Good Country People?

April 12, 2009 § Leave a comment

Just finished: The Bible Salesman.

The first Flannery O’Connor story I ever read was “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.”  I was nineteen.  It pretty much made my head explode.  I’d also read King Lear around the same time, and I remember thinking about how the story reminded me of the play.  That same angry comedy of horrors; a similar sense of staring into a void; in both, an existential struggle with God or our sense of him.  The theatre of the absurd, on a country road, with a sociopath called the Misfit.

What’s “funny” in this story, as in much of her work, is rather savage and wicked.  O’Connor had a sneer behind an awful lot of her laughs.  Most of the comedic work is done by the two children, John Wesley and June Star, who are little caricatured monsters: reading their comic books, jaded and utterly bored with their world, they mock everything in sight.  They only come alive when their car wrecks.  “‘But nobody’s killed,’ June Star said with disappointment…”  Their true kin is the Misfit, with his classic closing statement: “It’s no real pleasure in life.”

The Bible Salesman has given me a good reason to revisit this story, a source for Preston Clearwater, and “Good Country People,” a source for Henry Dampier (but which contributed to Clearwater, too, it would seem — there’s something of the Misfit in this story, too).  To be honest, I’d forgotten all about “Good Country People,” which features a nihilistic Bible salesman who seduces a PhD in philosophy, only to steal the lonely woman’s wooden leg.  (Well, when I put it that way, the story sounds completely insane, but it’s great.)

Henry in TBS is a nice inversion of Pointer, the Bible salesman in O’Connor’s story.  While we start out with some doubts about Henry — he writes letters pretending to be a circuit preacher to get free Bibles which he then sells — he grows on us, and we see the goodness and sincerity mixed up with his attempt to make a few bucks.  We also follow his struggles to make sense of some of the complications and confusions in the Bible, and his struggles with faith.  On the other hand, Pointer (a pseudonym) begins with a measure of our trust, posing as a nice, naive young man, but he takes advantage of Joy’s own pose of worldly wisdom and existential ennui to allow her to think that she has seduced him.  In the end, he says to her, “you ain’t so smart.  I been believing in nothing ever since I was born!”

The comparison between the two is nicely encapsulated by Edgerton’s use of three of the important objects in O’Connor’s story.  Pointer displays for Joy like “offerings at the shrine of a goddess” a dummy Bible hiding a whiskey flask, a deck of pornographic cards, and a box of condoms.  The objects reveal his selfish nihilism, the dead end of humanity he represents for O’Connor.  Henry also has a flask, an “exotic” deck, and some condoms — “preventatives,” he calls them.  But they’ve lost their ugliness, and gained a context.  We know that Henry is not posing as naive, but actually is: a virgin, curious, and young.  The flask and condoms are used, lovingly, only after Henry has discovered in the Bible that extramarital sex is hardly the universally condemned sin his upbringing led him to believe: if it’s good enough for Abraham, why wouldn’t it be good enough for him?

Some of my favorite passages in this book are Henry’s attempts to read the Bible, baffled right off the bat at the contradictory accounts of the creation in Genesis.  In the truly lovely epilogue of the book, he reads an updated American translation, and finds his way to an understanding and appreciation of key passages of Ecclesiastes and Psalm 23.  It is not a stretch to call this understanding existential; and it seems to me to chart a middle path between the nihilism and uncompromising Christianity present in Flannery O’Connor’s work.

Henry’s sense of engagement, of wanting to understand something that does not make sense but which has always been presented to you as infallible truth (and which you, Henry, have yourself been presenting as the most important thing money can buy), also seems something of an attempt on Edgerton’s part to redeem the vapidity, materialism, and nihilism in O’Connor’s work — what she was bucking against with her stories in the ’50s.  Perhaps there are good country people, after all.

The Lost Art of the Complex Narrative Metaphor

January 24, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Villette.

I’m reading this book at the behest of my wife, Jaime; we occasionally like to make each other read something we love that the other probably wouldn’t get around to.  She read it after a long string of 19th-century books featuring typically selfless heroine-martyr female characters and was blown away by the complexity of Lucy’s character and narration.  “You’ve got to watch yourself with Lucy Snowe,” she told me.  “She lies.”

Brontë really does do some strange, brilliant things with her narrator: things that remind me of Nabokov, and maybe even Laurence Sterne.  As those names suggest, the book can feel both archaic and modern, sometimes simultaneously.

