From Everything That Rises Must Converge
On April 22 of this year, Stephen Colbert took to the stage of the Peter Jay Sharp Theater at New York City’s Symphony Space. The celebrated cable television satirist was not there in character as his bigoted, ignorant right-wing alter-ego; he was there as himself, and he was there to read a story. The event was part of the thirtieth anniversary season of Selected Shorts, a combination podcast and reading program that pairs short fiction with celebrity readers.
This was not the first time Colbert had participated in the literary programming at Symphony Space, but according to Hillel Italie of the Associated Press, Katherine Minton, who runs the program, thought he would be a natural fit with O’Connor. Like the writer, Colbert is a Catholic from the South, and the two share an affinity for irony and biting humour. Italie quotes Minton as saying, “I asked him and he said yes right away, and told me that he’d like to read ‘The Enduring Chill.'”
It is not difficult to understand what Colbert appreciates about O’Connor’s story. One of the author’s later works (the collection in which it appears was published posthumously, following O’Connor’s death from lupus), the piece contains the cascading ironies for which the writer is justly celebrated, but also evinces a control over its tone and its subject that is absent from her earlier works. Particularly significant, perhaps, the central theme of the story is one Colbert made much of in his career as a mock pundit: hypocrisy.
Asbury Porter Fox, a twenty-five-year-old native of a backwater Southern town with the delightful name Timberboro, has been away at university in New York. He returns home suffering from a fever and chills and convinced he is dying. This scenario – which, in O’Connor’s hands, turns out to be the set-up for an elaborate, religiously suffused shaggy dog story – provides an opportunity for the author to corrosively deconstruct the familial relationship between Asbury, his overbearing mother, and his schoolteacher sister, Mary George.
At first Asbury appears to belong to the class of O’Connor’s patented intellectuals – a group the author had little but disdain for. He attends university in the big city – a location that never bodes well in an O’Connor story – where he is a failed writer, having penned “two lifeless novels,” a “half-dozen stationary plays,” a group of “prosy poems” and “sketchy short stories.” The only writing of his he has not burned consists of a long letter to his mother – which takes up the entirety of two notebooks – meant to explain himself and his life. “It was such a letter as Kafka had addressed to his father,” we are told.
Here is O’Connor at her most blisteringly ironic. Asbury is not an intellectual; at best, he is a pseudo-intellectual, someone who strives for credibility but continually falls short. His university friend Goetz, upon learning of Asbury’s illness, counsels that the young man consider it an illusion, like all of life, but Asbury is unable to comprehend what this might mean. Goetz has been to Japan, where he became a Buddhist; he buys Asbury a ticket to a lecture on the Hindu philosophy Vedanta (Asbury is bored to tears by the talk), following which members of the audience retreat to Goetz’s apartment. Among them is a Jesuit priest with the outrageous name Ignatius Vogle, who speaks airily about the “real probability of the New Man.”
Asbury feels an affinity for Vogel’s affectations (perhaps unconsciously recognizing in the Jesuit a fellow poseur), which seem to stand in opposition to his mother, whom the young man considers little more than a rube incapable of comprehending his artistic aspirations. “I think it would be nice if you wrote a book about down here,” his mother says in an attempt to be encouraging. “We need another good book like Gone With the Wind.” She advises her son to include the Civil War in whatever he writes. “That always makes a long book.”
Asbury’s mother – for whom the epitome of literary achievement is Gone With the Wind – has nothing in the way of artistic or intellectual ability, but the story treats her more sympathetically than her son because she is genuine where Asbury is artificial. Like her creator, she has remained close to the small community in which she has always lived and looks with suspicion on the teeming masses in New York. She insists that Asbury consult the local physician – tellingly named Dr. Block – who, despite his back-country ways and colourful dialect, is the person who eventually diagnoses Asbury.
At the risk of ruining the joke, it turns out that the young man is not dying. In this, Mary George hits close to home: “Asbury can’t write so he gets sick,” she tells their mother. “He’s going to be an invalid instead of an artist.” This is fairly close to the truth as Asbury has determined it. In the absence of a clear diagnosis, he has convinced himself he is dying and that his death will substitute for the production of a great work of art as his life’s magnificent act. “He had failed his god, Art, but he had been a faithful servant and Art was sending him Death. He had seen this from the first with a kind of mystical clarity.”
