Thursday, August 6, 2009

Are Flannery O'Connor's stories good?

I read a review early in the summer of a new biography about Flannery O'Connor, a writer I first encountered in a literature class in college almost 35 years ago. She is a Southern woman writer, and a rural person, and therefore I am interested in her, because I am a Southern rural woman, although not much of a writer. I was excited when I found the new biography in our local library (although it was filed wrong, under "F.") I also wanted to acquaint myself again with Flannery O'Connor, because I admired so much the short story, "Idols," that Tim Gautreaux published in The New Yorker. The story was based on a couple of O'Connor's characters, Julian in "Everything That Rises," and Parker in "Parker's Back."

I got about half way through the biography, called Flannery, and got rather bored. O'Connor had in fact predicted that a biography of her would be boring; she wrote, “As for biographies, there won’t be any biographies of me because, for only one reason, lives spent between the house and the chicken yard do not make exciting copy.” Well, she was sort of right. It was interesting reading about her early education at a local women's college, and her subsequent trip to various writer's workshops and colonies, and her friendships with other intellectuals, but once she got sick with lupus, she had to go home to her farm and live with her mother, and her life pretty much was spent between the house and the chicken yard.

So, I decided that instead of reading the entire biography, I would read her collection of short stories, also in our library. It's a rather thick tome with a lot of stories in it, dated from the forties through the mid-sixties. But again, I couldn't quite finish it. I wondered why.

It's not that the stories aren't beautifully written, in terms of the prose style and the dialogue. O'Connor is a wonderful describer of people. Sometimes she makes you laugh out loud in recognition; for example, a woman character "was about the size of a cedar fence post." The characters themselves have wonderfully real Southern voices and are themselves great observers of other people. A young man describes a middle-aged woman thus: "She had theseyer brown glasses and her hair was so thin it looked like ham gravy trickling over her skull." One can imagine O'Connor silently making these observations about the people around her, chuckling to herself, and writing them down in her notebook as quickly as possible. She is a meaner Jane Austen.

Sometimes the descriptions of the landscape take your breath away:

"A cloud, the exact color of the boy's hat and shaped like a turnip, had descended over the sun....The turnip continued to descend. After a few minutes there was a guffawing peal of thunder from behind and fantastic raindrops, like tin-can tops, crashed over the rear of Mr. Shiftlet's car."

Who else would describe a cloud as a big turnip? Or thunder as "guffawing"? Or rain as tin-can tops? This is the world of the rural South, where fantastic natural beauty coexists with all our junk, like turnips, tin cans, old cars, and a guffawing God behind the clouds.

And this brings me to the real problem I have with these stories: that guffawing God figure, who is there at the end of every story to kill somebody or burn them up or drown them or shoot them. It may seem as if another character performs the execution, but it's really God acting behind the scenes. O'Connor was a devout Catholic. Apparently she didn't believe in showing this directly in her stories. But her God is like the Wizard of Oz, behind a curtain, pulling the levers.

This is the a formula to the stories: there is a complacent, somewhat stupid middle-class rural white person, usually a woman. Sometimes this woman lives with one or two children, but there is never a husband or father around; he is always dead or gone. Usually the child is defective in some way: one daughter has a wooden leg; another is retarded; or the child may simply be precocious, or an intellectual (a handicap in its own way in the rural South). Into this rural, land-owning but barely scraping by (usually racist) woman's life comes some kind of a Misfit. In one story he is actually called the Misfit. The Misfit may be a crazy tenant farmer, an immigrant (the Displaced Person), a babysitter, or a con artist. This person, the reader quickly realizes, is going to destroy the main character, or at least seriously disrupt her orderly little scene. And the reader is always right. Often there is a violent death at the end of the story. There is basically no denouement or "falling action"; after the death or disaster, the story ends.

During the action leading to the climactic violent event, the Misfit character challenges the main character's complacency. The Misfit will often be more ignorant, more backwoods, than the middle-class main character. He is a kind of noble savage, full of cryptic remarks such as, "Jesus thrown everything off balance." He, or his wife, is often what we would call now a Pentecostal Protestant Christian, given to a very emotional, personal kind of spirituality, in stark contrast to the main character's more staid, denominational church-going. O'Connor writes of one of these nominally Christian women, "She was a good Christian woman with a large respect for religion, though she did not, of course, believe any of it was true." In the fifties and early sixties, these rural Pentecostal evangelicals were truly marginal folks, not the mainstream suburbanites that they are now. They handled snakes and spoke in tongues and got baptized in muddy rivers.

The main character feels superior, more worldly and educated, than this invader who will upset her world. But in the end, it seems, O'Connor sides with the ignorant and the violent, who cause a rupture, even a death, in the complacent Christian's life. It is the emotional, primitive Pentecostalism that carries the day with her, it seems.

This is where O'Connor loses me. How is violence redemptive? If the grandmother ends up shot and dead at the end of "A Good Man is Hard to Find," what good is the "learning" that the murderer/misfit imposes on her? The Misfit says, famously, "She would of been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life." I suppose that means that her soul was lost in the minutiae of her petty, safe bourgeois life. Well, sometimes that does happen.

I guess you can only believe in the redemptive power of violence if you believe in an after-life, where you get to think about the circumstances of your violent death and why it happened to you. But even if you grant O'Connor that, it seems excessive to kill off a child at the end of "A View of the Woods." The murder is particularly brutal: the child's grandfather bangs her head against a rock. It's hard to see how the child "learns" anything from this. Or the grandfather for that matter.

After about ten or fifteen stories like this, the reader begins to dread the ending so much that she stops reading. It seems as if O'Connor is deliberately horrifying and terrifying the reader, almost as if she is writing a B-grade horror movie rather than a literary short story. The violence often seems like a cheap trick, to make the story more dramatic. Violence sells!

But in real life, it doesn't take a murder or a house fire to make a person change or learn something about herself, fortunately. But it may be harder to write a story where the main character changes as a result of, say, a peaceful, chance encounter with a stranger. I admit that when I try to write a story, I try to think of something "dramatic" for the climax. Maybe I should read more John Cheever or John Updike, to find out how Yankees structure their stories. As I recall in those stories, usually nobody gets gored by a bull. Maybe somebody gets drunk or has a brief affair. A woman might say something cutting to a man. That's about as bad as it gets.