For instance: the beginning of chapter four.  The first two paragraphs of this chapter employ a technique that’s more or less never used anymore: the use of an extended, complicated metaphor as a narrative device, pushing the plot along in a kind of encoded message just short of allegory.  You see this in Victorian literature frequently; I think it died out with modernism’s disdain for the flourishes and fillips of Victorian prose.

Lucy refuses to say much of anything about her family (or lack thereof?); it’s impossible to tell if her family has died, or is estranged, or abusive, or what, exactly.  Instead of telling us what happens in the eight years after the opening scenes, she assigns to us, the readers, a “conjecture” that she was happy to go home, and spins around this a metaphor of a “bark” floating along merrily in the sunshine.  “A great many women and girls are supposed to pass their lives something in that fashion; why not I with the rest?”

So, okay, we’re already just playing along with Lucy, and already cannot say with any certainty what actually happened to her.  Then she says that, if that metaphor of the calmly floating boat was accurate, she “must somehow have fallen over-board, or that there must have been a wreck at last,” and talks of a “nightmare” along these lines of drowning; whether this is an actual nightmare or still a metaphoric nightmare of remembering something in those eight years is impossible to say.  Finally, “the ship was lost, the crew perished.”

Lucy moves us through eight years without actually telling us one thing that truly happened: instead, she employs a metaphor that she herself disputes the validity of.  It is impossible to say if the constituent parts of her metaphor (ship, steersman, storm, crew) function allegorically, standing for events and people in Lucy’s life, or are merely conveniences to capture the emotional landscape through which Lucy moves to the present of the novel.

This is brilliant.  We get a sense of what that time entailed, but more importantly, we get a strong sense of how powerfully Lucy wants to avoid confronting the details of that time; how deeply she feels it still and how distant she tries to keep it from her thoughts.  There is both expression and repression in the convolutions of metaphor.

She does it again in chapter 12, pages 124-25, provoked by a real storm this time.  (The Gothic and Romantic elements in the book are palpable here, and really quite ingenious, I think.)  This is another of my favorite passages in the book so far: Lucy looks at the moon on a calm night, and recalls how it looked “leaning back on azure, beside an old thorn at the top of an old field, in Old England,” during her childhood.  (What a brilliant turn of phrase — “leaning back on azure!”)  And it recalls her childhood to her.  Then we get what seems one of the key paragraphs in the book:

Oh, my childhood!  I had feelings: passive as I lived, little as I spoke, cold as I looked, when I thought of past days, I could feel.  About the present, it was better to be stoical; about the future — such a future as mine — to be dead.  And in catalepsy and a dead trance, I studiously held the quick of my nature.

I mean… good Lord!  What are we to make of that?  What are we to feel towards this girl, and towards the older woman recalling that level of repressed despair and grief?  That level of repressed life? (Well, here’s what I felt: sympathy; horror; some level of queasy recognition.)

But Lucy goes on to recount a night of thunderstorms; she gets out on the roof and sits in the rain, wind, and lightning, feeling a kind of wild, Romantic kinship with nature.  She feels a “longing” for a release from her “present existence.”  In the midst of this scene of psychology projected onto nature, we get another, stunning, bruising extended metaphor:

This longing, and all of a similar kind, it was necessary to knock on the head; which I did, figuratively, after the manner of Jael to Sisera, driving a nail through their temples.  Unlike Sisera, they did not die: they were but transiently stunned, and at intervals would turn on the nail with a rebellious wrench; then did the temples bleed, and the brain thrill to its core.

She then returns to the calm night, watching the moon, but extends the metaphor of Jael and Sisera (from Judges 4): Jael, “the stern woman,” watches over her captive Sisera, captain of the Canaanites’ army, while waiting for her husband, Heber, but does not drive the nail through his temples; instead, “something like an angel — the Ideal!” soothes Sisera, just as Lucy feels hopeful in “the cool peace and dewy sweetness of the night.”

So there’s some serious sexual longing and repression going on here.  Lucy’s calm hopefulness is shattered by a love letter falling down to her secret resting place; and while she says (to herself and to us) that she “did not dream… for a moment” that it was for her, we feel for her; we know she let herself hope, at least for a moment.  We read between the lines of her complicated metaphor to the desperate loneliness and desire she feels.  It was no easy thing, being an unattached, “independent” woman (voluntarily or not); does Brontë invite us to feel sorry or elated for her, that she so often drove the nail into the temple of her desire?

