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.

A Chapter for Our Times

December 19, 2008 § 1 Comment

Now reading: Martin Chuzzlewit.

Dickens seems angrier in this book than in the others I’ve read (although he certainly has his moments in all of them, and especially in Bleak House).  I hope I’ll write a little something about hypocrisy — one of the major targets of ire — and Dickens’s irony in this book a little later, but for now let’s focus on one of the least hypocritical characters in the book: Jonas Chuzzlewit, who is, at least, a forthright scoundrel.

In chapter 11 we get a grotesque little domestic scene, with Anthony Chuzzlewit and his son, Jonas, entertaining the Misses Pecksniff.  The Chuzzlewits are two of Dickens’s monsters of commerce, obsessed with business.  They are especially fond of ill-gotten gains.

We are also introduced to one Mr. Chuffey, an ancient clerk in the Chuzzlewit’s employ.  Chuffey intrigues me as a kind of anti-Bartleby: both seem to be ciphers, blanks reduced in the drudgery of office work to a single characteristic, but whereas Melville’s scrivener would prefer not to do nearly anything asked of him, including anything asked of him by his employer, Chuffey is responsive only to the suggestions and commands of his employer, Anthony Chuzzlewit.  If anyone but Anthony asks him if he is ready for dinner, he either does not or chooses not to hear them; if Anthony suggests a joke is funny, Chuffey finds it hilarious.  He’s a human being who’s forgotten how to be, having become so used to someone else deciding for him.  Whereas Bartleby, the consummate misanthrope, preferred not to, Chuffey prefers to, losing himself in the opposite direction.

It is, as the title of this post says, a chapter for our times.  Jonas loves to abuse this old man, calling him “Stupid” and “Old Chuffey” and showing off his wit in cracking jokes at the clerk’s expense.  This figure lurks in the background of the scene in the Chuzzlewits’ den, choking on his food as Jonas “entertains” the Pecksniffs, attempting to woo them both simultaneously.  Jonas also scorns his father, calling him “ghost” and dropping unsubtle hints that the old man has hung around for too long and should probably feel free to die soon so Jonas can have his money.  Of this, his father approves, as signaling his son’s proper attitude toward the world of business.  (These interactions make me think of Jonas as the ancestor of Walker and Texas Ranger, the sons of Ricky Bobby in Talladega Nights, with their threats to come after their grandfather Chip “like a spider monkey” if he gets in their way.)

But this has been a week of $50 billion dollar Ponzi schemes, and a budget deficit nearing 14 digits, and very smart people like Paul Krugman pointing out that a huge chunk of our economy for the last decade has been more or less a sham dedicated to gigantic personal bonuses based on imaginary dividends, a massive theft from investors.  It’s been an unjolly week.  So here’s an exchange between Anthony and Jonas:

‘You may overdo anything, my darlings.  You may overdo even hypocrisy.  Ask Jonas!’

‘You can’t overdo taking care of yourself,’ observed that hopeful gentleman with his mouth full.

‘Do you hear that, my dears?’ cried Anthony, quite enraptured.  ‘Wisdom, wisdom!  A good exception, Jonas.  No.  It’s not easy to overdo that.’

‘Except,’ whispered Mr. Jonas to his favourite cousin, ‘except when one lives too long.  Ha, ha!…’

‘There’s another thing that’s not easily overdone, father,’ remarked Jonas, after a short silence.

‘What’s that?’ asked the father; grinning already in anticipation.

‘A bargain,’ said the son.  ‘Here’s the rule for bargains.  “Do other men, for they would do you.”  That’s the true business precept.  All others are counterfeits.’

It’s the refutation of any goodness in the world that Dickens so disdains.  This is the worldview that leads to monstrous unfettered capitalism.  When Alan Greenspan seemed so shaken by the utter lack of regard for shareholders and reputation in the financial services industry, I think this is what he was responding to: the shortsighted nihilism of its leaders.  Unchecked greed is, in the end, a horrible long-term business strategy, unless you only care about your own personal paycheck and making enough money before the bubble bursts that it doesn’t really matter to you that your company, your industry, your country has gone bankrupt.

Mrs. Moore and the Temple of Boum

March 18, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: A Passage to India.

Reading next: The Travels of Sir John Mandeville and The Golden Apples, by Eudora Welty.

Adela Questing is not the only character whose life changes in the picnic at the Marabar Caves. Mrs. Moore’s is also profoundly affected: both share a similar experience with an echo, at different times, in different ways.

Forster, while careful to point out that the caves are not to be seen as merely uncanny, is thoroughly uncanny in his initial description of the echo, as experienced by Mrs. Moore:

The echo in a Marabar cave… is entirely devoid of distinction. Whatever is said, the same monotonous noise replies… “Boum” is the sound as far as the human alphabet can express it, or “bou-oum,” or “ou-boum” — utterly dull. Hope, politeness, the blowing of a nose, the squeak of a boot, all produce “boum.” Even the striking of a match starts a little worm coiling… And if several people talk at once, an overlapping howling noise begins, echoes generate echoes, and the cave is stuffed with a snake composed of small snakes, which write independently.

Mrs. Moore hates her short time in the dark cave, into which the entire company had packed. She’d felt something repulsive cover her mouth; looking for the villain after they have left the cave, she discovers it was the hand of a baby on its mother’s hip, just grabbing what looks grabbable, as babies will. Not a touch of evil about it at all.

But the echo, that horrible snake composed of small snakes… that stays with her. (Almost Shakespearean, that image. Like something Lear would have said.) And in another of the last paragraphs of chapters about religion, she thinks:

But suddenly, at the edge of her mind, Religion appeared, poor little talkative Christianity, and she knew that all its divine words from “Let there be Light” to “It is finished” only amounted to “boum.” … she realized that she didn’t want to write to her children, didn’t want to communicate with anyone, not even with God. She sat motionless with horror…

And Mrs. Moore, apparently, never gets over this. She makes herself so disagreeable — going so far as to be rude to the damaged Adele and to assert Aziz’s innocence — that her son ships her out, in the midst of the insufferably hot tropical summer. She dies on the passage across the Indian Ocean, having become a horrible sibyl of a kind, uttering her pronouncements of doom and terror when she has to speak at all. It seems, in a way, the opposite of Godbole’s Hindu song: where he continually sings for the god to come, she feels she has heard the horrible response, the response which is no response at all, and ceases to see why communication should be bothered with.

Adela also experiences the “boum” echo, but it takes a much different form with her. Her echo torments her, ringing in her ears for days after the incident. It is trying to tell her something; it is akin to Poe’s tell-tale heart, pounding away in her brain, an awful manifestation of conscience. When she admits that she may have made a mistake by accusing Aziz, it subsides; and when she finally recants, in court, it leaves her. But why the echo? The echo seems to her the key to remembering at least some of what actually happened, and also the disorienting factor keeping her from remembering.

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