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A Reading Vocation

"I Must Read, Read, and Read. It is my Vocation." - Thomas Merton

This is where I chronicle my reading life.  I also blog about writing at Lacey's Late-night Editing.



Book 40/100: Three By Flannery O'Connor

Three by Flannery O'ConnorThree by Flannery O'Connor by Flannery O'Connor
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Around the Year Reading Challenge #10: A book by an author you should have read by now

So, Flannery O'Connor always seems to come up in conversations about spiritual writing, and I've heard her work referred to as the "epitome" of Catholic writing. Every time she comes up, I'd remember this book on my shelf and think, "I should have read that by now!" (along with about 1,000 other books).

Well, I finally did it! And I did it big. Since my only O'Connor included three books in one volume, I read all three of them. Now I feel like I should get credit on all my reading challenges for three books instead of one, but ISBN #s don't work that way.

Overall: I've heard O'Connor's writing described as "grotesque," and I would have to say that's an apt description. She has a tendency to focus on the dark, the morbid and the unappealing. I feel as if she writes the opposite of mass market romances, where everything is colored in shades to make it a little more palatable than in real life. Here, everything is a little more spoiled and rotten than what most people see through their default filter.

While I can agree that her stories have spiritual underpinnings, I was surprised that these are most often revealed by looking at the underbelly of spirituality -- the dark, the weak, the empty. All of her stories seem to be fundamentally about lack, and a person who is spiritually inclined could easily read them as a constant strain toward the meaning or fulfillment that can come from knowing God. However, the non-religious could just as easily see them as compelling and perceptive character studies. These are the three O'Connor books that were included in my volume:

1. Wise Blood - This was my least favorite of the three, as it centered around a selfish "preacher" who was on fire with the gospel of the "Church without Christ" and was as tied up in his non-belief as the most devout believer is to belief. His motivations were never totally clear, and the way he treated those he encountered was appalling enough to make this an altogether unpleasant reading experience. In the end there is sort of a creepy commentary on what we might use to fill that "emptiness" in our life as we search for meaning, the length to which we might go to establish some sort of God even if we won't name it as such. The whole thing is a little off-kilter and off-putting, and the uneasy feeling it leaves you with is a testament to O'Connor's skill as a writer. But this story is not one I'd be eager to revisit anytime soon. (3/5 stars)

2. The Violent Bear it Away - This novel also examines the lengths we will go to to make meaning of our lives, but this time it does so in the nature of relationship. It centers on the relationship of a young boy and his uncle, both of whom define their identities in contrast to the man who attempted to indoctrinate them into a belief in a godly destiny. It's a close, nuanced look at the way our spirituality can get tangled up with the people in our lives who first introduced it to us, for better of for worse. I found both the young boy's stubborn attempt to find his own way after his great uncle's death and his new caretaker's insistence on building a meaningful life separate from God to be compelling. Both characters are far more sympathetic than anything we saw in Wise Blood. But the ending was still darker than seemed necessary -- soon I will begin to see a pattern. (4/5 stars)

3. Everything That Rises Must Converge - This is actually a collection of short stories, and it was my favorite of the three books. O'Connor seems to really shine in the format of the short story, where she can examine characters' "fatal flaws" close up and in defining moments, while not forcing us to stay with them until we feel totally suffocated by their inner darknesses. The short story format also allowed her to explore more varied themes than in the short novels -- for the first time, we see racism coming to the forefront of her consciousness, along with the themes that she explores more in depth in her novels, such as pride, vanity, human weakness, a search for meaning. O'Connor's work is a lot to take in, and it goes down best -- and I think, with the greatest impact -- in small doses. Although I read these stories one after the other because I have limited time for reading and want to take advantage of every moment of it, they beg to be savored and pondered one-by-one before rushing headlong into the next. I think if I had encountered any of these stories as standalones in a short story or literature class, it would have quickly become stuck in my gut as one of the most salient pieces I had ever read.

O'Connor's writing is utterly masterful, but the tragedy of it all did start to wear on me (view spoiler)[ -- a pet peeve of literary fiction for me is its tendency to kill someone off to make a point, and this seems to be O'Connor's default setting, which is especially obvious when reading so many of her separate stories straight through. It got to the point where I let up a silent cheer any time a story DIDN'T end with someone dying. And that, at a certain point, just feels like lazy writing despite all the skillful descriptions and character examinations. (hide spoiler)]

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