Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Everything That Rises Must Converge by Flannery O'Connor

Flannery O'Connor got onto my to-read list years ago, when Credenda/Agenda, that obscure and irreverent magazine of cultural observation and what it called "Trinitarian skylarking" (one edition ran with a cover depicting a romance-novel clinch with kickstarter leads attached to the hero's bare chest), ran a whole issue revolving around a mid-century author of grotesque and disturbing short stories set in the American South. It took me a few more years to unearth a copy of O'Connor's famous short story A Good Man Is Hard to Find online. A year or two after that, I picked up a whole collection of her stories at a second-hand book sale. And this, after five or so more years, I have now read.

I'm not going to summarise the stories, except to say that they generally revolve around unpleasant characters who, after several pages of passive-aggressive verbal sparring with other, equally as unpleasant characters, are usually crushed by some bizarre and brutal act of violence--sometimes perpetrated against, sometimes by, themselves.

O'Connor is hard going, especially if you are unused to what most Goodreads reviewers liken to being beaten up in a dark alley. (Last week, I read a volume of Eva Ibbotson short stories which just about gave me diabetes). "This collection is like a crescendo of awfulness, brutality and despair. Physically it's sort of akin to getting kicked in the stomach." "Flannery O'Connor feels like a verbally abusive boyfriend that you just keep going back to. You sigh a bit deeper at the end of each tale, feeling a little more defeated by the uglier sides of existence."

At this stage, you might be pardoned for thinking that O'Connor must be the modern to end all moderns, the kind of person who writes ugliness, evil, and lies with no regard for goodness, truth, or beauty. You'd be wrong. "Severely orthodox," says Hermione Lee of O'Connor's stories, in the Introduction. "Easily the most important and talented and self-consciously Christian short story author of the twentieth century," says Douglas Jones in his Credenda/Agenda editorial. And, according to Dean Koontz, "No one has written better about the reality of evil. Few have written as well, with such sharp-edged compassion, about the weaknesses and follies of humanity, about the operation of grace in our lives and about the necessity of humility."

Koontz sums O'Connor up very well. Each of her stories is about pride and hypocrisy falling afoul of grace, Divine grace, a pitiless grace that burns and batters and bloodies, in a world where the most common symbol of Christ is a looming and ominous sun that stalks the characters through the woods. O'Connor's vain and self-righteous characters come in different flavours: many of them (like Mrs Turpin in Revelation) are respectable middle-class church people with much similarity to the pharisee in the parable of Luke 18, but just as many are equally smug young intellectuals on a self-appointed mission of social justice, usually to blacks or white trash. By the time of her last two stories, Parker's Back and Judgement Day, O'Connor is busy at work on them as well: Nothing is sacred but the judgement and mercy of Christ.

From A Good Man Is Hard to Find, I knew something of O'Connor's modus operandi. "She would of been a good woman," says the serial killer of the main character's repentance, "if it had been someone there to shoot her every day of her life." The bullet delivers grace; in the old expression, there are no atheists in foxholes--and no smug church ladies either. All the same, I found this collection hard to come to grips with: there's a lot of work the reader needs to put in to perceiving the currents of manipulation and aggression swirling throughout the long build to the climax. It wasn't until the fourth story, The Enduring Chill, that everything began clicking into place for me. One of the few stories in which the grace is delivered by something worse (at least to the character in question) than death, this was a particularly overtly Christian story, one that helped me discern the themes in the more subtle stories, as well as being less jarringly brutal and more obviously funny. (And I suppose O'Connor is funny, if you like very black humour, though I did appreciate the Negros' cheerfully ironic flattery in Revelation, and the hapless Parker's courtship in Parker's Back).

It's easy to see why O'Connor's stories are perceived as depressing and disturbing. O'Connor is heavy on the hopelessness of the human condition, heavy on the scorching grace, kind of light on happily-ever-afters (I wished that she would show us some people whose encounter with grace is in the past, leaving them a little less awful). All the same, as Douglas Jones points out,
when you read a group of her stories, a pretty amazing pattern emerges. You soon realize how her visitations of dark grace stand out as huge gifts when compared to actual life. Most people's actual lives seem to be Flannery characters who never have the privilege of meeting dark grace. ...But in Flannery's world, it's as if dark grace intrudes regularly. People who would have probably been handed over to let their sin slowly destroy them get this amazing explosion of grace that turns them inside out. Because of this, her stories start to read like gift after gift after gift.
I'm not sure that I got far enough to see them like this, but I did notice something funny. After a few Flannery O'Connor stories, I started to get that familiar scorching sensation that comes with a wise reading of Jane Austen: I began, wincingly, to see myself in her ugly characters. It's an experience I recommend you seek out, as often as you can bear it.

Find Everything That Rises Must Converge at Amazon or The Book Depository.

12 comments:

Rachel Heffington said...

I have been wondering about O'Connor's writing and thinking I ought to read some of it. She was, after all, a great American author. Sadly, I find I have to force myself to sit and read depressing fiction. The Book Thief was one such example. So well written...so hard on the emotions.

Suzannah said...

Yes, I've been avoiding THE BOOK THIEF on precisely that account. (Have you ever read Paul Gallico's JENNIE? Don't...I sobbed hopelessly throughout the last quarter of that book, and I am otherwise a perfectly heartless reader).

