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The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor – Andy heads for the Deep South once again

February 6, 2011

Mississippi Burning was on telly the other night. First time I’ve seen it in years. It’s a good, though not a great, film; it does an impressive job of depicting the hatred of the working-class white South for the poverty-stricken black South, but not such an impressive  job of explaining that hatred. And I’m not sure that it’s entirely constructive to invoke hatred for the haters, which was certainly my emotional response. “Justice” Gene Hackman’s way probably seemed absolutely appropriate to my late-teens self on first seeing the film, but today it seems simply wrong. The latter scenes of Mississippi Burning reminded me of the vigilante violence in the last half of Joyce Carol Oates’ Rape. Breaking the law is sometimes justified; I’m not sure that wreaking vengeance qualifies.

Flannery O’Connor died the same year as the events depicted in Mississippi Burning. She spent the last years of her life very unwell – she was diagnosed with lupus in1950, at the age 0f 25, and she died of complications relating to the disease in August 1964. The murders of the three young civil rights activists around which Mississippi Burning revolves occurred in June 1964. The bodies were found on August 4; O’Connor died on August 3.

O’Connor’s stories give me greater insight into the South than Mississippi Burning, I suspect. They cover similar ground – the movie is about justice and racism; O’Connor’s stories are often about justice and racism, too, but her conception of justice is founded in her Catholicism. She uses the word “nigger” profligately (or her characters do) but she herself does not seem to be racist; but the racism of her characters seems to fill her with wry scorn rather than outrage. The movie’s white-hot anger and loathing are directed at the bigotry and hatred of those who burn churches and homes and murder innocent people; there’s anger and loathing in O’Connor’s stories, too, but it’s rarely if ever white hot. Usually it’s wry and sardonic.

As a Catholic O’Connor presumably believed in the ideas of fallen man and redemption; there’s very little if any redemption in her stories, but there’s a lot – a hella, hella lot – of fallenness. Which, stripped of its spiritual connotations, is just another word for flawed. And if I remember correctly, all of O’Connor’s characters are flawed.

One of her techniques may sound hackneyed and it is, but she does it so well I don’t really care. At story’s outset one particular character or set of characters seems most obviously flawed; by story’s end she has flipped the situation. All of her characters are still flawed (or fallen), but those who seemed somehow superior to begin with are brought low. It’s a very basic, parable-like approach but O’Connor does it so beautifully even a jaded old atheist like me can forgive her. I have no doubt the vast majority of her readers and admirers are at least secular, if not atheist or agnostic; certainly I can’t see the majority of her audience, today or ever, being regular church-attending Catholics. This is one of her most impressive achievements – to write stories imbued with her ideas of spirituality and morality and justice and judgment and make them not just accessible but compelling to readers for whom her worldview is not just alien but sometimes offensive.

O’Connor’s stories aren’t just accessible and compelling to me. They are among the best I’ve ever read. This collection has its very slight weaknesses – the first half has a profusion of single/widowed/divorced women trying to make things work on struggling farmland, while the second half has a number of stories about arrogant, self-righteous young men who have fractious relationships with their mothers and slightly delusional ideas of their own intellectual grandeur. But even where this repetition of character occurs the stories stand alone. And character is not the only “repetition” going on here. Somebody or other is quoted in the introduction as saying that O’Connor’s stories are all about “the operations of supernatural grace”. Grace, in this context, is not what most of us would understand – grace, in O’Connor’s stories, is a grandmother listening to her son and daughter-in-law and grandchildren being murdered and then being shot three times in the chest by an escaped criminal. That’s grace, Flannery O’Connor style. And you can see it in just about every story she wrote.

What makes her achievement even more impressive is her sense of humour. “Hilarious” might be too strong a word to use but honestly, so many of these stories are funny – and unlike some of the episodes in Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, the humour here is undeniably intentional (and much, much funnier). Good Country People may well have an appalling conclusion but that doesn’t change the fact that it is hilarious (one of the few stories I think that can be described that way). The Artificial Nigger is pretty funny too, although also one of her weaker efforts. The Partridge Festival is very funny. Revelation is very funny. The Enduring Chill is pretty funny. Many of the early stories that eventually formed her first novel, Wise Blood, are funny. But what’s truly bizarre is that some of her most disturbing stories – A Good Man is Hard to Find, and The Life You Save May be Your Own, for example – have great swathes of humour in them. In A Good Man, the set of circumstances that lead to a grandma listening to her family being murdered before she herself is gunned down is close to laugh-out-loud funny. The Life You Save sees a deaf mute woman abandoned by her new husband; it’s horrible, but some of what has led to that is genuinely funny. And perhaps humour is one of the things O’Connor used to make her stories appealing to readers who did not share her worldview – because the humour is often based in her character’s moral shortcomings. These people, every one of them, are imperfect; and O’Connor makes us laugh at their imperfections. And perhaps our own.

Of course there are a handful of stories that are not at all amusing. The River and The Lame Shall Enter First may trigger an occasional wry smirk but, perhaps because they both (SPOILERS!) involve the death of a child that humour is quickly extinguished. Still, even in those stories that we remember more dourly than others, there’s humour at work.

Despite her concerns with morality and judgment and justice she never, ever comes across as being self-righteous or judgmental. I did not read this book and come to the conclusion that Flannery O’Connor considered herself to inhabit the higher moral ground. (Although with some understanding of her theology she almost certainly did think that. She was a fucking Catholic, after all.) There is a humility pervading these stories that is somehow humbling. Humility and humanity. And humour, which in its own way encapsulates the other two.

Netty and I started last year with Carver’s stories and we ended last year, both of us, trumpeting him as our pick of 2010. I probably prefer Carver’s stories – he was a drunk, and if not an atheist then at least secular, and for the most part urban, and more concise – but I’m not quite sure if he was as good a writer as O’Connor. I’m impressed. Deeply impressed. And I have to wonder if any of the eleven writers to come this year will knock Flannery off the pedestal on which I’ve already put her. She’s good. If you haven’t read her yet you should.

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