Same old same old? Reading Flannery O’Connor

I have made a habit recently of ordering books late at night that I’m desperate to read, and totally forgetting about them.

This has led to a few very pleasant surprises, as I go to clear the mailbox of it’s seemingly ever-filling raft of catalogues – which still exist somehow – I’ve often been treated to a gift from my past self of a piece of fiction I’ve been itching to read.

This is what happened to me a couple of weeks ago, when to my delight, Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find, and other stories, arrived in my mailbox without warning. Being the Catholic student of English that I am, I felt I simply must read O’Connor in order to not be some kind of poser. I also thought it important not to be that flog that falls silent when yet another female author comes up in pub conversation that they have not taken the time to read.

So, just before a trip to Melbourne to at last see my parents and my brother, who I’ve missed so much during the pandemic madness, I sat down for an evening to read a few short stories.

Now I say a few, but I actually just read the one, the title story, A Good Man is Hard to Find, because once it was done i sat in silence drinking a beer thinking about it for a long, long time. It’s funny, I have no idea where I read it, and I was certain I hadn’t, but as I started through it, it felt eerily familiar. I simply must have read this as a child, or read it in passing as a teenager in an English class. I couldn’t put my finger on when, as the scene in the little diner off the highway began, I realised I had definitely read this before.

A Good Man is Hard to Find

I don’t know whether that coloured my view of the story, but it certainly reinforced a funny experience I have had when reading. That is that what is familiar to me, the stories that explore my own life experience, or at least, life experiences very close to my own, do not quite have the ability to catch me the way stories about others do.

Now, do not get me wrong, I loved A Good Man is Hard to Find, and in this review i’ll have a (potentially unoriginal) crack at explaining why, but the first thing that came to mind as I read it was “Sure Flannery, interesting stuff, but God have I heard all this before.”

For those who have not read it or need reminding, in the story, a criminal named the Misfit kills a family who have just left their home to go on what will clearly be a rather tense family holiday, as is made clear by the character of the grandmother, who is a bit of a caricature of an unlikable old person.

O’Connor is a great writer, and does well to make the grandmother seem shallow without seeming properly awful. My favourite example of this is when the grandmother tells the children a story in the car, where a man with the initials E.A.T. left her a watermelon when nobody was home with his initials carved in it, and how she wanted to marry him.

The punchline of the story is that a little black boy eats the watermelon because it says “EAT” on it, and aside from the fact that this is of course racist, contributing to the overall image the woman, one of the children, June Star, fails to find it funny because “She wouldn’t marry a man that just brought her a watermelon on a Sunday.”

The nostalgia of the grandmother, that on first reading appeared to be the whole point of the story, until the Misfit appears and changes thematic tack quite suddenly, contributes to this perception of her shallowness too. That she believes Europe is causing all the world’s problems is an amusing touch these days.

But, although it made her interesting, I didn’t quite get why the grandmother had to be so shallow. It made it hard for us to sympathise with a character who, eventually being murdered while begging for her life, was so obviously wronged. Though, perhaps that’s the point, that our perception of sin can change quite drastically, when the person who is sinning, or suffering from the sins of others, changes.

Suddenly, having focused heavily on the grandmother, O’Connor switches the story to the Misfit. While his speech did employ a literary technique I am not a huge fan of, that is, simply employing a character to speak an authorial monologue (see Dostoevsky for the most heinous examples of this), I think it was very good. 

The Misfit’s speech brings up a theological argument I have heard before. I was once at a conference as a teenager – one of those ones where evangelical Catholics, of the American-influenced sort, half love-bomb lonely teenagers and half provide legitimately excellent access to the sacraments and theological discussions. At the conference, we listened to a talk by a Professor from Campion, who used CS Lewis’s work to attack a core assumption in a very interesting way.

Upon approaching the microphone, his opening words were “I do not believe that Jesus was a good man”. He went on to tackle the idea that many lapsed Christians, or even agnostics, will throw out there, that Jesus was a good person who taught good things, but was not God.

To paraphrase his excellent talk, he said that if Jesus was God, he was not just a good man. This would make him the creator of all things to whom we owe everything, and the most important thing to ever happen was his life on earth. If he wasn’t, he was a lying, blaspheming egomaniac who started a self-aggrandising cult that got himself and many of his friends killed. If Jesus wasn’t God, he was a terrible man who built a cult of self-worship on trickery and lies, who should be afforded no concessions for his actions just because he has been attributed a few lovely parables.

This is a more extreme version of the Misfit’s speech, who tends toward a lazier nihilism, of that if there is no God, people can do as they please, but the specific mentions of Jesus in the story do line up very nicely with our Professor’s argument, and in general, it is a reflection on the struggle of faith in the face of nihilism.

My very long time thinking about God and nihilism, while for sure enhancing my enjoyment and understanding of the story, had another impact. It led me to be, dare I say it, a touch bored by the whole thing.

Just to get myself in even deeper shit with my Irish Catholic fiction-loving peers, this is also how I have felt reading Joyce. 

On Reading 'Portrait of the Artist' as a Young Man - The New York ...
James Joyce

In particular, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, an obviously terrific book, left me with this funny taste of missing out. In fact, in order to have an opinion on a comparative analysis of Portrait alongside the graphic novel Fun Home for university English – an absolutely excellent must-read memoir that is now a musical – I purchased an annotated copy, and read it all in a week or so, for the first time.

I had a bizarre experience. Portrait involved watching Stephen Dedalus live a childhood with uncannily similarities to mine, having thoughts uncannily similar to mine in a school uncannily similar to the one i went to, being taught ideas that I had already struggled with, often at the same age in a similar environment, described by Joyce with symbolism and prose i also oddly felt deeply familiar with. On top of it all, I then had to endure having every one of Joyce’s clever references to these mutual experiences EXPLICITLY explained to me in the footnotes of this damned annotated copy.

Some of the notes that made me feel oddest were explanations of the sacrament of confession, what Jesuits are, or that when Stephen was not referring to his siblings but an order of clergy to when he mentioned ‘the Brothers’. In particular, Joyce’s famous chapter on hell and infinity rang true with thoughts I’ve had, but rather than be amazed at his articulation of my own experience, I couldn’t help myself thinking “I have thought this all before myself, and so I just feel oddly unimpressed”. Even worse, I thought “this book would be so fascinating to somebody who wasn’t me, who didn’t have nearly every idea in the thing rolling around his head from age five already”, and so I felt oddly robbed.

That feeling was more gentle with Flannery O’Connor, but it was there, and so I think it can help to demonstrate the idea I’ve taken from both books. I think what struck me in both O’Connor and Joyce, both of which I still very much enjoyed, is that what I love about fiction is new ideas. 

Rather than seeing the same – very interesting! but the same – ideas I have wrangled with in my own head cleverly explored on a page, I have come to thoroughly enjoy novels and stories where the characters are nothing like me, whose experiences are nothing like my own.

To me, what is really special about fiction, and the books that have had a permanent impact on me, were those that led me to tackle new thoughts, and new places in the history of thought that have existed for centuries without me. Books that challenged me to consider new things have been just slightly more fun than those that get me to cover the same things more deeply or from a new angle.

Then again, perhaps I am overstating things. After all, I’ve just spent a lovely Saturday morning drinking coffee and writing about O’Connor and Joyce, so there must have been some things in there that I loved. Besides, without fiction, both like their own, and literally their stories, the ideas they tackle wouldn’t be so familiar to me after all. Maybe my take on them is a bit uncertain, but of one thing I am totally sure – if you read them, no matter how new their ideas to you, there will be something in them that you love too.

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