This month on the New Yorker podcast, A.M. Homes reads The Lottery by Shirley Jackson. Homes calls Jackson’s piece an iconic American story. Why American? Because the writer’s American? Because the work is read prevalently in America?
I read The Lottery in junior high, high school, and college. Like Wuthering Heights, it was part of the curriculum of each new school. Unlike Wuthering Heights—a pubescent, overblown work—I’ve always found The Lottery deeply unsettling. And hearing Homes read it, I found it particularly creepy. In spite of the fact that I know how it will end, what each masterful detail builds to, in spite of that, I hear it in a new way each time. As a teenager, the rage and hypocrisy were the most striking elements. In the story I saw the dangerous girls in the hallways, the ones who yanked out chunks of one another’s hair, or tore skin from each other’s faces in fights it took several boys to break up. I saw every church my dad had ever pastored. The twisted lies of inclusiveness and neighbors.
Now I’m struck by the use of the word “village” and the youngest son being given a handful of pebbles so that he, too, can participate in the ritual. But why American? It’s a human story, surely. And when I was a teenager, I saw each of us in it: Romans, conquistadors, Puritans, townships and community centers, every sailor who screwed a Tahitian woman in exchange for a nail.
I hope to be other, but I know better. There is no other. Only this. A black box with scraps of paper. A drawing. An army of boys with machetes. Another rape camp. Female circumcision. Rituals we call archaic, but allow to be perpetuated.
There is no other. As a kid, I had nothing but conviction that I would never participate in such brutality. Never join.
On the trail as I listened to Homes read the story, I found myself thinking, improbably, of high school basketball. The coach who made us run suicides on the court for an hour, and then, when two of the girls fell and stayed down, she let us drink water, walk for three minutes, and then sent us around the court for another hour. The last girl having to race to the front of the line lap after lap. How, at sixteen, I hated that woman. Cursed her under my breath at practice, and loudly anywhere else. How we despised the weak ones among us, who couldn’t keep up, who made mistakes that drew out the laps. How we all returned, day after day, for every brutal four-hour session. How we took it as discipline, as purposeful hardship, as a team.