This said, I may have mistakenly given the impression in this review that I agree with the Goodreads reviewers' assessment of O'Connor's works as being supremely depressing. Those reviewers did not mention the grace and Christian themes in these stories. I'd guess they were probably unbelievers who didn't spot those things. By comparison I didn't find the stories depressing. A little disturbing, but not depressing.

If you want to read a gentler, more upbeat O'Connor, then I recommend you try THE ENDURING CHILL or REVELATION. Those ones were the easiest for me to understand and enjoy, with more obvious humour and irony.

Hanna said...

I've been kind of curious about O'Connor too, but I'm often reluctant to try new authors, especially ones with such a reputation for writing about the uglier side of life. Thanks for the review. I think I might try this book now.

Joseph Jalsevac said...

Yes, O'Connor is her own genre, as far as I can tell. When you get her, she is amazing, but if you don't get her, she is really terrible. That is why her method is not one I would recommend for new authors. She is very good in her way, but please let us have no imitators! Her literature should (seriously) come with a couple of warnings reading something like -
Note to the reader: Flannery O'Connor does not recommend misanthropic nihilistic despair. This story is about grace and redemption. Just think about it REALLY hard.
Note to budding authors: This story is written by a professional genius under doctrinal supervision. Do not try this style at home.

I think such warnings would get rid of my major caveat about her. I don't like to think of all those unsuspecting readers getting hurt by her. There is enough ugliness and evil in the world as it is. But, yeah, when you get her, its so cool.

Lady Bibliophile said...

As one who has been told, "Schuyler, I have a word you should put in your novel--HAPPY." I'm not sure I should read O'Conner yet.

But she is an intriguing author....

Suzannah said...

Hanna, I hope you do try O'Connor! I definitely found her worth it!

Joseph, I love your conclusion that you really have to get O'Connor for her to be worthwhile. I'd hate to have come to her with no guidance :). As a born autodidact with an allergy to institutions, I'm not sure if I'd agree with your "do-not-try-this-at-home" warning (bad imitations of anything should be discouraged, but good imitations are the fount of all creativity), but I agree that her talent is irreplaceable.

Schuyler, I'm sure your novel is only pensive and not extremely disturbing. ;) Re: our recent conversation, I actually think O'Connor might--when you feel up to her--do you a lot of good! Now there's a woman who was not remotely Nice!

Sarah said...

I'm reading O'Conner's nonfiction essays now, upon recommendation from Jonathan Rogers, a Christian author who considers her one of his literary heroes. He has studied her and her writings in depth, and written a biography on her called "The Terrible Speed of Mercy".
Here's his website if you want to check him out- (perhaps you already have)
http://www.jonathan-rogers.com
I live close to her home town and I'm sorry to say she is not much appreciated there, but no surprise there.
Thank you for the review, Suzannah!

Elisabeth Grace Foley said...

This is one type of writing that I find it hard to understand the appeal of. I can't help wondering, if what you refer to as "Christian themes" are buried so deep under ugliness that it takes a reader specially attuned or searching for them to dig them out, of what benefit is it to the world in general? (I had "A Good Man is Hard to Find" assigned for a short story course I took years ago, and I remember when it came to the discussion segment, the whole class (self included) was basically tongue-tied when asked for their opinion on what it was about and what the point of it was. I still don't know.)

Also, given that they're buried so deeply, how can one know if those themes are deliberate on the part of the author, or if it's something Christian scholars are reading into it? What you describe here as "grace" sounds similar to the simple getting-what-they-deserve that a secular author might inflict on a character.

Joseph Jalsevac said...

By the way Suzannah, have you ever read the book 'Understanding Comics' by Scott McCloud? It is a surprisingly intelligent and clever examination of the art of comics, literature, and art in general. I think you would enjoy it. I get my books from the public library. I don't know what I would do without my public library.

Suzannah said...

Sarah, thanks for the recommendation!

Elisabeth, that's a good question. Personally, I do think that O'Connor does keep her light under a bushel to some extent. That might be the Catholic coming out in her (with the best of regards to my Catholic readers), and my favourites among her works are usually the more overt stories. But I don't think there's any doubt at all that the themes are there and they are deliberate. She left plenty of evidence among her non-fiction writings of what she was trying to do (eg, "The reader wants his grace warm and binding, not dark and disruptive...[G]race cuts with the sword Christ said he came to bring....[it] is never received warmly. Always a recoil.") Again, I would highly recommend reading one of O'Connor's more overt, less disturbing stories like THE ENDURING CHILL or REVELATION; I think that would give you a far better idea of what it was she was trying to do, and you'll see that the themes are not buried all that deeply :).

Joseph, no, I haven't read that, and all my public libraries are rather terrible. But I'll look it up; it sounds very interesting--thanks!

Chris said...

For me, I love to read a nice holiday story at this time of the year. As of now, I am reading my all time favorite Christmas book 'The Special Guest' by Lee Allen. I read it the first time 20 years back and was lucky to get my hands on the special 20th Century edition!

Kim Marsh said...

The late Alan Plater had one of his characters remark that jazz music is of three sorts; hot,cool and when does the tune start? If one applies the metaphor to books it seems this author's works are of the latter sort. Similarly C.S.Lewis in That Hideous Strength is disparaging of a character who reads modern literary fiction instead of the John Buchan novels he really enjoys. I must confess to liking a good melody and while the point of a novel need not be obvious neither should it be gratuitously obscure as at rather appears O'Connor is. One should not avoid a novelist who has a dark message to convey but if any message at all is indiscernible to the average reader does that author deserve the effort the reader has to put in?
Sincerely Kim

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