The OF Blog: April 2013

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Flannery O'Connor, "A Stroke of Good Fortune"

Not every single story that Flannery O’Connor wrote was “serious literature,” the type that allows for extensive textual pulling and prodding to yield bumper crops full of symbolism and portentous commentary on the human condition(s).  She herself professed in her letters bemusement at how earnest some people were at deriving meanings from characters and situations that she loosely based on actual events that she had witnessed growing up in Georgia during the early-to-mid 20th century.  Yet there are some stories in A Good Man is Hard to Find (1955) that are lighter and perhaps slighter in nature and tone than the majority of her fictions.  “A Stroke of Good Fortune” (1953) is one of these works.  It is an amusing tale that does contain just enough overt references to symbolic foreshadowing to please those who look for these elements in a tale, but it is little more than just a diversionary tale, one that does not linger as much in the reader’s mind after reading it as do most of her other tales.
The steps were a thin black rent in the middle of the house, covered with a mole-colored carpet that looked as if it grew from the floor.  They stuck straight up like steeple steps, it seemed to her.  They reared up.  The minute she stood at the bottom of them, they reared up and got steeper for her benefit.  As she gazed up them, her mouth widened and turned down in a look of complete disgust.  She was in no condition to go up anything.  She was sick.  Madam Zoleeda had told her but not before she knew it herself.
Madam Zoleeda was the palmist on Highway 87.  She had said, “A long illness,” but she had added, whispering, with a very I-already-know-but-I-won’t-tell look, “it will bring you a stroke of good fortune!”  and then had sat back grinning, a stout woman with green eyes that moved in their sockets as if they had been oiled.  Ruby didn’t need to be told.  She had already figured out the good fortune.  Moving.  For months she had had a distinct feeling that they were going to move.  Bill Hall couldn’t hold off much longer. (p. 185)
This quote is the first of several allusionary passages in “A Stroke of Good Fortune” that give clues as to what ails thirty-four year-old Ruby.  Ruby has found herself these past few months to be increasingly ill, with sudden nauseous spells.  Married yet childless, she considers herself smarter and more fortunate than her mother and sisters because she is not burdened with squalling young children, as those would drain her of vitality even quicker than it did her mother.  She takes a vain pride in her youthful looks, remarking early in the tale that she is younger-looking than her youngest brother, Rufus, a just-returned veteran who is fourteen years younger than herself.  This pride, coupled with the confusions of the past few months as to the changes in her condition, serves to set up the series of amusing events throughout the story.
He looked old too.  He looked older than she did and he was fourteen years younger.  She was extremely young looking for her age.  Not that thirty-four is any age and anyway she was married.  She had to smile, thinking about that, because she had done so much better than her sisters – they had married from around.  “This breathlessness,” she muttered, stopping again.  She decided that she would have to sit down.
There were twenty-eight steps in each flight – twenty-eight. (pp. 186-187)
The step numbers here are an important clue, along with the fact that Ruby lives on the fifth floor of her apartment complex.  Yet while the reader by now might have figured out Ruby’s “malady,” what with the two quotes already provided and the early description of Ruby as becoming “urn-shaped,” the narrative sustains itself with the tension between Ruby’s puzzled, sometimes terrified thoughts about her “worsening” condition and what the reader might already know is the true “stroke of good fortune” that the palmist declared that Ruby would experience.

There are more references to this, such as this little passage:
The steps were going up and down like a seesaw with her in the middle of it.  She did not want to get nauseated.  Not that again.  Now no.  No.  She was not.  She sat tightly to the steps with her eyes shut until the dizziness stopped a little and the nausea subsided.  No, I’m not going to no doctor, she said.  No.  No.  She was not.  They would have to carry her there knocked out before she would go.  She had done all right doctoring herself all these years – no bad sick spells, no teeth out, no children, all that by herself.  She would have had five children right now if she hadn’t been careful.
She wondered more than once if this breathlessness could be heart trouble.  Once in a while, going up the steps, there’d be a pain in her chest along with it.  That was what she wanted it to be – heart trouble.  They couldn’t very well remove your heart.  They’d have to knock her in the head before they’d get her near a hospital, they’d have to – suppose she would die if they didn’t? (p. 187)
Stories such as this that rely on the main character to be clueless about what is actually transpiring around them can quickly grow wearisome if the writer doesn’t resolve their naivety in a timely fashion.  “A Stroke of Good Fortune,” which is thirteen pages in the Library of America edition, comes close to tedious repetition by story’s end.  The quotes provided here, taken from the first four pages of the story, should already give the reader all the clues necessary as to deciphering what truly ails Ruby.  Yet several of her self-doubts are repeated in the pages that follow to the point where the story can barely sustain its narrative force.  The narrative “twist,” presented as a combination of a joke and a commentary on how easily we can self-deceive ourselves, is too slight.  There is little else to the story other than Ruby’s self-delusion.  “A Stroke of Good Fortune” might bring out a brief smirk or even a quick chuckle from the reader when she solves the puzzle, but there is little else to the story that recommends itself to the reader.  The characterization is decent, but O’Connor does better in the majority of her fictions.  Sometimes, however, the slight, less resounding tales serve a purpose.  Within the greater collection of A Good Man is Hard to Find, “A Stroke of Good Fortune” provides a respite of sorts from the menacing atmosphere of the previous three stories, showing that O’Connor’s characters can be amusing in their mendacity as well as being afflicted by it.  It is not O’Connor at her best, but it does demonstrate that she is no one-note composer either.

Originally posted at Gogol's Overcoat in February 2013.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

What is the state (or states) of SF/F writing today?

I've slowly been catching up this weekend on certain online debate topics.  Plenty on women in SF, awards critiques, and other sundry items, most of which are reiterations of previous discussions on these points.  I then found myself thumbing through certain works that I was in the midst of reading or am considering reading in the next few days.  Thinking about forms and structures, contents and delivery methods.  Wondering why one particular fiction (which might be reviewed shortly) simultaneously was a slog to decipher and a joy to imagine.  Reflections on styles that innovate and those that stagnate the narrative pond.

As these disparate thoughts began to coalesce into something more than impressions if not also less than concrete lines of thinking, I began to wonder if some of the issues I was having with reading contemporary SF/F might be that in comparison to certain other literary genres, SF/F discussion seems to be oriented more toward delineating approaches and less toward the transgression of those approaches.  It is not as much a matter of individual writers (I can readily identify several writers whose works flow between the porous walls of interpretation and delineation) as it is a categorical one. 

What innovations, if any, are there occurring in SF/F these days?  Are they merely the expansion of the authorial pool to include non-Anglophones, non-Caucasians, non-straights, non-males?  Or is there something else taking place within those works most frequently categorized as "SF/F" that diversifies the writing/subject matter beyond those contributions made by women/GLBTQ/PoCs?  At times, I find myself wondering if the writing emerging today reflects a crisis of self-identification.  By that, I am looking beyond the author and toward the subjects that the authors treat.  Is there anything "new" being said in these pieces, or as an aggregate, is SF/F more engaged in looking back or looking inward than outwards toward the creation of new cultural/literary paradigms?

These are the sorts of questions that I ponder sometimes when I encounter SF/F debates online; I do not think of these as much when I'm reading discussions on recent fictions from other literary genres/countries.  Some of it likely is just due to personal tastes; a genre can only stretch and shift so much before its connective bonds snap and the works within become something else, something other than works of a common genre.  Perhaps my occasional sense of SF/F being in a state of stagnation is as much a personal preference as it is a condemnation of a perceived state of literary affairs, but maybe there are others who see this differently and see today's SF/F as being more vibrant than before.

What do you consider the state (or states) of SF/F writing today as being?

Flannery O'Connor, "The Life You Save May Be Your Own"

Unlike the previous Flannery O’Connor stories reviewed here, her 1953 short story “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” defies easy description.  There are no preachers of a Church without Christ, no Misfits giving the lie to “good breeding” and genteel manners, no confused young boys trying to self-baptize themselves in order to wash away the detritus of their young lives.   Yet “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” has its own haunting quality about it, perhaps because it is so subtle in its presentation of souls trying to gain advantage in life, whether or not it is at another’s expense.

