Monday, October 18, 2004

Everything That Rises Must Converge, by Flannery O'Connor

A quick look through the introduction says that this collection of short stories was her last completed work. Nine stories, and not a bad or mediocre one in the whole lot.

The black humour that permeated her first novel, Wise Blood, is here in spades. It's almost a guilty pleasure, as Flannery O'Connor frequently handles material like racism and some of the other worst characteristics of human nature.

For example, in the last story, Judgement Day, there's an old man who has moved in with his daughter. When he meets a black man who lives in the same block of flats, he insists on continuing to call him a preacher. The black man angrily keeps on telling him that he's not a preacher, but an actor.

What's most amazing about Flannery O'Connor's stories is the way she shows the worst aspects of deep south racism, but you don't hold these people in contempt. You hear white characters continually refer to 'niggers' in the most derogatory manner, but you don't judge them. You laugh along, amazingly.

In another story, Revelation, a vain, proud white woman asks herself the question, If she had the choice, would she prefer Jesus had made her white trash or black? After some thinking the matter over she finally gulps and says, she'd want to be black, but very respectable.

My favourite story is Everything That Rises Must Converge. A racist mother goes out for the day with her more progressive, educated son. The son despises the mother for her simplemindedness and finds her completely embarrassing. Worse, he really wants to punish her. When they ride together on a bus he secretly hopes that a black woman who has just got on will sit next to her, because his mother would just hate it so. Strangely enough, you warm more to the racist mother, who is quite funny in her way, while the 'I-know-better' son is totally cringeworthy. Intellectually you agree with him, but you feel more for the mother.

I guess this is one of the paradoxes at the centre of Flannery O'Connor's work. She goes right to the dark heart of the human condition.

Once again, it is ironic that so much of the American story - its positive spiel of independence and an enterprise culture - is totally absent from its best fiction. And so many of these writers are darkly humourous. Like John Kennedy Toole's Confederacy of Dunces, with its cast of freaks and outcasts, set against a capitalist system that has not delivered for these people.

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