Saturday, November 16, 2019

The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler

Flannery O’Connor is savagely funny. Her characters, grotesque and exaggerated, are always a few degrees off of reality. Her descriptions are always unflattering. But she was always able to spin surprising, harsh and insightful stories around them. She complained in The Habit of Being (her posthumously published collections of letters) that she was perceived as a sort of “hillbilly nihilist” (one of my favorite phrases of hers) when she considered herself a “hillbilly Thomist” (a devotee of Aquinas to the extent she understood him). In an essay in Mystery and Manners she said that she wrote such harsh figures because “to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures” saying in effect that to express a Catholic worldview in a way that folks would pay attention to, she had to out-shock value them. And that she did on some level. Her world is touched with grace, but a grace that is often as horrifying as punishment. That is not to say she wrote thinly disguised sermons. Her stories were art first, though she thought they reflected her outlook.

Hazel Motes, the main character of this, is certainly a large startling figure. He’s a veteran who takes up street preaching when he gets back from service. The trick is he preaches a brand of nihilism, a church without Christ in which people need no redemption because there’s nothing from which to be redeemed. In a brief author’s note to the tenth edition, O’Connor set the stage by saying that she sees Hazel Mote’s integrity as springing from his inability to escape from Jesus, whereas she perceived critics to be saying it stemmed from the nihilistic message that he preaches until he finally succumbs to a self-flagellating form of Christianity; that his struggle against Christ was the thing. I’ve been thinking a lot about authorial intent, and O’Connor is weighing in on the side that it matters a lot. When I first read this, I was still a devout believer and was ecstatic to find a christian writer with literary cred. As hard as she was on nihilists, if you take her at her word about the substance of the book, she was as hard on Protestants. Another street preacher who is more of a grifter tries to pretty up the message of the Church without Christ: “Now, friends," Onnie Jay said, "I want to tell you a second reason why you can absolutely trust this church-- it's based on the Bible. Yes sir! It's based on your own personal interpitation of the Bible, friends. You can sit at home and intirpit your own Bible however you feel in your heart it ought to be intirpited. That's right," he said, "just the way Jesus would have done it. Gee, I wisht I had my gittarr here," he complained." Now reading it as an agnostic, I still think there’s plenty of textual evidence for O’Connor’s perspective (though I could be bringing in my knowledge of the rest of her work here). She certainly knew how to use irony. But that nihilistic reading is very tempting and plausible.

The glaring issue is O’Connor’s heavy use of racist language. I’ve always thought that she was pulling a similar trick to the religious one; she was using that language to tell us something about the character saying it while holding the opposite anti-racist viewpoint. Her characters are always morally worse than they perceived themselves to be, and this was a part of that. Also, if she was writing with any level of verisimilitude, the characters she was writing about would most certainly be racist. I still think that was largely what she was doing, but I’m less confident than I once was about that. I would certainly not begrudge anyone who disagreed with that assessment.

I was surprised that I hadn’t read this since 2002 (the first year I kept a reading log), and given that, how well I remembered it. It supports my theory that the books that really stick are the ones I’ve read multiple times. I read this at least twice and maybe as many as three times including that last readthrough. It could also be watching the John Huston adaptation a couple of times in the interim, an interesting take that seems to take the nihilism at face value. It could also just be that it’s a great book. Acidly funny and outright weird at times. It really moves along, despite not having a lot of sympathetic characters. Whether you read it as nihilistic or harshly Christian in the way it portrays Motes descent, it is very smart about the gap between self perception and reality. It is riveting. In the past, I had been dismissive of this in comparison to her short stories. As much as I still prefer many of the stories, I was pleased to find that I love this novel more than I remembered.


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