“The Life You Save May Be Your Own” opens with an old woman and her daughter on a porch, apparently in northern Georgia or Tennessee, when an apparent drifter, a Mr. Shiftlet, appears, searching for a place to stay.  The mother tries to gauge Shiftlet’s intent (at first, he is described as being “a tramp”) and the two engage in a series of bantering probes, trying to peer deeper into the other’s true intentions.  There is a wry, black humor occurring here, with the adult daughter, Lucynell (the younger; the mother is also named Lucynell), being caught in the middle of a sort of perverse bargaining between the two.  The mother wants her married; Shiftlet at first takes more interest in the ancient Ford that’s been parked there since the girl’s father died some fifteen years before.  Soon into their semantic circling, Shiftlet says this:
He flipped away the dead match and blew a stream of gray into the evening.  A sly look came over his face.  “Lady,” he said, “nowadays, people’ll do anything anyways.  I can tell you my name is Tom T. Shiftlet and I come from Tarwater, Tennessee, but you never have seen me before:  how you know I ain’t lying?  How you know my name ain’t Aaron Sparks, lady, and I come from Singleberry, Georgia, or how you know it’s not George Speeds and I come from Lucy, Alabama, or how you know I ain’t Thompson Bright from Toolafalls, Mississippi?”
“I don’t know nothing about you,” the old woman muttered, irked.
“Lady,” he said, “people don’t care how they lie.  Maybe the best I can tell you is, I’m a man; but listen lady,” he said and paused and made his tone more ominous still, “what is a man?” (pp. 174-175)
“What is a man?”  What a portent-filled question this is; in some ways, what is a “human” lies close to the heart of O’Connor’s fictions.  What makes us lie to each other’s faces, trying to gain an advantage that most often is negligible at best?  Why do we go about trying to “pull a fast one,” to cover ourselves with our own fabrications in order to present a false face to the world?  These questions, although unspoken in “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” loom large over it.

Shiftlet and the mother come to a series of arrangements, grudgingly agreed to by each.  Shiftlet will do work for shelter and the car.  Lucynell, the innocent girl with “pink-gold hair and blue eyes,” becomes the next center of attention.  Her mother wants to marry her off; Shiftlet responds to her probing into his marital status curtly:
There was a long silence.  “Lady,” he said finally, “where would you find you an innocent woman today?  I wouldn’t have any of this trash I could just pick up.” (p. 175)
There is ironic foreshadowing in this line, considering how Lucynell, whose silence is eventually explained, is often depicted as an innocent among the fallen.  As her mother and Shiftlet continue to haggle in the week to come, Lucynell becomes engaged to Shiftlet, to her mother’s great delight, as she seems to be relieved at the thought of her burden being removed.  Yet Shiftlet, who began by bargaining for a place to stay, begins to wheedle for more:  the car (then the car with a fresh coat of paint), a “mortgage-free farm,” and then a dowry for him to marry Lucynell.  The mother, in her desperate desire to rid herself of her deaf-mute daughter’s care, eventually accedes to these terms.

One of the themes that comes to the fore around the midpoint of “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” is that of the dualism of body and spirit, of permanence and wandering:
“Lucynell don’t even know what a hotel is,” the old woman m uttered.  “Listen her, Mr. Shiftlet,” she said, sliding forward in her chair, “you’d be getting a permanent house and a deep well and the most innocent girl in the world.  You don’t need no money.  Lemme tell you something:  there ain’t any place in the world for a poor disabled friendless drifting man.”
The ugly words settled in Mr. Shiftlet’s head like a group of buzzards in the top of a tree.  He didn’t answer at once.  He rolled himself a cigarette and lit it and then he said in an even voice, “Lady, a man is divided into two parts, body and spirit.”
The old woman clamped her gums together.
“A body and a spirit,” he repeated.  “The body, lady, is like a house:  it don’t go anywhere, but the spirit, lady, is like a automobile:  always on the move, always…”
“Listen, Mr. Shiftlet,” she said, “my well never goes dry and my house is always warm in the winter and there’s no mortgage on a thing about this place.  You can go to the courthouse and see for yourself.  And yonder that shed is a fine automobile.”  She laid the bait carefully.  “You can have it painted by Saturday.  I’ll pay for the paint.”
In the darkness, Mr. Shiftlet’s smile stretched like a weary snake waking up by a fire.  After a second he recalled himself and said, “I’m only saying a man’s spirit means more to him than anything else.  I would have to take my wife off for the week end without no regards at all for cost.  I got to follow where my spirit says to go.” (pp. 179-180)
Not only does this scene set up the final third of the novel, it lays bare the inner conflict within Shiftlet’s soul:  the desire to be “free,” to have his “spirit” roaming wherever it may.  It is a powerful desire, one that leads him to the ultimate betrayal of innocence.  Yet conscience is a powerful thing and a road sign dealing with speeding, the titular “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” pricks Shiftlet painfully.  His self-justifications for his actions are ripped apart and shown for the lies they are when he encounters a young hitchhiker at the end (the connection with how innocent Lucynell is abandoned is made quite explicit), who calls his statements for the lies that they are.  As the story closes, Shiftlet is anguished, yet ultimately unrepentant. It is with him “rac[ing] the galloping shower into Mobile” that provides a metaphoric parallel to a man being chased by hellhounds.  Shiftlet is guilty as all and he knows it and the ultimate question of “the life you save may be your own” takes on a different level of meaning.  While it certainly is lesser in scope than the majority of her other stories, “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” is a muter yet only slightly less powerful work than her more well-known tales.

Originally posted at Gogol's Overcoat in February 2013.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Flannery O'Connor, "The River"

Religious life in the American South has fascinated and repulsed non-natives for the past few generations.  The South’s complex relationship to the tenants of (American) Protestant Christianity bewilders those who are not accustomed to its myriad expressions of faith.  In my review of Flannery O’Connor’s 1952 novel, Wise Blood, I discussed the more “modern” form of religious expression, that of the heretical “movements” that decentralized church hierarchies into a protean mass of storefront chapels and “preachers” that have distilled certain elements of American Protestantism into a sleek package that appeals to those who are searching for a “moral compass” in their lives and who refuse to have any truck with matters of creeds and dogmas.  Yet there is something distinctly “Southern” about the characters in O’Connor’s 1953 short story, “The River,” that it bears reminding readers that O’Connor’s stories often focused on the particular socio-religious interactions that dominate Southern culture in ways that are foreign to other Americans (not to mention those from outside the United States).  As O’Connor said in her 1963 essay “The Catholic Novelist in the South”:
The things we see, hear, smell and touch affect us long before we believe anything at all.  The South impresses its image on the Southern writer from the moment he is able to distinguish one sound from another.  He takes it in through his ears and hears it again in his own voice, and, by the time he is able to use his imagination for fiction, he finds that his senses respond irrevocably to a certain reality, and particularly to the sound of a certain reality.  The Southern writer’s greatest tie with the South is through his ear, which is usually sharp but not too versatile outside his own idiom.  With a few exceptions, such as Miss Katherine Anne Porter, he is not too often successfully cosmopolitan in fiction, but the fact is that he doesn’t need to be.  A distinctive idiom is a powerful instrument for keeping fiction social.  When one Southern character speaks, regardless of his station in life, an echo of all Southern life is heard.  This helps to keep Southern fiction from being a fiction of purely private experience. (p. 855)
This simultaneous lack of “cosmopolitan” characters and “an echo of all Southern life” can be seen in many of O’Connor’s most compelling fictions.  Sometimes, as in the case of the grandmother in “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” the rigid morality defined by its provincial character is portrayed in all of its glorious hypocrisies and shortcomings.  In “The River,” however, there is a tragic quality to this tale of a young boy who seeks redemption, both for himself and for his mother.  In it can be found an echo of creek baptisms and even multiple baptisms whenever a teen or adult switches congregations in search for that rapturous moment in which s/he feels as though the symbolic drowning of baptism might this time (the first?  second?  fifth?) wash them fully of their sins.

