Saturday, July 4, 2009

Wise Blood by Flannery O'Connor

The boy didn't need to hear it. There was already a deep and black wordless conviction in him that the way to avoid Jesus was to avoid sin. He knew by the time he was twelve years old that he was going to be a preacher. Later he saw Jesus move from tree to tree in the back of his mind, a wild ragged figure motioning him to turn around and come off into the dark where he was not sure of his footing, where he might be walking on the water and not know it and then suddenly know it and drown.

Hm. I love Flannery O'Connor. Along with Carver, I think she is probably the premiere short story author to come out of 20th Century America. Her stories are invariably dark and tinged with a peculiarly Catholic brand of guilt and tragedy, and distinctively Southern in outlook and style. So why doesn't Wise Blood work?

I think it is because of precisely what I said--O'Connor is a fantastic short story writer, but many great American short story writers, like Carver and Poe, never tried to write anything longer. Poe had a theory he called "the unity of effect" that dictated that a work of literature must be read, and be able to be read, in a single setting to have the maximum impact upon its reader. I don't agree with Poe (who does?) but if he were to return from the dead (Zombie Poe!) and try to defend himself, he might point to Wise Blood, which is stitched together of fascinating parts but somehow fails to come together.

The story follows Hazel Motes, a young man just out of the army heading to the Southern city of Tulkinham. Hazel has some pretty peculiar ideas about Jesus--he can do without him--and when he runs into a street preacher named Asa Hawks, he is determined to outdo him by become a street preacher himself, one who preaches The Church of God Without Christ. You might call that Judaism, or Islam, but to Hazel it's a kind of religious philosophy that rejects the need for salvation. To spite Hawks further, he intends to seduce his underage daughter Lily, but Lily isn't exactly making it difficult for him to seduce her, and Hawks is pretty happy to have the girl out of his household.

Complicating matters is a young man who ingratiates himself to Hazel named Enoch Emery. Enoch believes that he has "Wise Blood," a kind of sixth sense that predicts the future in vague terms. Enoch, wishing to aid Hazel, and driven by his Wise Blood, steals a mummified child from a local museum to serve as the Christ figure in the Church.

There is a scene I liked a lot in which Enoch--an adult who, it is suggested, may be a little bit on the slow side--waits in line with a bunch of children at a theater to see the "star" of a King Kong-like movie only to find out it's a man in an ape suit. Angered and betrayed, he sneaks into the man's van and steals the ape suit, strips off his clothes in the middle of the forest, and becomes, by putting on the suit, the pinnacle of his desires. That's really fascinating in a particularly O'Connoresque way, but the problem is that it is difficult to place that scene, and many others, in the context of the entire novel. The scene is almost exactly duplicated in a short story of O'Connor's, though I don't know which came first. The short story by itself is intriguing, in the context of Wise Blood it is confusing.

Very few novels stump me. Though a lot of ideas may elude me, I am usually able to reflect somewhat meaningfully on a book I've read. Wise Blood is one of the first times that I've felt as if I just don't get the book. There is something going on with Christ figures--the way that Hazel tries to avoid Christ completely, but is bombarded with Christ substitutes, whether they be Hawks, or himself, or the mummified child, or Enoch's ape suit. It is, I suppose, a statement on the way that Christ pervades all things and cannot simply be escaped, even by a nonbeliever.

But that seems only a partial explanation. Why does Hazel want to separate Christ from God? What is the purpose, thematic or otherwise, of Enoch's "Wise Blood," which informs the title but seems to be near-irrelevant? What is the connection between Enoch and Hazel? There are too many questions. The pieces of this novel hang separate from one another and refuse, to my mind, to come together in anything approaching coherence.

Note: They made a movie of this where Hazel was played by Brad Dourif (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, That Really Good X-Files Episode Where He Plays a Psychic Murderer Who Speaks to Scully'sDead Father). Brad Dourif was born to play this role.


Amanda said...

Question: I've never read anything by Flannery O'Connor and want to remedy that within the next year or so - what would you recommend me to start with?

Christopher said...

Well, you can find the entire collection of her short fiction pretty readily. I think the most prevalent short story collection she published is called Everything That Rises Must Converge, which is the title of a great story. She only wrote two novels, this and The Violent Bear It Away, which I have not read.

As far as stories go, I would start with:

A Good Man is Hard to Find
Everything that Rises Must Converge
Good Country People

Billy probably has a couple he can recommend as well.

Meagan said...

Billy's read Flannery O'Connor?

Billy do you have her stuff? Can I borrow?