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.
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