The story opens with a little boy, Bevel (actually Harry, but he changes his name to the name of the minister in response to a question from his chaperone), who is about four or five, getting ready to travel with a neighbor, Mrs. Connin to the countryside to hear an itinerant minister perform a healing service at the local river.  The opening pages of the story describes in gentle ironic terms the poverty of the place, with the dilapidated hog pens and an escaped shoat hog illustrating the lives that the Connins and their neighbors lived, before the scene at the river accentuates the difference between the squalor of their lives and the intensity of their faith in the cleansing power of river healing.  Young Harry/Bevel, dirty as many young boys can be, is largely ignorant of the faith, as is seen in this passage:
You found out more when you left where you lived.  He had found out already this morning that he had been made by a carpenter named Jesus Christ.  Before he had thought it had been a doctor named Sladewall, a fat man with a yellow mustache who gave him shots and thought his name was Herbert, but this must have been a joke.  They joked a lot where he lived.  If he had thought about it before, he would have thought Jesus Christ was a word like “oh” or “damm” or “God,” or maybe somebody who had cheated them out of something sometime.  When he had asked Mrs. Connin who the man in the sheet in the picture over her bed was, she had looked at him a while with her mouth open.  Then she had said, “That’s Jesus,” and she had kept on looking at him.” (p. 160)
There is an enduring innocent quality to young Harry/Bevel in this story.  He is ignorant of the tenets of Christianity or even the image of the Christ, but he is also oblivious at first to those adults who are also seeking the Sublime at the riverbank.  As the Connins and Harry/Bevel arrive at the riverbank, they encounter a rangy youth of perhaps 19 who has waded out into the river and is singing a hymn.  This is the preacher Bevel, and what he says captures the conflicting qualities of evangelical Southern revival/healing services:
“Maybe I know why you come,” he said in the twangy voice, “maybe I don’t.”
“If you ain’t come for Jesus, you ain’t come for me.  If you just come to see can you leave your pain in the river, you ain’t come for Jesus.  You can’t leave your pain in the river,” he said.  “I never told nobody that.”  He stopped and looked down at his knees.
“I seen you cure a woman oncet!” a sudden high voice shouted from the hump of people.  “Seen that woman git up and walk out straight where she had limped in!”
The preacher lifted one foot and then the other.  He seemed almost but not quite to smile.  “You might as well go home if that’s what you come for,” he said.
Then he lifted his head and arms and shouted, “Listen to what I got to say, you people!  There ain’t but one river and that’s the River of Life, made out of Jesus’ Blood.  That’s the river you have to lay your pain in, in the River of Faith, in the River of Life, in the River of Love, in the rich red river of Jesus’ Blood, you people!” (p. 162)
The audiences are searching for a release from their pains:  from arthritis, from heartbreak, from the abandonment of kinfolk and friends.  They desire to be cleansed of their real and perceived sins, to be able to walk out of the river changed irrevocably from what they were before.  From the testifying of those on the shore in response to the preacher’s call-and-response sermon, a fervor arises that O’Connor captures perfectly.  In reading this middle section of the story, I was reminded of my adolescence, occasionally having to travel with my parents on Sunday afternoons to gospel singings that my Baptist relatives (I was raised Methodist, before abandoning that denomination in my early 20s) would participate in.  I can still recall vividly the thundering sermons calling for people to (re)commit themselves to Christ, lest the baptisms that many of them had would be rendered ineffectual.  In hindsight, it was confusing for me and in reflection the services differed significantly from the liturgies of my youth and present.  So when O’Connor has the young Harry/Bevel come into contact with the preacher Bevel and hear what baptism means, it felt so true to the events I witnessed in the 1980s:
The preacher didn’t smile.  His bony face was rigid and his narrow gray eyes reflected the almost colorless sky.  There was a loud laugh from the old man sitting on the car bumper and Bevel grasped the back of the preacher’s collar and helf it tightly.  The grin had already disappeared from his face.  He had the sudden feeling that this was not a joke.  Where he lived everything was a joke.  From the preacher’s face, he knew immediately that nothing the preacher said or did was a joke.  “My mother named me that,” he said quickly.
“Have you ever been Baptized?” the preacher asked.
“What’s that?” he murmured.
“If I Baptize you,” the preacher said, “you’ll be able to go to the Kingdom of Christ.  You’ll be washed in the river of suffering, son, and you’ll go by the deep river of life.  Do you want that?”
“Yes,” the child said, and thought, I won’t go back to the apartment then, I’ll go under the river.
“You won’t be the same again,” the preacher said.  “You’ll count.”  Then he turned his face to the people and began to preach and Bevel looked over his shoulder at the pieces of the white sun scattered in the river.  Suddenly the preacher said, “All right, I’m going to Baptize you now,” and without more warning, he tightened his hold and swung him upside down and plunged his head into the water.  He held him under while he said the words of Baptism and then he jerked him up again and looked sternly at the gasping child.  Bevel’s eyes were dark and dilated.  “You count now,” the preacher said.  “You didn’t even count before.” (pp. 164-165)
Here occurs the beginning of the heartache that comprises the story’s final third.  The boy wants so desperately to be good, to be redeemed, to truly “be counted,” now that he is told that he “counts.”  He wants a prayer for his mother, whose illness at the beginning of the story is finally revealed.  Yet this revelation, that he wants the good Lord to heal his mama from the pain of her hangover, draws anger from the preacher and derisive laughter from the crowd.  The innocence of child only goes so far, it seems, and the boy is stung by this.  When the Connins return him late that night to his parents and his mother is informed of the boy’s pseudonym, baptism, and prayer for her, she is in turns horrified and offended that he was exposed to such religious matters.  His parents’ irritation at the credulous believers who believed in the efficacy of river baptisms is misinterpreted by the young boy as being a commentary on his quality of his own recent “conversion.”  He wants to “count,” he wants to have the pains “washed away,” like the preacher talked about.  He wanted to be cleansed, no matter how many dipping into the river waters it would take.

The end result is tragic.  It is sobering to read and it make make one’s heart ache.  O’Connor, who earlier described with detached irony the peculiar beliefs of the local Protestant evangelicals, does not play up the end for laughs.  We see the end unfold from the boy’s perspective and his sincere, burning desire to find the Kingdom of Christ (of which he knew nothing until the morning before) is disturbing because the new-found fervor is expressed in such a sad, moving fashion.  The final three paragraphs transform “The River,” making it not a mocking commentary on rural Southern Protestant practices, but instead a commentary on how the combination of ignorance and faith can lead one into a disastrous revelation.  The symbolic drowning of Baptism, which O’Connor references in places throughout the story, becomes all too real:  the literalization of the figurative is tragic.  Yet there is no sense here that O’Connor ridicules Harry/Bevel.  Instead, she takes pity on him, showing through his viewpoint the circumstances that led to his fateful end.  He at least found peace and that is a quality that is so hard to demonstrate in fiction, much less in real life.  That O’Connor is able to accomplish this within 18 pages is a remarkable achievement and “The River” perhaps is one of her strongest fictions due to this.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Flannery O'Connor, "A Good Man is Hard to Find"

She said she thought it was going to be a good day for driving, neither too hot nor too cold, and she cautioned Bailey that the speed limit was fifty-five miles an hour and that the patrolmen hid themselves behind billboards and small clumps of trees and sped out after you before you had a chance to slow down.  She pointed out interesting details of the scenery:  Stone Mountain; the blue granite that in some places came up to both sides of the highway; the brilliant red clay banks slightly streaked with purple; and the various crops that made rows of green lace-work on the ground.  The trees were full of silver-white sunlight and the meanest of them sparkled.  The children were reading comic magazines and their mother had gone back to sleep.
“Let’s go through Georgia fast so we won’t have to look at it much,” John Wesley said.
“If I were a little boy,” said the grandmother, “I wouldn’t talk about my native state that way.  Tennessee has the mountains and Georgia has the hills.”
“Tennessee is just a hillbilly dumping ground,” John Wesley said, “and Georgia is a lousy state too.”
“You said it,” June Star said.
“In my time,” said the grandmother, folding her thin veined fingers, “children were more respectful of their native states and their parents and everything else.  People did right then.  Oh look at the cute little pickanniny!” she said and pointed to a Negro child standing in the door of a shack.  “Wouldn’t that make a picture, now?” she asked and they all turned and looked at the little Negro out of the back window.  He waved.
“He didn’t have any britches on,” June Star said.
“He probably didn’t have any,” the grandmother explained.  “Little niggers in the country don’t have things like we do.  If I could paint, I’d paint that picture,” she said. (pp. 138-139)
“A Good Man is Hard to Find” (1953), later the eponymous title of her 1955 collection, is one of Georgia writer Flannery O’Connor’s most famous stories.  In a little over 15 pages, she constructs a tale in which the social conventions of late 1940s Southern “polite society” are stripped down and their base hypocrisies are laid bare.  There is a lot to unpack from this tale, as there are elements here that O’Connor would revisit in her other fictions.

