It’s difficult to stop reading when startled by a sentence that goes like this: “It makes no difference that my interrogators are all dead.” I stumbled on that line when reading a recent New Yorker review of Edna O’Brien’s new memoir Country Girl.
Like most folk, I enjoy a good read, but as I grow older I find my patience for long drawn out novels is not what it used to be. I know some people luxuriate in the slow unfolding of plot over many hundreds of pages, the development of character as it plays out over time and space in a good long read, and the final clue that falls into place to eliminate the innocent and point the accusatory finger at the villain in a complicated mystery. What tires my soul at times, though, is the long and torturous road setting up these many scenes, introducing the characters, creating the tension, resolving the conflicts, convincing the reader that the ending is plausible. Where I once could read Thackeray, Dickens, Eliot or Melville with enthusiasm, the idea of curling up with the likes of Vanity Fair, Bleak House, Middlemarch or Moby Dick today makes me sigh. Had I but world enough and time…
I am happy to say that a well-crafted essay or short story is what excites and delights me today. That powerful opening line, such as the one cited above from O’Brien, hooks the reader into trailing after the author to ask what is going on and to be puzzled or intrigued enough to want to know what happens next. The length of the story can be but only a few pages, but its compactness demands a preciseness full of layers of possibilities. The well-versed writer needs only a few paragraphs or even sentences to create a memorable character, evoke an atmosphere, and set a mood to create or resolve tension. Within their tightly woven tales, the best of story tellers can explore our desires as well as our fears, inject new significance into universal themes of love and loss, allow us to become other people, and remind us of the verities of how we live and the pitfalls of our behavior. They hold our attention with their literate expression, both somber as well as humorous, and their turn of phrase.
A recent class in James Madison University’s continuing education series has drawn me in to look at how a number of writers have approached the short story and its format. The compendium we’re using is The Art of the Short Story edited by Dana Gioia and R.S. Gwynn. It contains short fiction by fifty-two authors and includes their views on writing. In the introduction, the editors give the reader some invaluable insight into the short story. Most importantly, they note three characteristics of the short story form that changed the way brief fiction is told–the short story condenses the action, usually into a single situation focused on an individual character; the narrative compression encourages deeper characterization of the protagonist often by depicting his or her inner life as well as outer circumstance, which gives the short story a heightened sense of realism; and finally, the short story uses prose in a poetic manner, in which sound and rhythm, image and symbol, tone and point of view are carefully crafted to communicate not merely the plot but the physical and emotional experience of the tale.
They go on to quote the Roman poet Horace who maintained that the purpose of literature is to delight and instruct. As they point out, the pleasure is not so narrow just to mean simple amusement. Their interpretation of pleasure is having the reader’s mental and emotional faculties fully caught up in the narrative. In this way, the writer hopes to enchant the reader, to focus his or her attention on the moment-by-moment unfolding of the story.
As an example, they quote Franz Kafka who said a book should be “an ax to break up the frozen sea within us.” By momentarily putting us inside the life of a character facing a crucial situation, the writer has the ability to break through our everyday complacency. For them, “the short story is fiction’s sharpest axe, its most intense imaginative tool for breaking up the frozen sea of our individual isolation. A short story challenges us to enlarge our humanity by momentarily experiencing another–and often radically different–life from the inside.”
In conclusion, the editors acknowledge that the short story does not necessarily go after great or universal insights, the sort of truths on which whole philosophies of life are built. From the beginning of its use, readers and writers alike have understood that among literary forms, the short story is especially suited to capture moments of spiritual or psychological transformation. Short stories try to embody the particularized reality of a specific individual in a single situation. “The short story does not offer abstraction but portrayal, not idealized concept but tangible experience. Properly focused and vividly told, the story allows readers to live momentarily but memorably beyond the confines of their own individual existence.”
With all this background in mind, I would like to to explore Eudora Welty’s story Why I Live at the P.O. and Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard To Find. These are two fine Southern writers I would have given some of my life blood to have had lunch with… or at least to have sat at a nearby booth eavesdropping on their conversation.
First of all, “life at the post office” is a black humor tale of a dystopian family without any heroes or heroines. There’s no uplifting message and no one to like in this story. So starting from this least common denominator, one might wonder how Welty could fashion a story that keeps us interested in people who are disagreeable and whose lives are mean spirited. This is a family without a covenant, simply five spiteful people full of jealousy, contempt, anger, and ignorance.
Welty’s narrator is “Sister,” the oldest of two adult sisters who takes sibling rivalry to a new low. She tells the story from the first-person narrative of a lady who addresses the reader directly so we see the rest of the family from her perspective only. In the telling, no character escapes her appraising, comically judgmental eye. The action takes place over the long Fourth of July holiday somewhere in Mississippi long ago, presumably in the old South of the 1930s. The family consists of Stella-Rondo, the younger sister who returns to the family home with a two-year old “adopted” daughter after either leaving or being left by her husband. Then there’s Mama, a huge woman who, according to Sister, is partial to Stella-Rondo and will accept anything she has to say as the truth. Rounding out the group is Mama’s father Papa-Daddy, an old man who spends most of his time in the hammock avoiding the family squabbles, and Uncle Rondo, Mama’s brother. Papa-Daddy is also quick to believe whatever Stella-Rondo’s says, especially her claim that Sister wants to cut off his precious beard that he’s worn since he was fifteen. Uncle Rondo, the last of the misfits, appears out of the blue wearing the pink kimono that Stella-Rondo left hanging in the bathroom. From the first sentence on, the story is one continuous squabbling match.
