Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Everything That Rises Must Converge

“And they all lived happily ever after” is a sentence that Flannery O’Connor wouldn’t be caught dead writing. Instead, she was caught dead writing Everything That Rises Must Converge*, so it was published posthumously. My three-part O’Connor selection consists of Wise Blood (her first novel, 1952), The Violent Bear It Away (novel, 1960), and Everything that Rises Must Converge (collection of short stories, 1965). I started with her first novel and moved on to her last stories in order to track her trajectory as a writer; then, I circled back to her 1960 novel. Here, I’ll give a brief summary of each book and aggregate the ratings. Lots of sophisticated mathematics occurring on this site.  

Wise Blood is one of those first novels that you know is a first novel. Some authors thrive on subtlety, which I assume comes with experience. In this case, O’Connor thrives on hitting you in the face with an idea over and over again. The blood motif referenced in the title points to several—mostly religious—conclusions. The notion that blood can possess the quality of wisdom suggests that a person can have an innate sense of guidance that renders spiritual guidance irrelevant. Additionally, the Christian belief that Jesus redeemed humanity through the blood He shed contrasts with some of O’Connor’s characters’ insistence that salvation isn’t necessary in that their own blood sets them free. Lastly, because blood is associated with inheritance, O’Connor plays on the idea of psychological lineage to emphasize inevitability: some tendencies run through our blood that can’t be eradicated.  Because O’Connor’s devout Catholicism imbues the majority of her work, these bloody implications remind us that no character is safe from the author’s need to show a reckoning with Christ. Although it is impressive that Wise Blood extends from her Master’s thesis at the University of Iowa, I can’t appreciate the story. The characters’ actions seem consistently non-sensible. I know that religion can sometimes make people do irrational things, but I don’t want to read about a series of bizarre events that don’t get due explanations. Either develop your characters more or create less wacky scenarios. Not into it... Wise Blood receives 1 out of 5 camel humps.

The Violent Bear It Away evinces O’Connor’s growth as a writer. The novel discusses similar themes while telling a more sophisticated, interesting story. In it, a fanatically religious uncle indoctrinates his orphaned nephew. After the uncle’s death, the boy must come to terms with his own faith (or lack thereof) and carve his own path outside of the influence of an overbearing relative. Again, there’s a darkness to the plot, and no character comes out unscathed. We get to watch the characters wrestle with their inner demons and reconcile their insecurities with the irresistible draw of a passionate religiosity than runs in the fam. The downside? Her transitions between past and present are too abrupt and they result in reader-whiplash. I also seriously question the practical aspects of some of the forest fires scenes. As a whole, The Violent Bear It Away receives 3 out of 5 camel humps.

Everything that Rises Must Converge stands out well above the rest. Each of the nine short stories shows a character confronted with their own mortality, which is perhaps reflective of O’Connor’s own battle with lupus at the time of writing. She wields incisive prose, a dash of wit, and tragic endings as usual; but I believe that this triple threat is better packaged in a short story. She trades tediousness for tension—every interaction is charged with some sort of conflict (generational gap, racial prejudice, intellect disparity, religious quarrel, etc.). Her characters realize that they’re shitty people, but the insight comes too late. I’m very impressed with this collection, and I would re-read and recommend it to others as an introduction to O’Connor’s work; therefore, Everything that Rises Must Converge receives 5 out of 5 camel humps.

Overall, this three-book edition was good bang for the buck, but only parts were worth a read. As promised, the average score is 3 out of 5 camel humps. Be selective with your book of choice.

*O'Connor, Flannery. Three by Flannery O'Connor: Wise Blood, The Violent Bear It Away, Everything that Rises Must Converge. New York: Signet, 1986. Print.


Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Candide

            Never have I ever been so thankful for Voltaire than when my boyfriend and I came dangerously close to starving in an area of the world that’s basically Antarctica. Yes, that’s a real sentence.

Recently, we went on a three-day backpacking trip through Patagonia. We had withdrawn what we assumed was a generous amount of Chilean pesos for the trip, because various legs only accept cash, and we knew there wouldn’t be an ATM chillin on one of the glaciers out in the middle of nowhere. Unfortunately, some expenses that we thought we had already paid for actually needed settling, some transportation that we’d been told could be charged by card actually needed cash, and some rates were more expensive than we had anticipated. Really, we’re noobs. After we got to the end of the earth via three planes and three buses, we didn’t have enough pesos for both of us to take the necessary ferry that would finally shuttle us to the start of our trek. More troubling was the fact that I had only packed enough food to have meager snacks on the trail (I planned on eating dinner at the hostels along the way). Even if we could finagle our way on the ferry, if the hostels pulled the stunt that everyone else had pulled and didn’t accept credit cards, I foresaw many hangry nights and weak attempts at backpacking uphill. I clutched to a word that means the same in English and in Spanish: no no no no no.

Luckily—before I completely lost my shit amidst a multicultural group of mostly non-English speakers—a nice American couple agreed to trade USD for pesos and the hostels agreed to take our Visa.

Truthfully, I was very grumpy in the hour or so that I envisioned having to live three physically strenuous days off of one questionably packaged Chilean sausage and a bag of raisins; however, there were brief moments where I found solace in Candide*, Voltaire’s 1759 satirical novella that I had finished the day before. Candide is like The Odyssey, in that a man named Candide travels a long, fraught journey to reunite with his true love, CunĂ©gonde. Unlike Homer, we know a great deal about Voltaire, especially how his philosophical and religious views influenced his work.

Candide was written in response to a philosophy of optimism espoused by Voltaire’s contemporary, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. Leibniz believed that, because God is omniscient, omnibenevolent, and omnipotent, the world that we live in is necessarily optimal, or the best of all possible worlds. The character Candide inherits this worldview from his mentor, Professor Pangloss; however, this belief is continually challenged as Candide faces trial after trial. He’s a good man with simple aspirations, and he can’t seem to catch a break. Surely his experiences are not the best that they could possibly be? Perhaps Pangloss deludes himself with a false optimism that’s in reality “the madness of maintaining that everything is right when it is wrong” (Voltaire, 49)?

I’m a sucker for dry humor and Voltaire knows how to dish it out. He renders Candide’s misfortunes as larger-than-life, and he describes catastrophic events in a deadpan, dark way, similar to that of Catch-22, the GOAT of 20th century literature. In the end, Voltaire doesn’t provide us a clear-cut answer key on how to endure hardships. Instead, he offers an enigmatic practical solution: avoid idleness and work without disputing. This notion reminds me of Albert Camus’ suggestion that one must accept the absurdity of existence and actively live in spite of it. Keep on keepin’ on.

In Patagonia, as I considered my helplessness and yearned for Taco Bell back home, I thought of Candide’s tribulations and his insistence on perseverance. He hoped that his plights would eventually resolve, but because nothing is guaranteed and things don’t always work out for the best, he swallowed the bitter pill of life and accepted his less than gratifying hand. Mad props to Candide and medium props to myself for not publicly wailing. Voltaire, in his infinite critical wisdom, receives 5 out of 5 camel humps for Candide.


*Voltaire. Candide. Trans. Lowell Bair. New York: Bantam Classics, Inc., 1984. Print.