book by Flannery O’Connor
annotation by Aaron Gansky
O’Connor has long been one of my favorite writers. Just about everything of hers I’ve read, I’ve enjoyed. This collection of stories is no different, though I noticed a couple of things that I’d not noticed before—things that have altered my perception of her writing, and perhaps, lends credibility to some of my students’ complaints when we read her. In the process of writing this critique, I went back over the titles of her stories, all of which are brilliantly subtle (with the exception of “The River” and “A Circle in the Fire”). The rest work by distraction, but also serve to lend credence or importance to certain aspects of the story that might have been otherwise missed by a quick read-through. It points the reader to important details in the story, and allows them to conclude WHY the things are important without being hit over the head with her “theme baseball bat.” No one likes that. So she’s more subtle. She paints a picture and says, “here it is, make of it what you will.” And her stories all sound real. Her characters are deep, thanks in large part to the seamless narrative (juggling) movement between action and thought (can you tell I’ve been reading Stern?). Her characters walk, chew, spit, breath, and speak like real people, and we’re left with the sense that these are stories, not that we’ve heard, but that we’ve experienced. It’s like hearing a news story and saying, “I know that guy,” like the people we knew in Katrina and we hear their story on the news. Like the Southern California fires and we had the displaced families living in our homes, sleeping on our couches. By God, we KNOW these people.
But, and I hate to pull out criticism, but isn’t that what we’re supposed to do? I feel awkward saying anything negative about her work because she’s a literary hero of mine, someone I aspire to be like someday (except that I don’t plan on becoming a woman, not physically at least). Anyhow, looking over the titles of these stories made me realize something else. I’m glad I’ve read them, but I’m in no way eager to jump back into them. Why? The impression I’m left with at the end of each of her stories was, “That was great,” and “I’m so glad that’s over!” This has nothing to do with the tension of the stories (which she does an excellent job of building), but rather, the LENGTH of her stories. Maybe it’s because we live in an ADD society and our commercials are all 30 seconds long because that’s all the time and attention we want to give to any one thing. Maybe it’s because I just finished reading Sudden Fiction and What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. These collections are quick reads. With O’Connor, I found myself counting pages (okay, I do that with almost all stories, but there was a LOT of counting and not many stories). I guess, in short, I want to get down to it. In “A Good Man is Hard to Find” we get a family traveling for pages and pages. There’s tension in the family, yes, but not much. Then, the build up is paid off in the final few pages. The stakes are raised to life-and-death. A beautiful ending, masterfully crafted, and I realized all those pages were necessary to set everything up. But then, inevitably, I ask, “Really?” Many of the stories didn’t need such a big build up. The pay offs (endings) were always spectacular, but I wondered if they’d have been better received by me if she’d gotten to them quicker. I’m thinking especially of “The Artificial Nigger” here, where she goes on for about six pages getting her two characters into the city where they get lost. Can’t we just start with them lost and flash back a bit?
Lastly, I wondered about the characters. There were no less than three stories in here where I never got a sense of who was whom until FAR too late in the story. “A Temple of the Holy Ghost” I’m still confused about. “The Artificial Nigger” took me three or four pages to get the characters and their relations right in my mind. “The River,” had something similar, especially since the protagonist goes by two names. Then, for whatever reason, some random guy shows up at the end and it gets pretty unclear who’s doing the action because of her use of pronouns (which “he?”—Bevel or Mr. Paradise?) And, lastly, she’s a tendency to use titles for names or character traits, etc. Mr. Head, Mr. Paradise, Mrs. Hopewell, Joy, etc. Not bad, per se, but maybe a little annoying at times.
Yes, I’m nit-picky. Yes, I feel bad for speaking ill of O’Connor. Yes, I know I’d be lucky to be half the writer she is. Still—this is what I noticed.