The passage quoted above appears very early in the tale.  An apparently widowed grandmother, her son, wife, and two children are traveling to Florida for a vacation.  The grandmother does not want to go; she wants to revisit the places of her youth, namely the mountains of East Tennessee where she has kin.  For her, the hills of Georgia and the mountains of eastern Tennessee are home.  It is where she was raised and the values of this region she considers to be the standard from which those of all other regions fail to match.  Her son and his wife, however, are not as enamored with this region and their two children, somewhere between 8 and 12 based on their liking for certain things and their approach to life, have a casual disdain for both states; they want to experience change and aren’t as tied down.  In just a few bits of dialogue, O’Connor has established a generational shift in attitude, but then she goes one step further and shows the vicious limits of the grandmother’s worldview by her condescending, racist view of a black youth.  “Cute as a picture,” with the connotation of all blacks being little more than naive children to her.  It is a passing reference in this story, but there are reappearances of this attitude in other O’Connor stories, so it bears noting now that it is difficult at times to separate the author’s complex views on the issue (some of her essays, which in her day might be viewed as more progressive than staunch segregationist attitudes, would today be viewed more dimly than when they were composed).  But here in “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” it is intended to show the grandmother’s “values” in a way that sets up the explosive conclusion.

The first half of the story deals with the family’s travels down south through the clay country of Georgia, with the family asking the owner of a country BBQ place, an unctuous barbeque seller who belies his own comment with his appearance and actions,  about an escaped convict known as “The Misfit”:
“Did you read about that criminal, The Misfit, that’s escaped?” asked the grandmother.
“I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if he didn’t attact this place right here,” said the woman. 
“If he hears about it being here, I wouldn’t be none surprised to see him.  If he hears it’s two cent in the cash register, I wouldn’t be a tall surprised if he…”
“That’ll do,” Red Sam said.  “Go bring these people their Co’-Colas,” and the woman went off to get the rest of the order.
“A good man is hard to find,” Red Sammy said.  “Everything is getting terrible.  I remember the day you could go off and leave your screen door unlatched.  Not no more.”
He and the grandmother discussed better times.  The old lady said that in her opinion Europe was entirely to blame for the way things were now.  She said the way Europe acted you would think we were made of money and Red Sam said it was no use talking about it, she was exactly right.  The children ran outside into the white sunlight and looked at the monkey in the lacy chinaberry tree.  He was busy catching fleas on himself and biting each one carefully between his teeth as if it were a delicacy. (p. 142)
Although this story is set a few years after the end of World War II, this sort of conversation continues to take place every day at nearly-dilapidated gas stations, front porch restaurants, and farmer’s markets all across the rural parts of the South.  The values have changed.  Dem furr’ners.  The animalistic qualities of the imprisoned.  Why we would never be that way.  The oblivious nature of such self-blinding, self-congratulatory bromides is not only a sharp, biting social commentary, but it directly sets up the “a good man is hard to find” theme of the story’s second half.   Here, the prison escapee The Misfit is set up to be outside these values, to be something rather than someone.  It all falls within the parameters of “polite society’s” view of those who transgress its social mores.  Yet as is often case in O’Connor’s stories, those who subscribe to such rigid, absolutist views are set up for a fall.

It is in the story’s final half where everything unites in a devastating conclusion.  The family car overturns on a hilly road and among the grandmother’s internal monologue of how they should have just gone to the mountains of East Tennessee rather than this godforsaken country road, there are images of her hat still pinned to her head, but with the stiff front brim broken and the violet spray hanging off to the side.  The connection between the damaged and yet still relatively intact attire and the value system that the grandmother represents is clear, yet there is something more to it.  There is also the implication of the fool clinging to unworthy values, to someone who is blind to the changing world around them.  While the children express juvenile disappointment in no deaths or other signs of violence as they scream “‘We’ve had an ACCIDENT!’ the children screamed in a frenzy of delight. (p. 145),” there suddenly appears the metaphorical boogeyman, The Misfit and his crew.

The grandmother immediately recognizes him from his wanted ads and makes the mistake of acknowledging this.  As he and his crew are forced to round up the family and take them away, she continues to try and reason with him:
“Listen,” the grandmother almost screamed, “I know you’re a good man.  You don’t look a bit like you have common blood.  I know you must come from nice people!”
“Yes mam,” he said, “finest people in the world.”  When he smiled he showed a row of strong white teeth.  “God never made a finer woman than my mother and my daddy’s heart was pure gold,” he said.  The boy with the red sweat shirt had come around behind them and was standing with his gun at his hip.  The Misfit squatted down on the ground.  “Watch them children, Bobby Lee,” he said.  “You know they make me nervous.”  He looked at the six of them huddled together in front of him and he seemed to be embarrassed as if he couldn’t think of anything to say.  “Ain’t a cloud in the sky,” he remarked, looking up at it.  “Don’t see no sun but don’t see no cloud neither.” (p. 147)
All of her appeals to “good blood,” to manners and to the respect of life down to religion, all of these are easily countered by The Misfit.  It is, for him, society who has failed him rather than he failing society.  Through imagery such as his description of himself as being “buried alive” when sent to the penitentiary for a crime he claims he does not remember or understand (although he says the state claims it was murder of his father years before), there are certain allusions to Christianity, both in the grandmother’s attempt to get him to pray and become “good” and in The Misfit’s conclusion that such religious matters falter in the light of this:
“Yes’m,” The Misfit said as if he agreed.  “Jesus thown everything off balance.  It was the same case with Him as with me except He hasn’t committed any crime and they could prove I had committed one because they had the papers on me.  Of course,” he said, “they never shown me my papers.  That’s why I sign myself now.  I said long ago, you get you a signature and sign everything you do and keep a copy of it.  Then you’ll know what you done and you can hold up the crime to the punishment and see do they match and in the end you’ll have something to prove you ain’t been treated right.  I call myself The Misfit,” he said, “because I can’t make what all I done wrong fit what all I gone through in punishment.” (p. 151)
Here lies the crux of the debate embedded within “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”  How should a society adjudicate those who “sin” or otherwise go against their laws and values?  Should such people be “buried alive” in prison, pushed away because of their heinous actions?  Should there be a dehumanization of those who commit such acts of violence, a removal of them from society that goes beyond just the punishment/rehabilitation aspects of law and order?  This is what The Misfit and the grandmother argue over.  Or rather, the grandmother naively clings to a faith in goodness as embedded in society and in the ability of The Misfit to rejoin it, while he sees further and realizes that he would never be accepted back and that even if he desired so, the order in question is itself flawed.

O’Connor has this exchange take place while The Misfit’s followers “take care” of the other family members.  The matter is as much settled with the finality of pistol shots as it is with the reduction of the grandmother to babbling about how maybe The Misfit really was one of “her children” (itself an allusion to not just the long-denied shared humanity between them, but also to the religious aspects of this).  This conclusion is devastating because it is the final, inevitable response to all of the previously-held assumptions of the grandmother.  The society and its values which she treasures has been shown to her to be not worth a bucket of warm spit in the eyes of one who has walked outside of it.  The “good man” being “hard to find” is shown to be not just the condemnation of the misguided by those who are blinded by their own inflated sense of self-importance, but also a commentary on the violence and darkness that lurks within human hearts.  It is an unsettling commentary, but one which O’Connor revisits in different guises in several more of the stories found in the 1955 anthology A Good Man is Hard to Find.  “A Good Man is Hard to Find” is a powerful tale because the little bits that O’Connor adds to the main plot aid in creating a collision of social views that underscore the fundamental hypocrisies of “polite society,” particularly that of post-WWII Southern towns and farms.  When read alongside other O’Connor tales, it serves not just as an example of her writing style, but also as a representative tale that contains the germ of several other stories within it.

Originally posted at Gogol's Overcoat in January 2013.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

So, there was a recent attempt to produce a SF/F version of Granta's The Best of Young British Novelists list

It almost never fails that whenever an influential periodical, whether it be Granta or The New Yorker, releases a generational (usually those writers in their 20s and 30s) list that there has to be some SF/F counter.  Often these sorts of rebuttals appear on sites designed to attract (like flies to crap?) those who want to get fired up about their favorite writers/genres omissions from these periodical lists.  Sometimes, the alt-lists mention some genuinely influential SF/F writers, but too frequently they are just an inchoate mess.  Let's look at one such list, posted on the UK newspaper The Guardian's website this past week by Damien Walter.  In his column, Walter says this about the elements that "unite" the works/authors that he cites:

Two things connect the 20 writers on this list. The first is a fascination with the weird and fantastic. The second is their love and affection for the pulp roots of SF. One or two may be just a smidgeon over 40, but will no doubt be among the writers shaping speculative fiction for decades to come. And I have looked beyond Britain where I can to find the most interesting voices in what is increasingly an international SF genre.