Welty’s story is set in the family house and the yard where Papa-Daddy can storm off to “sulk” whenever his unpredictable and tempestuous mood carries him outside the house. We are also told of the post office where Sister is postmistress due to some strings Papa-Daddy pulled some time in the past. The setting is one constant stream of hostility, accusation and counter accusation. During this holiday to celebrate the founding and unification of the country, the family is hell bent on tearing itself apart for some of the most unsubstantiated and ludicrous reasons. As Sister tells the story, though, one begins to wonder about the truth of her narrative, especially when her extreme insecurities and her constant efforts to find one villain after another to blame for her problems begin to bubble to the surface.
In her The Reading and Writing of Short Stories, Welty says “the plot of a short story in many instances is quite openly a projection of character.” She goes on to venture that “on some level all stories are stories of search…” In this narrative, the “search” is a dark venture that leads to isolation rather than revelation. Welty pulls us into the story through Sister’s character which slowly reveals itself as an unreliable observer of what’s happening around her. Her journey is not one of searching for meaning, but of escaping her perceived cacophonous home to lose herself in the post office which her family swears they will never enter again. The irony is that “Of course, there’s not much mail. My family are naturally the main people in China Grove, and if they prefer to vanish from the face of the earth, for all the mail they get or the mail they write, why, I’m not going to open my mouth.”
In the end, Sister herself becomes the object of her own comedy, ordering a small black child to help her haul her belongings to the post office with the intention of living there. Uncle Rondo seems so pleased to be rid of her that he tosses the child a nickel for her effort. Even when Sister doesn’t necessarily intend to be funny, her snarkiness and over-the-top reaction to Stella-Rondo’s return to the homestead makes for comedic reading. It’s Sister’s never ending elaborate narration, in which the minor events of the day become absurd, momentous occurrences, that makes the story a roller coaster of a ride through a strange world where the people could easily be residents of an asylum. Her manipulation, however, ultimately makes her an unreliable narrator because she conveys her own version of the truth while failing to recognize her own pettiness and jealousy. The reader gets the impression that Sister is hiding behind a mask and wants us to believe that she is not affected by the family infighting. In so doing, she tries to portray herself as a victim, free from all blame. Isolation in the bleak post office is her only refuge, perhaps an entrapment, as the story concludes.
If Eudora Welty presents us with a dark comedy of a twisted family, Flannery O’Connor presents an almost Quentin Tarantino horror story where a sadistic prison escapee and his two thug sidekicks kill an entire family for little more than the pleasure of it. A Good Man Is Hard To Find is O’Connor at her most “gothic” as well as religious, a mixture of two apparent opposites. As she says in On Her Own Work, “a story really isn’t any good unless it successfully resists paraphrase.” In her own special way, she telegraphs the awful murder scene, saying “you should know what is going to happen in this story so that any element of suspense in it will be transferred from its surface to its interior.”
I had read the story many years ago as an undergraduate and had been puzzled, as are so many others, about what O’Connor was trying to do when the leader of the escapees, appropriately named “The Misfit”, shoots the grandmother three times in the chest after she had reached out to touch him. When the elderly lady says, “Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!”, he recoils and shoots her. Earlier, when her family had been led into the woods where they were all shot, she had been urging The Misfit that all would be well in his life if he would only pray to Jesus.
In discussing the story, O’Connor says that what makes it work is “probably some kind of action, some gesture of a character that is unlike any other in the story, one which indicates where the real heart of the story is.” When the grandmother says that The Misfit is one of her own babies, O’Connor sees the gesture as “both totally right and totally unexpected.” Writing from her deep Catholic roots, she says the gesture must be “on the level with the Divine life and our participation in it… It would be a gesture which somehow made contact with mystery.” As O’Connor shows us in the Grandmother figure just before she is murdered, “violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace…in this story you should be on the lookout for such things as the action of grace in the Grandmother’s soul, and not for the dead bodies.”
In reading these two stories, I certainly came away with the observation expressed earlier that the short story allows us to step out of our everyday lives and experience a new reality so different from our own. They indeed allow us to explore our desires as well as confront our fears. In reading Welty and O’Connor, I feel as though I have just visited another world full of twisted characters deformed in ways hard to imagine. I have seen how universal themes of love and loss have been reinterpreted and turned on their heads and how some of the verities of how we live and the pitfalls of our behavior can reveal character and point toward either isolation or redemption.
For these particular stories, the authors have taken us on a journey into extremes, from the discord of a family’s quirky disputes to the sadistic violence of a psychopath. But we should recognize that this violence of one sort or another is not an end into itself. It is not Tarantino blowing someone’s head off in Pulp Fiction just for the sake of the “excitement” or Clint Eastwood piling up bodies in a panoply of gore and mayhem in many of his “spaghetti westerns.” Rather it is multi-dimensional and a portrayal of what defines us in great moments of self-discovery. As O’Connor put it so well, “Violence is a force which can be used for good or evil…With the serious writer, it is the extreme situation that best reveals what we are essentially, and I believe there are times when writers are more interested in what we are essentially than in the tenor of our daily lives.”
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll stop now since I’m anxious to continue my reading.