Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Review: Everything that rises must converge

On a whim, I decided that it was necessary to augment my American fiction knowledge - especially that of the South. I've read a couple of books by Southern authors - a smattering of Truman Capote, William Faulkner, Walker Percy - but unfortunately none of the greats ever really caught my attention. When I came across Brad Gooch's biography Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor, I thought that this would be a fantastic introduction to an author I know little about and whose work I perhaps know even less.

My high school and university English classes did not include 'A Good Man Is Hard to Find', Ms O'Connor's most famous story that is to creative writing courses for the short story as Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping is to the novel. In fact, a couple of months ago when I was bored at work, I took it upon myself to read the tense and charged story - and it's easy to see why it has unsettled readers ever since its publication. So thinking back to that cringing, I determined that Flannery was going to be my girl.

Brad Gooch does a fine job weaving together the humour and inspirations that made up Flannery O'Connor's life, which apparently was more difficult than one would think. For the epigraph, a statement by O'Connor herself, reads: '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.' That touch of self-debasement and blunt honesty not only pervaded her fiction but also her life.

As if searching for something to talk about in the beginning of the book, Gooch relies on architectural description and house numbers - items that probably could have been easily omitted but for a small group might be interesting. He moves on to Flannery's deep attachment to her father (who dies while she's a young girl), her somewhat on again/off again relationship with her mother, and her deep roots in Catholicism that grounds her fiction regardless of how nihilistic it may become. We watch her as she remains this reticent but powerful young girl who attends to a woman's college in Georgia and then the prestigious Writer's Workshop at the University of Iowa and then the Yaddo Colony in upstate New York where she finishes her first novel, Wise Blood, a work which received mix reviews, as any classic usually does.

What kept this read interesting was Flannery herself, her intense writing and reading regimen (which was as intense as a graduate programme in English and philosophy, including readings in Simone Weil, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin), her odd nicknames for things (after she contracted lupus and had to walk around on crutches, she called them her 'flying buttresses'), and her outlandish axioms that enchanted her audiences ('I have finished my opus nauseous and expect it to be out one of these days').

Gooch is able to make sure that we understand the biographical prospects behind her fiction, trying to dive within the artist's world without relying on psychology or too many statements that suggest real life occurrences are the sole reason for most of her fiction. He makes sure that we don't come away empty handed from her theories on writing, as she once said that 'modern writers must often tell "perverse" stories to "shock" a morally blind world. "It requires considerable courage," she concluded, "not to turn away from the story-teller."' Which reminds me of Toni Morrison's Nobel Prize speech/fable about the blind griot stuck with a terrible riddle of two vicious children hiding a bird, asking whether she knows if it's living or dead. At the end of the speech, the griot is able to convince the children of their wrongdoing, they exclaim, 'Tell us . . . ! Tell us . . . !'

And Brad Gooch did his job well enough that I'm off and reading the story collection A Good Man Is Hard to Find - and thus far am loving it. Gooch's Flannery has set me on a cleared path, removed the felled trees, and provided acute insight into the fiction of Ms O'Connor. It's a decent payback for the time spent with this biography.


Kari said...

I want to know what you think after reading more of O'Connor's work since you got a nice background of her from this book. Do you think that would affect your opinions or reactions?

Salvatore said...

I'll keep you posted, although having the biography in my mind I'm already anticipating themes and ideas and storylines within A Good Man Is Hard to Find, which is good and bad...

Melissa (Betty and Boo's Mommy) said...

Great review! (Found your blog through BBAW.) I read this earlier this year and enjoyed it. I've been hooked on Flannery since a college class 20 years ago. Looking forward to hearing more about what you think of her work.