 Right away this list is set up to be different from the Granta list, which looks at authors younger than 40 who are at least in the process of obtaining UK citizenship.  Walter first has to stretch the definition of "young" a bit, presumably in order to fit in China Miéville (who incidentally is mentioned in both the 2003 and 2013 Granta lists, for different reasons).  Then he has to use umbrella terms such as "weird" and "fantastic," which he barely even attempts to define for purposes of delineating his list, in order to connect very disparate writers.  Granted, the Granta list contains a wealth of styles and approaches (including some, such as Sarah Hall, Steven Hall, and Helen Oyeyemi, which have attracted some attention from SF/F readers/critics), but it does a much better job in its introduction in justifying the connections between the chosen writers and contemporary UK societies.  Walter's list, in comparison, looks much more like a host of disparate styles and approaches that underscore a growing lack of generic cohesiveness than anything else.  Unless of course the point of his list was to show competing trends toward nostalgic-laden pieces and attempts to make sense of contemporary issues.

Although there are truly some promising names on Walter's list, I have to admit to being quite puzzled over the inclusion of Hugh Howey's Wool on this list.  Is it solely due to it being a massive bestseller for a work of originally self-published interconnected short stories?  It certainly cannot be because of its brilliant prose or sparkling characterizations, as the stories contain little of worth to them outside of the sort of retreaded SFnal "big ideas" that I suppose are still popular today two generations after the heyday of the "Golden Age of Science Fiction."  Likewise, I am left wondering if the mention of Seanan McGuire/Mira Grant is due more to her writing the sort of stories that have the appeal of perishable items:  void after a certain date.  But unlike Howey, whose omnibus I did read recently and found wanting, I have only read samples of McGuire/Grant's works.  However, what I found within them is a blandness that was unappealing.  There was nothing within them that promises a writer who'll be an influential voice five years from now, much less 20-30 years down the line.

Although several other of the writers cited I have enjoyed to some extent or another (a few I would consider to be excellent writers), I find it difficult to associate them in a larger setting.  Certainly not as a collective of "generational" voices.  Part of this is that I'm uncertain if SF/F possesses anything approaching a direct connection to societal concerns that some of the best "literary fiction" pieces do.  If Walter's list is to be anything more than just twenty writers whose works he's enjoyed and think will be visible years from now, then there needs to be something stronger binding them.  If the 1983, 1993, 2003, and 2013 Granta lists show an evolution of fictions and how contemporary (British) societies and their concerns are presented, then what does Walter's list possess other than a demonstration that there is very little coherence to "SF/F" these days and that perhaps it is ultimately futile to create such a list, as the criteria would have to be so different as to prevent the formation of a tighter, more cohesive literary grouping?

Flannery O'Connor, Wise Blood

It is almost impossible to write about Flannery O’Connor’s fiction, especially her 1952 novel Wise Blood, without addressing the issues of religiosity and the depiction of the grotesque.  For O’Connor, the two were often intertwined.  In her 1960 essay, “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction,” O’Connor opines that:
Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one.  To be able to recognize a freak, you have to have some conception of the whole man, and in the South the general conception of man is still, in the main, theological.  That is a large statement, and it is dangerous to make it, for almost anything you say about Southern belief can be denied in the next breath with equal propriety.  But approaching the subject from the standpoint of the writer, I think it is safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted.  The Southerner who isn’t convinced of it, is very much afraid that he may have been formed in the image and likeness of God.  Ghosts can be very fierce and instructive.  They cast strange shadows, particularly in our literature.  In any case, it is when the freak can be sensed as a figure for our essential displacement that he attains some depth in literature. (pp. 817-818)
A half-century later, there is certainly much truth still to this observation.  Walk (or rather, drive, as the roads are not conducive for walking any more) down the streets and by-ways of almost any-size Southern town or hamlet and you will likely see signs advertising the upcoming revival or tent meeting.  Perhaps some of the old general stores that were shuttered in the 1970s and 1980s as Walmart invaded like the Zebra Mussel have reopened as storefront churches, with canvas signs stretched over the remains of old mobile electric signage (with the arrowheads, no longer flashing in the night, serving as a relic of a more secular past), advertising a new “man of God” who has come to lead the wayward home before the Rapture comes and the Elect are swept up en masse, leaving the sinners behind to grovel for mercy from an unrelenting Lord.  There is no appearance of joy in places like “The Word Chapel” (former home of a used car dealership) or “The Holiness Fellowship” (where ten years before was a men’s clothing store).  Instead, there is an air of expectant apocalypse hanging in these dark and cheerless former cathedrals to American small business.   The sinners have congregated here in hopes of having the Christ-ghost exorcised from them in meeting halls that are part PTA meetings and part sanitariums where the collective guilt is expiated through thunderous “AMEN!s” and the trembles and shakes overwhelm those who seek a connection, no matter how tenuous, with the luminous.

For those who live outside this environment, such happenings would be beyond strange; they would seem to herald a sort of mass psychosis that perhaps represents a threat to a whole host of social and cultural causes long championed as being just and right for human society.  When one sees the world as a sort of quasi-Manichean struggle between an omnipotent (yes, he saw you sneaking away with that pilfered cupcake!) God and a clever, temptatious Devil who embodied all of our desires and lusts, anything that appears to favor proscribed behaviors is viewed with deep suspicion, if not outright fear and hatred.  Yet this “Christ-haunted” soul (and “soul” is the appropriate word here) rejects the banality of existence.  If there is a God (and by presumption, an Enemy), then it bears consideration that humanity is more than the sum of its Egos, Ids, and Superegos.  It may not be a comfortable worldview for many to consider, but if one is going to understand Hazel Motes and the characters that populate O’Connor’s 1952 novel Wise Blood, then this worldview has to be at least considered on its own terms.

Wise Blood centers around four individuals, each of whom have become disillusioned with life and the faith that imbues local life:  a recently-discharged WWII veteran, Hazel Motes, who has become an atheist in the wake of a crisis of faith; the prostitute/boarding house owner Leora Watts; an 18 year-old zookeeper, Enoch Emery, who has been kicked out of his home by his abusive father; and a local con-artist, Hoover Shoats, who takes Hazel’s ideas and turns them into a new antireligious church movement.  Each of the characters is presented as being at once a modern form of a (heretical) holy person and a fool, with wry observations and black comedy often employed to underscore the (in)sincere craziness of their (dis)beliefs.  Take for instance this passage in Chapter 3, where Hazel speaks of his vision for a church that has no Christ in it:
“My Jesus,” Haze said.  He learned forward near an old woman with blue hair and a collar of red wooden beads.  “You better get on the other side, lady,” he said.  “There’s a fool down there giving out tracts.”  The crowd behind the old woman pushed her on, but she looked at him for an instant with two bright flea eyes.  He started toward her through the people but she was already too far away and he pushed back to where he had been standing against the wall.  “Sweet Jesus Christ Crucified,” he said, “I want to tell you people something.  Maybe you think you’re not clean because you don’t believe.  Well you are clean, let me tell you that.  Every one of you people are clean and let me tell you why if you think it’s because of Jesus Christ Crucified you’re wrong.  I don’t say he wasn’t crucified but I say it wasn’t for you.  Listenhere, I’m a preacher myself and I preach the truth.”  The crowd was moving fast.  It was a large spread raveling and the separate threads disappeared down the dark streets.  “Don’t I know what exists and what don’t?”  he cried.  “Don’t I have eyes in my head?  Am I a blind man?  Listenhere,” he called, “I’m going to preach a new church – the church of truth without Jesus Christ Crucified.  It won’t cost you nothing to join my church.  It’s not started yet but it’s going to be.”  The few people who were left glanced at him once or twice.  There were tracts scattered below over the sidewalk and out on the street.  The blind man was sitting on the bottom step.  Enoch Emery was on the other side, standing on the lion’s head, trying to balance himself, and the child was standing near him, watching Haze.  “I don’t need Jesus,” Haze said.  “What do I need with Jesus?  I got Leora Watts.” (pp. 30-31)
In plain yet impassioned words, Hazel lays out a vision in which those who feel guilty over not living up to the high call of Christ can find cleanness through their rejection of an ideology that has segregated them from any possible communion with God.  It sounds ridiculous on the surface and the more one contemplates it, the dafter it becomes.  Yet for those souls who desire peace from the worries of damnation from a divinity that they consciously reject yet subconsciously suspect is hovering right over them unseen yet felt, this is like manna from heaven or water flowing from the rock struck in the desert.  O’Connor here has sympathy for these benighted fools even as she shows, through scenes such as the purportedly blind preacher, Asa Hawks (who supposedly put quicklime in his eyes as a testimony of his faith), removing his shades to reveal that his eyes were not in fact damaged, that there is a hollowness to these new religious movements that seek to grasp the essence of faith without understanding just what it was they were trying to seize.  Her characters, metaphorically (and later, literally) blind to what it was they were reaching for, turn to con games, to meetings that temporarily assuage guilt before despair drives them to acts of lust, greed, and violence.  It is not hard to see these characters as desperate fools, but desperate, sincere fools can generate sympathy from both the author and the reader and for the most part, the sympathies that are engendered through actions late in the novel touch us because we have come to see these acts as extensions of the misplaced yet fascinating (non)faith that the characters have come to embody.