These Coincidences Have No Meaning

September 8, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Fragile Things.

Reading next: Redburn, by Herman Melville.

I mean that, that title-sentence up there: I really don’t think there’s much to this.  But it’s weird.  I like weird things.  If nothing else, it’s another manifestation of that odd phenomenon by which great discoveries, strokes of genius, etc., are made independently and nearly simultaneously.

Three stories, in succession:

-“Diseasemaker’s Croup,” a clever made-to-order piece (they’re almost all made-to-order in this collection, which is why it comes off as kind of half-assedly thrown-together, I suppose) about a disease which “can be diagnosed by the unfortunate tendency of the diseased to interrupt otherwise normal chains of thought and description with commentaries upon diseases, real or imagined, cures nonsensical, and apparently logical.”  As you can sort of tell at the end there, it becomes a soup of fragmented language, as the disease takes over the diseased’s attempt at an entry on the disease.

-“In the End,” a rather cool short-short which puts the book of Genesis in reverse and works very well as an imaginary “very last book of the Bible,” as Gaiman has it.

-“Goliath,” a story which was originally a teaser for The Matrix on the promotional website.  Gaiman seems to especially like the idea of the malleability of time in the Matrix.

Anyway, isn’t it funny how these stories put together seem like a recipe for The Raw Shark Texts?  I mean, there’s a text taken over by a kind of language-virus, a möbius-strip return-to-paradise story, and a metaphysical sci-fi freakout on the nature of reality.  It’s all there!  This collection, by the way, came out a year before TRST.  Not that that means anything.  But weird, eh?

The Whale Collection

May 5, 2008 § Leave a comment

Just finished: The Wet Collection.

Do yourself a favor and find this book. Many of us are brainwashed into thinking that small- or independent-press collections must be twee or regional or otherwise lesser, in one important way or another. ‘Tain’t always so, or even often so. This book is proof. It’s damn good.

Of course, this book happens to scratch one of my major itches. Tevis and I share a deep fondness for Melville. There’s only one overt reference to him here, but the book is (dare I say) Melvillean, in his Mardi and Moby-Dick style: digressive, allusive, concerned equally with the outer world of natural history, human history, religion, and the inner world of relationship, psychology, religion again, making the time to make important points you don’t quite notice until you’ve made a connection dozens of pages later. (Another alternate title for M-D: The Whale Collection.)

“Barefoot in a Borrowed Corset” is one of my favorites. It involves footnotes, in a good way. It pulls together stories about spelunking, Da Vinci, the Eucharist, the Old Testament leper Naaman, Crater Lake, and an underwater town in South Carolina. (The interplay of the very dry — the Last Supper fresco, leprous skin — and the very wet — bathing in deep lakes, watery towns — runs through the whole collection, and is used to great effect here.) But then there’s the footnotes, used here in an almost DFWian way, to create another layer of narrative, largely about the author, and about the construction of the story.

That story is largely one of armchair adventuring, the vicarious and allusive life most of us live. The first footnote, after the section-title “Spelunking”: “After reading, in a borrowed house, a stranger’s National Geographic.” And then the experience of spelunking is compared to insomnia, awake in a dark house, coming to grips with living with another person. Reference is later made to a “cave tour.” And later, there’s an extremely tangential reference to FDR, obviously one of the author’s personal heroes. His Civilian Conservation Corps recurs throughout this book: blazing trails, building cabins, creating parks and dams and roads. I suspect many nature books would heap scorn on this kind of work, cleaning and distancing and colonizing nature.  Tevis seems to consider it one of the great projects of the twentieth century, and genuinely appreciates the vantage points the work of those Depressed workers has given her on the land, the country, the world.

This would all make Mr. Melville smile, I think, the mixture here of lived experience and mediated experience and experience of others’ experience.  Oh, he sailed the seas, but then he cribbed so much of what inspired him from the books he voyaged in, as well, and from other adventurers’ stories. He took what he needed and was concerned with the deeper truth he saw in it, not primarily its supposed “authenticity.”

Anyway, this is a dangerous strategy: are you mythologizing or aggrandizing mundane life? Are you making specious, superficial, fragmented demands on decontextualized narratives? Are you, most important, boring me with your life? I think this story (and this book) avoids those pitfalls. So much here is about orientation: the self on the earth, the individual to the history, the human in nature. The wanderer to home. Way back when, we learned that the author wanted to “live a biblical life” (note that lower-case b) and a “prophetic life in conjunction with another.” Religion is very important throughout; the simmering Christianity of the South is all over this book, the relationship of earth to deity; but God does not seem nearly as important to Tevis as his cast of characters, and the lyrical words his prophets were inspired to write.

