Sunday, September 13, 2009

Review: The fiery furnace of fiction


Flannery O’Connor’s masterful collection of stories A Good Man Is Hard to Find immediately forces you to understand why the author is regarded as a master of short fiction. From the eponymous first tale any of those that follow it, the reader is aware that he is in good hands, that the author has us on a lead as we watch bromidic characters reveal their festering and inherent nastiness within. Every story is uncannily memorable, as if sui generis of description and form. And it certainly didn’t hurt that I read the Brad Gooch biography before attempting this book. Even though I was anticipating plot twists, everything felt anew.

O’Connor’s characters bring to mind the concept of Edith Wharton’s granite outcroppings detailed in Ethan Frome. I don’t want to use the word ‘grotesque’ here, as every other person who describes O’Connor’s work seems to do; but there is something misshapen about these people – not even just physically or mentally. Since all of these stories have a Christian and yet nihilistic them and tone about them, it’s only fair to have the characters mimic such sentiments, having hunched backs and wooden legs, obstreperous dialogues and plump names.
In ‘A Temple Is a Holy Ghost’, O’Connor’s descriptions are able to mimic the actions of the scene (much like the finale to ‘A Good Man Is Hard to Find’, which I won’t go into because it is wildly shocking to endure). For example:

[Their mother] asked them why they called each other Temple One and Temple Two and this sent them off into gales of giggles. Finally they managed to explain. Sister Perpetua, the oldest nun at the Sisters of Mercy in Mayville, had given them a lecture on what to do if a young man should–here they laughed so hard they were not able to go on without going back to the beginning–on what to do if a young man should–they put their heads in their laps–on what to do if–they finally managed to shout it out–if he should “behave in an ungentlemanly manner with them in the back of an automobile.” Sister Perpetua said they were to say, “Stop sir! I am a Temple of the Holy Ghost!” and that would put an end to it.

‘The Artificial Nigger’ is a gritty story about a grandfather and grandson, the latter so proud that he was born of the city and is returning for the ‘second time’ (the first being his birth); but when they get there both realise that they’re not as cosmopolitan as they think. And when the boy gets into a bit of trouble, the grandfather, like Peter, denies his grandson.
My particular favourite story was ‘The River’, which perhaps gets shadowed only because it follows ‘A Good Man Is Hard to Find’, and it’s pretty difficult to turn the page and get interested in a new tale after you read the sharp ending and the violent conclusion to the first story. But ‘The River’ follows more in the veins of James Joyce’s ‘Araby’. It’s about a young boy who is sent to spend the day with a babysitter as his father is evidently incapable of dealing with his own child and his mother is in the next room bedridden with some terrible ailment. This babysitter is an older woman with children of her own and is obsessed with the Christian religion. She decides that she’s taking the boy with her to see this preacher, so that he can be baptised and saved from damnation. Some quite hysterical bits occur, but what makes this so heartwrenching is when the boy returns to the river where the preacher was in order to see if he can see Jesus within. He starts to drink and drown himself in the water, hoping that just a bit of heaven can be inside him. And as the bazaar in ‘Araby’ destroys the boy’s dreams, so does this bit of rolling water.
What I found absolutely fascinating about this book was the fact that identity – especially self-naming – was so fluid. People interchanged their names: one woman decides to be Hulga after she thinks herself too deformed to be named Joy any longer; the young boy in ‘The River’ deceives his babysitter and claims his name is Bevel, like the preacher they’re seeing; men and women are referred to as Mr. This or Mrs. That which kept them always at arm’s length. Which seems to contradict the purpose of these stories, which bring you so close to the prejudices and cores of these characters that you feel like you’ve known them forever.
A deserved classic. One that should be cherished.


Rebecca Reid said…

I read the full collection of O'Connor's stories and agree that they are classics that should be cherished. It does it a bit depressing to read them all at once, but they are incredibly powerful as individual stories.

Thanks for this thoughtful review!

Salvatore said…

Thanks Rebecca. Did you find reading the whole of O'Connor's stories daunting?

I would love to attempt more but when I see the size of that bookspine I get a bit nervous. I'm sure they're all wonderful, but it's like attacking a collected poems selection: you're interested at first but then that interest wanes as time goes on.

Rebecca Reid said…

Daunting because it's depressing, yes. You finish one story and think "Can I take ANOTHER one?" I don't recall how long it took, but it was very rewarding, because as you say, they are incredibly powerful all together.

Since I've been blogging, I find long collections and books more daunting. Apparently, there is an unspoken pressure to read things more quickly. 🙂