Wise Blood is a strange novel in that black comedy is used to accentuate the foibles of the characters yet the main effect is an odd sort of tragic nobility that envelops (devours?) the characters before their arcs conclude.  It is a shrewd social commentary of a region that even today is viewed askance by outsiders for its peculiar social customs and seeming hostility to modern cultural and social advancements.  Yet the deeper the reader tries to understand the worldviews of Wise Blood‘s characters (and by extension, those of O’Connor’s characters in her other stories), the more moving and disturbing the work becomes.  There is no simple denouement, no easy, pat conclusion to the story.  Instead, the issues raised early in the novel about matters of faith and desire are left suspended in front of the reader, awaiting for us to consider them at our own leisure in our own ways.  That is the subtle beauty of Wise Blood and 61 years after its initial publication, it still is one of O’Connor’s most widely-discussed stories.

Originally posted at Gogol's Overcoat in February 2013.

A few odds and ends

This upcoming week I'm going to be extremely busy, as I will be (counting 3 commutes of 50-60 minutes each) doing things for my two jobs for nearly 18 hours each day from Tuesday-Friday.  Looks like it won't be until early-to-mid May before I'll have time to write reviews again, so in the meantime I'm going to repost here on Sundays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays nine reviews of Flannery O'Connor's works that I have been writing for Gogol's Overcoat (I hope to resume the series, with backdated entries, in 2-3 weeks).  For those of you who haven't read them, perhaps these reviews of individual stories/books will be of some interest, especially considering she is one of my all-time favorite writers.

Although it won't be ready for quite some time, I also am going to be working on an essay that might be one of my more personal writings that I've published anywhere.  That, however, will not be posted here. 

When the school year ends for me in late May, I'm considering starting a themed review series, likely on an author or a group of related writers.  However, I will also begin work on adding a special education endorsement to my teaching license this summer, so this might go by the wayside for either June or July (depending on the session in which I take the class/classes).

In reading news, I am currently reading (slowly) two e-book omnibuses that are a combined 22,500 pages on my iPad iBooks e-reader:  The complete collection of Voltaire's works (in French) and St. Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologiae (unfortunately in English translation, as I couldn't find it collated in Latin).  It is strange to have read almost 1000 e-pages of the Voltaire and not even be all that close to having 10% read.  Goal is to finish reading both by my 39th birthday in July.

If you're looking for recommendations of books to explore, here are a few recent reads for which I would have written a positive formal review if I had the time:

Jean-marie Blas de Robles, Where Tigers are at Home (recently ordered the French edition, which I hope will arrive in the near future)

William Gass, Middle C (masterful work)

Kate Atkinson, Life After Life (those who've read Replay may see some similarities in motif, but Atkinson's work is superior at the thematic, prose, and characterization levels)

Ron Currie Jr., Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles (structure reminds me of Steve Erickson's These Dreams of You and while it falls slightly below that particular novel in quality, it is still a very good read)

Marguerite Duras, Destroy, She Said (read this in French on Saturday and found it to be outstanding in how it shows personal/societal alienation through a clever use of dialogue and sparse description)

And that's about it.  If you want more, just meditate on the squirrels to the right and maybe you'll find deeper meanings there...or something related to nuts.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Thoughts on three recent lists/awards and an elaboration on a previous statement

Over the past week, three literary lists have been announced.  The first was last weeks unveiling of the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award shortlist of the best ten books of 2011.  Unlike most other literary awards that select their nominees and winners within a year of their initial publication, the IMPAC takes a closer look at works produced all across the globe two years prior to the winner being announced.  Chosen by participating libraries from across the globe, the IMPAC is an interesting hybrid selection body in that the nominations (up to three per library) come from a decentralized body with the shortlist being derived from that by an international panel of judges.

The result, at least for the 2013 shortlist, is more varied than other literary prizes/awards.  Of the ten finalists, I have read six of them:

  1. City of Bohane by Kevin Barry (Irish) (First novel) Published by Johathan Cape
  2. The Map and the Territory by Michel Houellebecq (French) Translated from the original French by Gavin Bowd. Published by William Heineman
  3. Pure by Andrew Miller  (British) Published by Sceptre
  4. 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami (Japanese) Translated from the original Japanese by Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel. Published by Harvill Secker and Alfred A. Knopf
  5. The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka (Japanese American) Published by Alfred A. Knopf
  6. The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips (American) Published by Random House Inc.
  7. Swamplandia! by Karen Russell (American) Published by Alfred A. Knopf
  8. From the Mouth of the Whale by Sjón (Icelandic) Translated from the original Icelandic by Victoria Cribb. Published by Telegram Books.
  9. The Faster I Walk, The Smaller I Am by Kjersti Skomsvold (Norwegian) (First novel) Translated from the original Norwegian by Kerri A. Pierce. Published by Dalkey Archive Press
  10. Caesarion by Tommy Wieringa (Dutch) Translated from the original Dutch by Sam Garrett. Published by Portobello Books
 Of the six, I have only formally reviewed Otsuka's National Book Award-winning book.  The Barry was perhaps the one I liked least of the others and even that I found to be a very solid book.  The narratives differ widely; there is no predominant literary style or form present here.  Half of the writers did not write in English and while there are more men than women on this particular list, there often is a greater balance between the two on the award shortlists.

Secondly, the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction was announced this week and unlike last year, there was a winner:

1.  Adam Johnson, The Orphan Master's Son 
2.  Nathan Englander, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank 
3.  Eowyn Ivey, The Snow Child 

Like last year, having read all of the finalists/winner before the list was announced does color my impressions a bit more than if I had books to investigate first.  Johnson's book, which was also a finalist for Fiction in the recent National Book Critics Circle Award, was much better on a re-read than my first go-around.  It certainly offers a mixture of genres (political/character study and elements of a thriller) and the prose is very good if not always elegant.  Englander's collection I thought was very strong when I read it last year.  Ivey, on the other hand, did not appeal to me as much as the other two did, as I found it at times overreaching, with prose that failed to meet the story's ambitious goals.

And finally, Granta Magazine released their fourth decennial list of the Best Young British Novelists on Monday.   This list of 20 writers under the age of 40 has inspired similar lists from Granta for American, Spanish-language, and Brazilian writers, as well as a similar list of American writers from The New Yorker.  Unlike the other two lists, where I had read the majority of the writers/works featured, there are only three writers on this list that I've read:

Naomi Alderman
Tahmima Anam
Ned Beauman
Jenni Fagan
Adam Foulds
Xiaolu Guo
Sarah Hall
Steven Hall
Joanna Kavenna
Benjamin Markovits
Nadifa Mohamed
Helen Oyeyemi
Ross Raisin
Sunjeev Sahota
Taiye Selasi
Kamila Shamsie
Zadie Smith
David Szalay
Adam Thirlwell
Evie Wyld

It is hard to make definitive statements based off the paucity of works/authors read, but Hall, Oyeyemi and Smith certainly are writers whose works I've enjoyed greatly in the past and each of them has very distinct styles and narratives that make each individual work a "new" discovery.  Certainly there is talk about how having so many UK subjects who originally hail from outside the country or outside the Anglo-Saxon ethnic group has the potential to redefine in literary terms what it means to be "British."  I certainly will be exploring these writers' works in the near future, just as I did with the 2003 list when I bought a copy of that issue back then.

