Friday, August 15, 2008

Books: The Complete Stories of Flannery O'Connor

This was my second (and for some of the stories, third or fourth) read through Flannery O'Connor's astonishing oeuvre, and her work remains as fresh and mesmerizing as the first time (when I was 17 and Everything That Rises Must Converge was assigned by my favorite English teacher ever, Mr. Dekker.) In the Introduction to Donald Barthelme's Sixty Stories, another short story collection I've been reading simultaneously, David Gates disparages the kind of short stories that describe "modest deeds of modest people leading up to a modest epiphany." He sets Barthelme up as a foil to those, quoting the author's own disparagement of those stories that are "constructed mousetrap-like to supply, at the finish, a tiny insight typically having to do with innocence violated." Without engaging in disparagement, I include these two quotations here because I think they rather well encapsulate what O'Connor does so well; unlike Gates, I think constructing these traps for modest people is a far greater feat than Barthelme's aimless trawling in the linguistic sandbox.

O'Connor writes with a hammer in one hand and a club in the other. I don't doubt that some readers might find her rather infuriating; she's opinionated and angry and hard, there's nothing fanciful or flowery or pretty in her stories, and her characters are poisoned by vitriol. There is an intense ambivalence about faith, religion, education, and families, and everyone seems to get punished (and the more sure you are of your own goodness, the more intensely you are sure to be punished, whether you get whacked across the face with a woman's heavy handbag and told "he don't take nobodies pennies!", hit in the head by a flying textbook and called "an old warthog from hell," or have your wooden leg stolen by a Bible salesman posing as an innocent country Cassanova who hisses at you, saying "you ain't so smart. I been believing in nothing ever since I was born!"*) The faithless are punished along with the faithful, and, while the country-bred, pap-swilling mothers sit around and exchanging empty truisms all day, their seething, city-educated children do no better, trapped back in their country homes, reading alienating books, wearing purposefully ugly clothes, and erupting with loathing—they too are punished for their ingratitude, and for their ego, and for their attempts to subvert the class structures: land-owner on top, white farmhand in the middle, "negro" on the bottom.

To briefly address the issue of race, I must disclose my extreme discomfort at reading this book in public places like the subway, where a person might read over my shoulder, because of O'Connor's frequent use of the terms "negro" and "nigger" (even in, in one case, a story's title: The Artificial Nigger). I wonder whether, if called on it, I would be able to express quickly enough O'Connor's use of the term, as a kind of illustrating against racism. In the few of her stories that are set in New York City in the 1940s and 50s (interestingly, the volume's first story, The Geranium, and its last, Judgement Day), where racist, old, white men transplanted from the country in the South see, for the first time, blacks dressed in suits, living in the same apartment buildings as whites, these men are punished for their backward closed-mindedness as strongly as the young white man in The Enduring Chill, who tries to establish rapport with his mother's black dairy workers, is punished (although the old men die, whereas the young man, who wants to die, is forced instead to live a long and tortured, sickly life). Interestingly enough, as punishing as O'Connor is to all kinds of whites, never is a black character punished, and never is a black character central; they are used only to express, by relation, the true interior of the white character being epiphanized.

And these epiphanies are actually far from modest; the violation of innocence leads, always, to insight much greater than tiny (I know, I write about it often, likely taught to do so by Flannery herself). Barthelme himself seems to me one of Flannery's ungrateful, over-educated children, stuck in a house full of chattering morons, certain that he's better than all of them, and about to be attacked by a bully or a preacher or a raging old woman. I can't wait.

*In order, from Everything that Rises Must Converge, Revelation, and Good Country People

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