Bedrock concerns, all. The balance in the prose and the narrative between the colloquial and the heightened (pseudo-biblical) seems right, here. I don’t know: it’s silly to parse these things, sometimes. We’re talking art here. It works or it doesn’t. Here it works.

Laying My Vengeance Upon Thee

March 7, 2008 § 4 Comments

Now reading: The Confessions of Nat Turner.

**Reading next: E.M. Forster, A Passage to India.**

The connection I’m going to try to make here is probably tenuous at best, but the connection in question struck such a chord when I read a certain passage tonight that I have to spin it out a little.

Nat begins to blossom as a preacher as, paradoxically, the hate he feels for white people begins to fester and dominate his life in earnest.  A poor, white “sotomite” named Ethelred T. Brantley overhears Nat preaching to a group of slaves in town one day and asks Nat to save him, however possible.  After a little discussion, Nat recommends a week of fasting and meditation, at the end of which he will baptize him.

When the day of baptism arrives, they find the pond they’ve arranged to use surrounded by a crowd of antagonistic white folks.  But Nat pushes on, and the passage he recites before dunking Ethelred is from Ezekiel (37:6): “I will lay sinews upon you, and will bring up flesh upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and ye shall live, and ye shall know that I am the Lord…”

Maybe you see where I’m going here: when I read that, I instantly thought of Jules, played by Samuel L. Jackson, in Pulp Fiction.  Allow me a fanboy rant at this point: this is, quite simply, one of the greatest film performances of all time.  It’s such a perfect match of role, actor, and film that I don’t think Sam’s ever quite gotten over it.  (As an aside, it is, in retrospect, positively ridiculous that all the hype at the time was about Travolta, and that Miramax (I assume) made the decision to enter Travolta on the Oscar ballots for Best Actor, and Jackson for Best Supporting Actor.  Go ahead, watch the movie again.  Tell me who’s leading and who’s supporting; tell me who the true star of the movie is.)

And of course, Jackson’s recitations of Jules’ version of Ezekiel 25:17 at the beginning and end of the film are the greatest parts of the film.  (Here it is, very little of it actually in Ezekiel: “The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the iniquities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he, who in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness, for he is truly his brother’s keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who would attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon thee.”)  It is, on paper, more or less a ridiculous speech.  And it could have been really bad, just this really bad Tarantinified blaxploitation reference, but when you see the movie: damn!   It’s real, it’s fierce, it’s utterly cryptic and compelling and you can feel Jules all the way through it.  I mean, the crescendo of “and you will KNOW my name is the LORD!” in the first speech compared to the taut, thoughtful delivery near the end: it’s absolutely perfect.

Interesting, comparing Styron’s Nat Turner and Tarantino/Jackson’s Jules.  Avenging angels, both, speaking from opposite ends of the civil rights movement.  Both have developed a more or less homemade, individual, somewhat mystical religion for themselves: Nat sees visions of black angels in the sky, calling him to wreak havoc, and Jules recites his pseudo-Biblical verse before blowing his employer’s enemies away, then decides to hang it up and “walk the Earth” after a junkie misses him at point-blank range.  Both are perplexed by their relationship to God, unsure what they can know about him but sure of what they are being told to do.  And both, in spite of their rage and their guilt, are (as Jules says) “tryin’ real hard to be the shepherd.”

Coincidentally, both also deliver their Ezekiel quotes to white men whose salvation or damnation they hold in their hands.  Nat’s verse is couched in the anger and wrath of Ezekiel just as Jules’ is, but it’s a creative verse; “you shall know my name is the Lord” here is comforting, life-affirming, if still slightly threatening.  Jules’ is, at first, pure destruction, but he shifts his view at the end of the movie, trying to glean a creative (or at least non-destructive) message from it.

Styron and the character embodied by Jackson have, I think, similar motives here in their creations as a whole.  Jules, looking back on a life of violence and anger, is trying to reconcile himself to that past, and find a peaceful way.  Styron, in the midst of the civil rights (and Black Power) movement, is writing about slavery and trying (I suspect) to connect the violent, ugly, oppressive past with the unfocused, unharnessed anger he saw around him, and find its motives, and its alternatives.

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