If I had to attempt to connect these three disparate awards/lists, one avenue I would explore would be the concept of "diversity."  In using diversity as a term, I am not limiting myself to noting authors' genders or nationalities, although each certainly is important.  No, sometimes those writing stories from non-privileged social/sexual backgrounds end up creating stories that do little to challenge reader conceptions, whether they be from a literary or socio-cultural vantage point.  I saw recently where an earlier post of mine was linked to on Cora Buhlert's blog (unlike her, I did at least do the courtesy of checking the spelling of her surname) in which she apparently engages in a willful misrepresentation of my views on literary diversity to support her own viewpoints on the issue.  No, Cora, I do not get "annoyed when the diversity they get doesn’t match their ideal of what diversity should look like."  I just note that for many, awards that cater to "fan service" and which concerns over uniformity in style and motif do affect perceptions of award value:

"Granted, one does not have to have a "political" message in order to be different, but if "diversity" is used to reference only the skin color or gender of the writer and not the stories that they write, then might there be an issue here beyond the typical mass fan votes tend to celebrate the "safe" and "conventional" at the expense of daring to say something different, something that might irritate people?"
 In light of the three lists discussed above, it very well can be argued on the basis of comparison that certain literary awards display more "diversity" on the basis of story styles, motifs, prose, and characterizations than what is found on several genre lists of similar (or slightly less) visibility.  If award lists are dominated by authors retrodding stamped-upon grounds or which depend upon trendy narrative elements to achieve a fleeting measure of popularity, then certainly there will be concern from several corners about the vitality of those awards.  But perhaps the greater issue is that of a perceived divide between what is popular and what has literary merit.  Sometimes, the two conjoin, but if one is rejected out of hand for the other, a disconnect develops that makes it difficult for the awards/award winners to achieve any lasting impact.

Zombies and pirates might be the rage of the past half-decade or so, but I also vaguely recall from my earliest childhood memories that disco once was a very popular musical form, replete with big-name rock groups releasing their own "disco" album.  For every "Miss You" came countless duds and I suspect something similar is happening with genre fictions that rely too heavily upon certain trends.  Their works might sell spectacularly for a while and even garner award nominations, but what happens in a decade or so, when tastes change and zombies go the way of halflings or orcs?  Works that do not possess that "timeless" quality are more likely to be consigned to the dustbins of literary history than works that speak to multiple generations.  That is something that does worry me at times when I think about SF/F fiction.  I just don't see many "popular" works being produced now that will endure more than a decade from now.  It just isn't "diverse" enough in the stories being told, at least in my eyes, and the risk of literary inbreeding (something ironically that has been applied to Anglo-American literary novels, with some degree of truth, at least in respect to certain sub-sections of "literary fiction") is much higher.  That is why I have a dim view on recent Nebula and Hugo Award nominations and a slightly better one on some, if not all, of the World Fantasy, Shirley Jackson, and Clarke Award nominees.  It is also why I see potential in the IMPAC and Granta (short)lists and am ambivalent about the Pultizer list.  Without several literary "conversations" transpiring within particular genres, the risk of said genres becoming dessicated, almost ossified fossils (like that which has befallen the Western genre over the past two generations, with only limited success at revitalizing it) becomes greater.  Hopefully, there will be a greater diversity in these "conversations" and works can be produced that will be both "popular" and possess "literary merit" through these interactions with a world that is changing rapidly around us.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

How do you organize books on your shelves?

I've spent much of the afternoon today finishing up the reshelving/rearrangements of nearly 500 books.  My arrangement style can be seen in a couple of photos of roughly 1/3 of the reshelved books:

There are patterns to be found here, of course, even though I rarely shelve all of an author's works together (even 2-3 together does not a complete collection collation make).  There is a reason why the books in the second photo are shelved the way they are.  Can you pick out the reason?

Also, I find myself curious about the collections of those who are reading this post.  If you have links to photos to share, please feel free to link them in the comments.  I, for one, would love to see how others go about shelving their books.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

New bookcases mean book porn, Part I: Serbian, French, Persian, Arabic, Romanian, and Latin Book Porn

Earlier this week, two solid wood bookcases that I ordered from one of my cousins, a carpentry/shop teacher at a local high school, arrived, replacing two dilapidated pre-fab bookcases that were a bit smaller.  I haven't had much time this week to sort through the boxes of books due to my two jobs, but I did finish sorting one of the two 6'x3' bookcases today.

Here is a picture of four of the five shelves.  Here are all of my (in order) Serbian, French, Persian, Arabic, Romanian, and Latin books (just below the picture are my Greek books and some Spanish books that will probably not fit onto the second bookcase, which will be solely for a third or so of my Spanish-language fictions and non-fictions.  Hopefully the titles will be visible if you click on the picture.

One "unfortunate" side effect of this sorting is that despite my dire need for sleep, I find myself wanting to pick up some of these books and just begin (re)reading.  Any titles of interest to you?

Monday, April 08, 2013

Kim Stanley Robinson, 2312

In a landscape so rumpled the light can suddenly jump the eastern horizon and leap west to strike some distant prominence.  Everyone walking the land has to attend to this possibility, know when and where the longest sunreaches occur – and where they can run for shade if they happen to be caught out.

Or if they stay on purpose.  Because many of them pause in their walkabouts on certain cliffs and crater rims, at places marked by stupas, cairns, petroglyphs, inuksuit, mirrors, walls, goldsworthies.  The sunwalkers stand by these, facing east, waiting.

The horizon they watch is black space over black rock.  The superthin neon-argon atmosphere, created by sunlight smashing rock, holds only the faintest predawn glow.  But the sunwalkers know the time, so they wait and watch – until – 

   a flick of orange fire dolphins over the horizon

   and their blood leaps inside them.  More brief banners follow, flicking up, arcing in loops, breaking off and floating free in the sky.  Star oh star, about to break on them!  Already their faceplates have darkened and polarized to protect their eyes. (Prologue, p. 3 e-book edition)

Nature, whether it be found on Earth or elsewhere, can be so beautifully enticing precisely because of its perilous qualities.  The loping of a wolf, the grin of a great cat, the tremendous thunder claps that follow in the wake of devastating lightning – yes, nature is something that we humans may try to tame and understand, yet it is the sheer beauty of its ultimately incomprehensible awe-inspiring wonders that suck us in.  Often one might encounter science fiction fans rhapsodize over this "sense of wonder," but too frequently whatever marvels that might be present in those tales are muted by pedestrian prose or tinny PoVs.  So in reading this opening section to Kim Stanley Robinson's 2012 Nebula, Hugo, and Clarke Award-nominated 2312, I was struck by just how well he captures this dual beautiful/perilous quality of an alien landscape (Mercury in this particular case, although similarly evocative prose is used later to describe other solar landscapes).

2312 is an extremely ambitious novel and at times some of its ambitions are thwarted or at least reduced in power due largely to its own complex narrative structure.  It certainly is not a novel that can be summed up with a few pithy sentences.  Some readers may find 2312's core to be its two main human characters, Swan Er Hong (a sort of futuristic renaissance woman who is equally an artist, a biosphere designer, and a quasi-provocateur) and diplomat Fitz Wahram, and their unraveling of a series of terroristic events that threaten the fragile stability of the various human communities spread throughout most of the solar system.  Others may find themselves more fascinated by the snippets of the novel's invented past and the commentaries embedded within them on ecology, human belief systems, gender/sex issues, and political forms of government.  Still others may find themselves most enjoying the descriptions of various terraforming activities that take place throughout the novel.  Yet 2312 aims to be more than the sum of its many fascinating parts but ultimately fails to achieve this, leaving behind a flawed work whose components merely serve as glimmers of greatness, as if they were shards of a large and perfectly cut gem whose shattering has dimmed its interior light.

By themselves, each component part tells a gripping story.  In particular, Swan and Fitz's relationship, which is filled with peaks and valleys of love and frustration with each other, is a perfectly fine story, one that benefits from Robinson's excellent prose.  Yet their story is stretched too thinly in places, as the two move from extraterrestrial locale to terrestrial locale and back again, with the sense that the story's momentum, like a pinball pinging against multiple walls and flippers, is uneven and subject to entropy.  The Extracts and associated lists, which serve to make deeper thematic commentaries on a possible path that humanity may be on here in the early 21st century, are perhaps too interesting, as they had the effect of making me pause to think of issues that Robinson didn't necessarily intend to address, even in passing, in 2312.  Some great stories work because the setting is so realized and predominant that the characters work to reinforce the tensions present within the setting itself.  Other stories succeed because the characterizations are so well-drawn that the setting and local color blend in with the characterizations and the narrative themes to create an excellent work.  2312 suffers at times because the setting, intriguing as it is, and the characterizations, which are gripping in their own right, do not mesh together seamlessly.  At times, there is a dissonance between the two, as though Robinson were dithering between which should be the central focus of the tale, with the result being a narrative that flies (and crashes) like Icarus.

