"The book I'm looking for,' says the blurred figure, who holds out a volume similar to yours, 'is the one that gives the sense of the world after the end of the world, the sense that the world is the end of everything that there is in the world, that the only thing there is in the world is the end of the world."
- Italo Calvino, If on a winter's night a traveler

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Jesus Christ, Flannery O'Connor!

Everything That Rises Must Converge by Flannery O'Connor


So, apparently, if you're a funny looking conservative woman in the 1960's and you want to become really famous and renowned prose writer (despite not fitting the profile of a solitary white male genius)... all you have to do is be way better than anyone else writing at the time!

Flannery O'Connor wrote two novels and 31 stories and then she died of lupus at like 39 years old or something. Everything That Rises is a collection of some of those stories--nine of 'em--and was published after she died.

The stories are all actually kind of similar. We're introduced to some Southern characters, one of whom usually thinks poorly of another one,  and these characters disagree with one another about X or Y for a while, and then something horrible and brutally violent happens at the very end of the story. Mix some racial tensions in there, some good ol' Southern religious flavor and shake well.

In some ways, O'Connor is a weird writer for me to read. She was very religious, and her stories are all religious. She was very explicit about this while she was alive (" All my stories are about the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it."). She did not think it was OK to see her characters through a purely psychological lens--she wrote them through a spiritual lens, and ideally her readers would see their struggle for salvation as central. Some of the stories are super-clear in their religious connections, and some are pretty opaque.

As a non-believer (ex-believer no less), I can't think of people in a spiritual sense anymore. Not in the same way she wants me to. Not as anything more than an exercise. And those characters who come under her spiritual judgement often are the most sympathetic to me. She did not think highly of doubters and atheists. She described "liberals" like this to a friend in a letter:
The notion of the perfectibility of man came about at the time of the Enlightenment in the 18th century....The Liberal approach is that man has never fallen, never incurred guilt, and is ultimately perfectible by his own unaided efforts. Therefore, evil in this light is a problem of better housing, sanitation, health, etc. and all mysteries will eventually be cleared up. Judgement is out of place because man is not responsible."
It isn't phrased the way I would phrase it, but it seems pretty OK to me!

But despite that--and this is where it gets confusing for me--she is a really really good psychological writer. Like, just... wow. The stories aren't what I generally think of as didactic. They don't read like stories concerned with ideas or abstract concepts. They are stories about people and about the chewy texture of being alive.

And that's basically what prose does, as far as I'm concerned. I think now that we've got TV and movies and video games and YouTube webcomic Twitters and etc... short stories and novels' purpose is to capture that really personal feeling you get from places and people, from going places and being a person. 

That's what I loved loved loved about this book. I know that means it isn't what O'Connor would've hoped for (she would be 80something today had Lupus not got her), but it is what it is.

Oranges by John McPhee: This book was fine. It was basically a really long magazine piece about oranges. If you're even semi-familiar with the longform article, you can basically guess the whole structure before you read the book: introduce an interesting person, give us some history, give us some science, introduce another person, etc etc.

Devil in the White City by Erik Larson: I was actually a little disappointed by this. It was good enough, but it was one of the best selling books for the entire two year period that I worked at a bookstore, and people were constantly raving about it. It's about the Chicago World's Fair, the guys who designed it, and a serial killer who was in the city at the same time. Pretty interesting, for sure, but I was glad enough to move on to something else. Who knows why? I'm sure there have been/ will be times when I would love it.

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