10 January 2008

O'Connor, Flannery. Wise Blood. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1952.

I like Flannery O'Connor, but I don't love her. This is a problem, I know, because if one reads half as obsessively as I do the words of other writers about how goes about writing fiction, one comes across Flannery's name and maxims at just about every turn. She is, without question, a genius, goes the belief. And maybe she is. She knows her way around a simile: "The little boys' faces were like pans set on either side to catch the grins that overflowed from her." She's also great at understated humor, most of it unquotable because it's so grounded in context, but here's one: "He was smiling. He looked like a friendly hound dog with light mange."

But whenever I read O'Connor all I can see behind her humor is meanness. O'Connor is not a writer who loves her characters. Granted, I've read maybe three stories and one of her two novels, but in each of them we're not meant to like anybody the way other writers invite us to. We don't like Hulga. We don't like Manley Pointer. We don't really like the Misfit and we sure as hell don't like the old woman he shoots dead. Or, rather, we can't like them, because each time we start to sympathize, O'Connor's got an impeccably worded and timed detail that makes us stand back and laugh at this person's foolishness.

She doesn't seem to do this in any po-mo argument way; that is, to comment on the futility of liking verbal constructs on the page as if they were actual people. No, she does it seemingly because there's too much morality at stake for us to actually get comfortable with anyone. And so, here, we laugh at Hazel Motes, who finds himself without family or friends in a small southern city, trying to shake off his preacher heritage. We laugh at Enoch Emery. We laugh at the "blind" preacher Hawks and we laugh at his daughter.

All in the name of what, exactly? I'm still trying to figure this out. I think what makes O'Connor such a celebrated writer is the force of her clear sentences and the careful control she has over the scope of her stories. There is never any excess. Also her takes on religion and faith are complex and uncommon in modern literature, which is great if complex, uncommon takes on faith and religion are what you're looking for in a book. Right now, I'm not looking for this. Books in which religion gets as much mention as feudal Belgium are what I think I want.

08 January 2008

Mitchell, David. Cloud Atlas. New York: Random House, 2004.

Oh, the hasty promise I made to read and thus post more in my last Finished! entry.... The problem with telling people you plan to read more books more quickly is that you cannot be given a Wii for Christmas during that time. I, alas, was given a Wii, and have found more fulfillment in uncovering the arrow-highlit Achilles' heels of various big bad bosses and exploiting same to destroy said bosses with my cool new gadgets and breathtaking sword technique.

But before I got a Wii I Finished! this book, which can be called a matryoshka novel, delivering six compelling stories in six different locales and time periods, all accordion-folded into one another. This seems on the surface easy to do. Just come up with six novellas and put them in chronological order and then take the first five and chop them in half, delivering their conclusions in reverse order after the sixth story has been given in full.

Mitchell, though, has tied the form to the content such that when, say, Adam Ewing's diary just ends midsentence in the book, we learn that this is because Robert Frobisher, who "stars" in the epistolary novella that follows, has been reading these diaries and cannot find the second half of his copy. So where we ended is where he ended. Likewise, when his letters stop and we move to the third story, we find that the man to whom these letters were written has saved only half of them. And so on and so on to the point where it's very hard to distinguish which stories contain the others and which are contained.

For those of us who find it very hard to suspend our passive delightful reading in order to suss out a book's subtext and purpose, Mitchell kindly lets us know what's up with his form in the final fourth of the novel. The past, one character argues, which is to say the actual past as the events happened, is harder to access the further away from it one goes. And we're always moving away from the past. Subsequently, any present attempts to reconstruct that past become "truer" than what actually happened, "truer" in terms of our belief, our faith in them. This also happens in the obverse, with respect to the future. Which brings us to the funny Simpsons joke about Tomorrowland: it's the way people from the 1950s envisioned 1983. Which is to say that in 1955, Tomorrowland was a truer vision of the future than the boring ground-based cars of the Eighties:
One model of time: an infinite matryoshka doll of painted moments, each "shell" (the present) encased inside a nest of "shells" (previous presents) I call the actual past but which we perceive as the virtual past. The doll of "now" likewise encases a nest of presents yet to be, which I call the actual future but which we perceive as the virtual future. (393)
This is a great and new (to me, at least) idea, but it wasn't my favorite in the book. That would be its ideas about power and conquest, which permeate each of the six novellas in some fashion. Mitchell argues (or, to be more accurate, one of his characters [himself a liar and a thief but that doesn't necessarily discredit what he thinks] argues) that, geo-historically, it's been white people that have been the most hungry for power and have thus gone to the greatest lengths to attain it and keep it. Or, in the words of the character, "of all the world's races, our love—or rather our rapacity—for treasure, gold, spices & dominion, oh, most of all, sweet dominion, is the keenest, the hungriest, the most unscrupulous!" (489).

It's a provocative thought, and at essence a racist one. It leads, though, to Adam Ewing deciding to live his life in such a way as to make the world hospitable to all races, even though he knows such a life will be lived in vain. So Cloud Atlas is the kind of book that's all Love Your Neighbor and Make Love Not War and All Men Are Created Equal, and because it really seems to mean each of these, the message never comes across as cloying or obvious.