This is not to say that 2312 is a "poor" novel.  It is far from that.  Most of its individual elements (leaving aside questionable extrapolations of human societal evolution that may leave this work feeling dated within a decade) on their own realize their potential.  Certainly 2312 has some thematic "heft" to it, as the questions it raises about our own contemporary socio-economic and political inclinations are thought provoking.  Yet these disparate elements frequently fail to achieve full cohesion; the narrative weld spots are often visible.  The result is a flawed yet ambitious work of literary SF in which the frustrations do not undercut the novel's successes as much as they reveal the limits to the literary scope that Robinson employs.  As a semi-"failure," 2312 still is one of SF/F's better novels of the past year and it is easy to understand why it has made three recent genre (industry, fan, juried) shortlists.  Even its "weaknesses," minor as they may be when considered in isolation, serve to create a spectacle-filled novel whose likes are increasingly rare in SF/F novels these days.  If only more "failures" could "fail" in this fashion.

Sunday, April 07, 2013

March 2013 Reads

Started working my second job in early March, so the reading fell off a bit (30 books read compared to February's 35), but there were several good stories, old as well as new, read.

68  Carolyn Ives Gilman, Ison (decent)

69  Ismail Kadare, Agamemon's Daughter (very good)

70  Ismail Kadare, The Successor (very good)

71  Alain Mabanckou, Black Bazaar (may write more on this later, but this was an excellent read)

72  Ismail Kadare, Chronicle in Stone (very good)

73  Brian Evenson, The Other Ear (limited-edition chapbook; very good)

74  Jennifer Cody Epstein, The Gods of Heavenly Punishment (decent)

75  Caitlín R. Kiernan, The Drowning Girl (inconsistent but mostly good)

76  Ismail Kadare, The Fall of the Stone City (one of Kadare's better novels; excellent)

77  Ghalib Lakhnavi and Abdullah Bilgrami, The Adventures of Amir Hamza (very good)

78  Amal Al-Jubouri, Hagar Before the Occupation/Hagar After the Occupation (re-read; poetry; very good)

79  Zoran Živković, Most (Serbian; review in near future)

80  Zoran Živković, The Bridge (re-read; review in near future)

81  Ken Emerson (ed.), Stephen Foster & Co.:  Lyrics of America's First Great Popular Songs (lyrics; anthology; very good)

82  Umberto Eco and Carlo Maria Martini, ¿En qué creen los que no creen? (re-read; Spanish; non-fiction; religious; very good)

83  Pierre Grimbert, The Secret of Ji:  Six Heirs (good)

84  John Joseph Adams and Douglas Cohen (eds.), Oz Reimagined (anthology; very strong and consistent set of stories set in Baum's Oz)

85  Xu Lei, Search for the Buried Bomber (had planned to write a short review of this, but due to time constraints, I'll just settle for noting that this translation of a Chinese mystery/thriller was a very good read)

86  Pope Francis and Abraham Sorka, Sobre el cielo y la tierra (Spanish; non-fiction; religious; already reviewed)

87  Vikram Seth, The Golden Gate (poetry; excellent)

88  Jim Gavin, Middle Men (short story collection; excellent)

89  Ruth Ozeki, A Tale for the Time Being (already reviewed)

90  William H. Gass, Middle C (formal review in near future; outstanding)

91  Hugh Howey, The Wool Omnibus 1-5 (meh)

92  Nalo Hopkinson, Sister Mine (good)

93  Pope Benedict XVI, Journey to Easter (non-ficiton; religious; very good)

94  Nihad Sirees, The Silence and the Roar (very good)

95  Forugh Farrokhzad, Remembering the Flight:  Twenty Poems by Forugh Farrokhzad (re-read; poetry; very good)

96  Celia Correas de Zapata (ed.), Short Stories by Latin American Women:  The Magic and the Real (short story collection; some very strong stories paired with some mediocre ones)

97  Karl Shapiro, Selected Poems (poetry; very good)

Saturday, April 06, 2013

Would you want to read this book after encountering this passage?

Taken from Jean-Marie Blas de Robles' Where Tigers are at Home, p. 313 American hardcover:

THE VERY END OF THE SIXTEENTH CENTURY:  "In consideration of the criminal proceedings, charges and information, the interrogations, replies and confessions of the aforesaid prosecutor; of the replies and confessions of the accused made in the presence of his lawyer and everything that has been placed before us, we declare the aforesaid Legaigneux guilty in fact and in law of copulation with a female donkey belonging to the same.  As public atonement for this crime we condemn him to be hanged and strangled by the executioner, from a gallows that will be erected in such and such a place; and before this death sentence is carried out, the aforesaid female donkey will be stunned and killed by the aforesaid executioner at the aforesaid place, in the presence of the accused."

If the animal is punished it is because it shares responsibility for the act with the man:  the man guilty of sodomy has stooped to the level of brute beasts, but the donkey committed the unpardonable crime and raising itself to the level of thinking beings.  They are both "against nature."  By betraying the laws of the their species, they equally endanger the order of the world.

THE VERY END OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY:  "Accused of attempted sodomy with a dolphin called Freddie, Alan Cooper, 38, justified the act by saying that he was only masturbating the animal to gain its friendship.  His lawyers based his defense on the fact that dolphins are notoriously licentious and are some of the rare animals who indulge in the sex act purely for pleasure.  Alan Cooper risks ten years in prison if the charge of clear intention of rectal or vaginal penetration is accepted and life if sodomy is proved beyond reasonable doubt." (Newcastle upon Tyne, England.)

Nearly halfway into this 817 page book and this is a fascinating look at 17th and current human attitudes toward life, sex, and existence (among a great many other things).  It contains Latin passages regarding the fucking of a woman and her pleasure in having not just her vagina but her anus penetrated, the etymology of "piranha," and a plethora of other things such as 17th century attempts to decipher hieroglyphics.  Certainly not for the prudish, but then again, I suspect there aren't too many regulars here who are prudes.  The squirrel erotica to the right doubtless weeds those out, no?

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

So people are arguing again about the validity of the Hugo Awards

I know I said my piece on the 2013 Best Novel shortlist the other day and had intended that to be my only real substantive comment on the issue, but I did see a comment on Twitter tonight wondering what my contribution might be to the rather large (over 180 comments when I just now checked) debate over at Justin Landon's Staffer's Book Review

To be honest, a few years ago, I might have been fired up about this issue (I probably was; too lazy to see what I blogged in 2007-2012 on the issue), but mostly I feel ennui over it now.  I've come to accept that WSFS/WorldCon/Hugo and I "just aren't that into each other."  I like more experimental fictions with diversity being more than just the color of one's skin, the gender and/or sex of the writer, or the locale from which they write; I want a wider range of narratives that challenge my senses as well as my thoughts.  Those type of fictions, even though many glide through the semi-permeable "walls" of various literary genres, just aren't going to be popular as an aggregate with mass audiences (or with 3-5K convention attendees).

So I've begun to feel as though I need to move away from it.  The Hugo Awards cater to a certain crowd.  Great.  Let them continue to please those who attend the convention circuits and who favor a particular style.  Doesn't mean I should endorse it as THE view on fictions that touch upon the science fictional and/or fantastical (or weird, horrific, etc.)  I don't, as I usually look forward to seeing what the World Fantasy Award or the Shirley Jackson Award jurists put out for their shortlists (oh, and the National Book Award, National Book Critics Circle Award, LA Times Book Prize, Orange/Women's Prize, Booker Prize, Asian Prize, and others that sometimes include works of the fantastical on their various lists).

The Hugos don't cut for me.  Neither do the Nebula lists, which I think are equally unappealing to me.  Notice how little I've said about the latter for the past couple of years; that's the level of disinterest I have.  I think I should start doing the same for the Hugos and not cover them at all here in the future, unless there is something that interests me in a positive way (for what it's worth, I'm about a quarter into Kim Stanley Robinson's 2312 and I'm reminded positively of his Red Mars, which was my favorite of his Mars trilogy, but it'll be a while before I write a review, if I bother to do so).  Yesterday I read an excellent article by Matthew Cheney on "Most Everything is Terrible" that I think is very applicable to this situation with people taking stances on the Hugo/WSFS issue.  Too readily we proclaim judgment on issues without stopping to question whether or not we are at fault.  I'm weary of voicing my disapproval of selections from an award that does not cater to me.  There are other options, such as promoting those alternatives and leaving the undesirable ones to receive less e-ink from myself (and perhaps others).  To keep proclaiming one's opinion on this issue (or other related ones) is beyond beating a dead horse:  it is a willful refusal to move on and discover what you personally like without worrying overmuch about how certain others think it is a steaming pile of crap.

That being said, give some consideration to reading Kate Atikinson's just released Life After Life.  There are elements that should appeal to SF, alt-history, literary, and perhaps fantasy readers.  Or maybe Ron Currie, Jr.'s Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles might be more to your liking.  Better to find out than to fret over things you cannot change. 
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