Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Reading Flannery

O’Connor’s fiction is abrupt and rude. Just like divine grace.

By Ralph C. Wood
March 25, 2009, 4:00 a.m.

Flannery O’Connor is an offensive writer. Readers who haven’t dipped into her stories and books sometimes don’t know where to begin with this author, who was born on this day in 1925.

It is almost impossible to read O’Connor without revulsion — so frequent are the deaths, so maniacal the characters, so uninviting the fictional world. There we encounter, for example, a club-footed delinquent who lies and steals because, he says, he’s good at it; a little rich boy who drowns himself in search of the salvation his parents hold in contempt; a baptizing backwoods prophet who has spent time in an insane asylum and who deafened his own nephew with a shotgun blast; a failed white liberal writer who contracts a lifelong disease while seeking to celebrate a secular communion with black dairy workers; a mass-murdering misfit who guns down a complacent grandmother while complaining that Jesus has “thown” everything off balance; and a self-satisfied farm wife who thanks Jesus daily for making her both white and prosperous — until she is slugged in the head with a psychology textbook thrown by a Wellesley student.

Yet the offense is precisely the point of Flannery O’Connor’s work. Her fiction creates scandal just as the Gospel often becomes a snare and a stumbling block. Some readers see their own condition mirrored in O’Connor’s grotesque characters, and thus seek to discern the Mercy that is given in extremis to almost all of them. Other readers turn away in wrath, outraged that O’Connor turns her keen satiric eye on secular sophisticates and cultured despisers of religion. They cannot forgive her sympathetic treatment of shouting fundamentalists and fire-breathing street preachers. Contempt for the sweated Christianity of such folks is, after all, the last acceptable form of cultural bigotry in our time.

This is hardly to say that O’Connor puts an imprimatur on her rabid believers. Their virulent anti-Catholicism and obscurantist anti-intellectualism are often pathetic and comic at once. Her rabid unbelievers are equally scandalous, for they are vehemently determined to deny God and to live as if all things were permitted. In either case, O’Connor’s characters wrangle with the large and hard questions that the suavely civilized and merely urbane often seek to ignore: namely, whether they will live in radical obedience or radical defiance of God.

When asked why her fiction, like that of so many other Southern writers, is filled with freaks, O’Connor wryly replied that Southerners “are still able to recognize one.” To discern deviations and distortions, O’Connor explained, one must first have a clear vision of the Norm. The rural and “Christ-haunted” South, as she called it, has retained such a vision because the popular imagination has remained essentially Biblical. When the folk religion is shaped by the Biblical narrative — of creation and fall, of Israel’s election and Christ’s incarnation, of the crucifixion and the resurrection, of the church as God’s own people and the Second Coming as history’s consummation — then even the barely literate possess the ultimate criterion for measuring themselves and everything else.

The best place to begin encountering O’Connor’s radically Christian work is not with her most famous story, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” Many people are left sleepless after reading it. I would recommend a later short story entitled “Revelation,” since it is perhaps the most redemptive of her works. One might then progress to other stories that don’t conclude with violent death, perhaps “The Enduring Chill” and “Parker’s Back.” Along the way, one would do well to take up O’Connor’s magnificent letters in The Habit of Being. Her lively correspondence with all sorts and conditions of letter-writers constitutes, by my reckoning, an unparalleled epistolary witness. Readers get to listen in as O’Connor makes stunning discernments of people and events, often in jocular and self-mocking ways. But we also follow her sardonic though faithful embrace of the suffering that led to her death from lupus in 1964, at age 39.

From these stories and letters, one should proceed to the two volumes of short fiction entitled A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Everything That Rises Must Converge. The film version of “The Displaced Person,” one of her finest works, is set on the O’Connor farm in rural Georgia, and it is available from PBS. Only after such preparatory work should readers approach her brilliant but difficult novels, The Violent Bear It Away and Wise Blood. Throughout their scrutiny of O’Connor’s fiction, they should also examine the splendid volume of posthumously published essays and speeches, Mystery and Manners. All of her published fiction, as well as excerpts from her letters and essays, can be found in a handsome hardcover edition entitled The Collected Works of Flannery O’Connor, from the Library of America.

The key to comprehending Flannery O’Connor’s life and work is to remember that, in her lexicon, divine grace is never synonymous with human graciousness. On the contrary, it is often abrupt and rude and disrespectful of ordinary proprieties, for the skin of human resistance is exceedingly thick. When asked why her characters meet such violent self-awakenings, O’Connor replied that it’s because their heads are so hard. Grace must wound before it can heal, she declared, and her fiction is filled with both woundings and healings. O’Connor wittily consoled readers that, while a lot of folks get killed in her fiction, nobody gets hurt. In her unsentimental reckoning, there are states of thriving but damnable life far worse than a grisly but saving death. Thus is O’Connor’s fiction comic in a precise Dantesque sense: It does not close down toward tragic and final defeat, but opens out toward drastic, even eternal, hope — often at the threshold of total ruin. And this is why, though lean and angular, her fiction will endure.

— Ralph C. Wood is a professor of theology and literature at Baylor University and the author of Flannery O’Connor and the Christ-Haunted South.

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