Wednesday, January 4, 2012

If you was redeemed, I wouldn't want to be

About 22 years ago, I started writing my first novel. It was a very dark Christian allegory about a man attempting to escape his religious background, and it was full of cruelty, sex, misunderstanding and murder. It was also dreadfully earnest, self-conscious and pretty darned awful. While I was writing this book (which was called The Jack Of Hearts Remembers Me for obscure reasons), my friend Carl mentioned that it sounded a lot like Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, which is a dark Christian allegory about a man attempting to escape from his religious background and it’s full of cruelty, sex, misunderstanding and murder.

I read the O’Connor and I didn’t get the joke, didn’t realize that it was a comedy and didn’t realize that Hazel Motes is noble in O’Connor’s eyes precisely because he can’t get rid of Jesus. I completely misunderstood that book and I apparently made an effort to forget as much as I could about it as quickly as I could, because all I remembered of it, two decades later, was that it was finely written (I do recall admiring how elegantly O’Connor wrote about simple actions, which are damned hard to get onto the page, actually) and that there were some vivid images. I did not remember how funny it is, nor what the plot was, nor much of anything.

Possibly I tried to completely forget O’Connor’s novel because it’s so much better than what I was writing; she handled her themes and materials in a way I didn’t even understand, and I see now that my own novel would’ve been much better had I made it a farce. Hazel Motes in Wise Blood is not a madman, and my novel traded heavily on the sad old tropes of the narrator being insane and telling his story after a stay in a state-run mental institution. For the first time I see how it could be possible to revise The Jack of Hearts Remembers Me and make it into what it properly ought to be, but I won’t because Flannery O’Connor got there before I was born and I no longer feel passionate about the life of my protagonist, Henry Jackhart. I find that I'm still writing about faith and doubt, but the subjects present themselves to me in different ways now that I'm older and I'm fine with those approaches. That might be personal growth, or it might just be exhaustion; I can't say.

This little essay is clearly less about Flannery O'Connor's novel Wise Blood than it is about me re-reading Wise Blood and thinking about my own writing, thinking about my limitations as a writer and how those limitations are only visible once enough time has passed to allow some critical distance. I cannot tell you what my current limitations are (aside from the usual arrogance, that is) and I am not at all sure I’ll enjoy finding out when the time comes where I’ll be able to recognize them. I am certain that I'm not writing perfect novels.

Wise Blood is not a perfect novel either. O’Connor was not a perfect writer. But she was a pretty damned good writer, and Wise Blood rises above its occasional flaws, which is more than you get from most novels. I'm happy to report that this re-read is being a success, and I look forward to reading the rest of O'Connor's works (which all showed up under the Christmas tree this year, nicely enough).


  1. It's funny what age and infirmity can do to our thought process. (processese? processies?)

    I find in re-reading books I had when I was younger, The Great Gatsby, Old Man and the Sea, Silas Marner, My Antonia, I come away from them with a deeper understanding of "literature" and how it affects my life. Not so much "how" I write, but how I "think" about writing.

    Where once before, I was forced to read them for whatever class I was in, now I find them enjoyable in a way I never could. For me it's "disorienting" (from the post on the Lit Lab). They make me think about what's good or bad in the chosen prose style. I'm not afraid to admit, I like long rambly sentences, with lots of commas, and round about ways of getting to the point.

    I saw you had My Antonia on your reading list for this year. You're going to love it.

  2. Anne: I'm reading Chekhov now, but I think the Cather will be next after that.

    Re-reading is always enlightening. Sometimes stuff I loved in my youth later seems like dumb fluff, and stuff I hated seems like brilliance. I'm going to do more re-reading this year, I swear.

    The final chapter in Wise Blood is one of the most beautiful, powerfully sublime things I've ever read.

  3. I just met you in a comment on Jim Murdoch's post on Beckett. Such a writerly and readerly person I thought I should like to get to know more.

    So here I am , and well pleased with what I read. I enjoy the angst of the behind the scenes stories of writers very much, and yours is no exception.

    Writing is, after all, such a struggle and such a joy. I'm pleased to meet you. All the way from Australia

  4. Elisabeth: Thanks for coming over and commenting! I've just read your last several posts, and you have a lovely blog going. Your Christmas post with the broken glasses was alarming, I must say.

    Greetings and welcome to Australia from Seattle!

  5. I remember Wise Blood making me kind of sad. I was in my early twenties when I read it and I probably just didn't really get Flannery's wicked sense of humor.

    I kinda loved it though, the way I've sorda loved many of her other stories. I can't love them completely because they make me really uncomfortable at times. (I'm fully aware that this was O'Connor's intention).

    I mainly remember Hazel's "fierce black hat", why I don't know, and that crappy car of his that he kept insisting was running perfectly. And poor Enoch and his gorilla suit.

  6. Cynthia: If you go into it knowing it's a comedy, the reading experience is completely different (and much better). I know I have a tendency to read O'Connor as deadly serious, and I think she'd be horrified by that. She found in humanity an endless source of comedy even if, as you say, her stories are also meant to make teh reader uncomfortable. But even though I didn't get it, I remember being impressed by it.

    I remembered the hat and the gorilla and the car ("a high rat-colored car," whatever that means but it's perfect without being perfectly clear) and what happens to the false Prophet but I'd forgotten what happened to Hazel Motes. The last chapter is pure Chekhov in tone and is absolutely perfect and fragile and full of loving compassion.

  7. Writerly limitation. Yes. I think those are what keep me writing, in all honesty, so I can try and get past them, which I know I never will. This is because I keep reading authors like O'Connor and I'm constantly reminded of those limitations.