves the mysterious abbreviations in the quote above, so she just buys some (for less than the pocketed money) and doesn't return for the third day.

The writing is so flat it's hard to gauge the attitude of the protagonist. She almost sounds like a 90s slacker. She had no answer for another customer as to where a certain book would be.
The customer went away, and I said to 13-2246 that her guess was as good as mine, anyway, and she stared at me and explained that philosophy, social sciences and Bertrand Russell were all kept in dictionaries.
It's all quite surreal, and seems like a good enough reason not to go back. We get these little hints she is rather playful about not keeping her new job. The story is just shy of four pages. She ends with this:
I wrote Macy's a long letter, and I signed it with all my numbers added together and divided by 11,700, which is the number of employees in Macy's. I wonder if they miss me.
That's funny. I wonder if the fictional letter was longer than the story itself. I also read that this was SJ's first published story. I wonder if she's already thinking about place as an extension of the self. If so, in this case the nameless clerk clearly rejected the self as confined by Macy's, and still has quite a bit of youthful defiance.

I have to say if I were just reading this book I think I would have given up by now. Because we are reading and writing about it, I am thinking more deeply about it than I otherwise might, so I'm catching subtle humor and shifts in characters that keep me wanting to read the next story.

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