Reading these sentences in an O’Connor story should set off instant alarm bells, and should clearly indicate that Asbury is ripe for comeuppance. (The relevant Bible text here is Matthew 6:24: “No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one and love the other; or else he will hold to the one and despise the other.”) Nor should it be surprising that the instrument of this comeuppance is a priest – not a devotee of “the New Man,” like Ignatius Vogel, but a true fire-and-brimstone Jesuit who strips Asbury of the hypocritical mantle he has donned and leaves him naked before his God (in O’Connor, the deity always merits a capital letter).
There is irony here, too. Asbury initially asks his mother to summon Father Finn because he assumes the priest will resemble Ignatius Vogel. (His first question is about whether Father Finn has read Joyce; the other man doesn’t even know whom Asbury is referring to.) Instead of indulging Asbury’s inclinations toward intellectual pretension, Father Finn berates him for neglecting his eternal soul by not doing enough to serve God in this life.
Asbury saw he had made a mistake and that it was time to get rid of the old fool. “Listen,” he said, “I’m not a Roman.”
“A poor excuse for not saying your prayers!” the old man snorted.
Asbury slumped slightly in the bed. “I’m dying,” he shouted.
“But you’re not dead yet!”
Father Finn’s retort is brutal in its directness (it’s one of the only moments in the story in which the irony is dropped and O’Connor speaks directly) and its ability to cut to the heart of the real sickness afflicting Asbury.
Asbury’s solipsism and self-involvement have conspired to convince him that he is too grand for the town of Timberboro and even for his own family. But his carefully constructed persona is easily rent by someone who recognizes the insincerity and deceit underpinning it. Asbury likens the letter he writes for his mother to the work of Kafka, but misquotes Yeats and burns his own fiction, which he considers substandard and ineffective. His climactic confrontation with Father Finn represents the moment O’Connor insisted on in her work: the dramatic instant in which grace is offered. This is often, in O’Connor, a moment of violence; here the violence is rhetorical rather than physical, but no less scalding for all of that.
The story’s final image finds O’Connor in full symbolist mode: a water stain on Asbury’s bedroom wall, which appears as a bird with an icicle in its beak, is seen to be descending toward the young man. This water stain is likened to the Holy Ghost “emblazoned in ice instead of fire,” and making its “implacable” way toward the figure prone on the bed. In this final moment, the chill of Asbury’s illness, which has proved not to be so mortal as he imagined (“People just don’t die like they used to,” his mother tells him), is replaced by a different kind of enduring chill, this one more spiritually potent and transforming. The veil of hypocrisy has been torn away and the egotistical hypocrite has been forced to confront his essential self. No wonder Colbert likes the piece.
Aficionados of Flannery O’Connor’s writing will want to pick up the September 16, 2013, issue of The New Yorker, which contains excerpts from a personal journal the author kept during her time at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1946. The pieces, addressed “Dear God,” and taking up subjects such as Christian worthiness, faith, hope, and charity, underscore O’Connor’s religiosity – which was an inescapable aspect of all her fiction – as well as her struggles to live as a writer and a practising Catholic.
“Please let Christian principles permeate my writing,” O’Connor says at one point, “and please let there be enough of my writing (published) for Christian principles to permeate.”
O’Connor clearly felt conflicted between her desire to be an author – something she associated with ego – and her desire to live for God. “I do not know you God because I am in the way,” she writes. “Please help me to push myself aside.” She desires to “want” God and, in typical O’Connor fashion, finds an ironic metaphor to describe this want, saying she wishes for it to live “like a cancer” in her. The desire for God, for O’Connor, was a living thing, which she (somewhat surprisingly) contrasts to art:
It is easy for this writing to show a want. There is a want but it is abstract and cold, a dead want that goes well into writing because writing is dead. Writing is dead. Art is dead, dead by nature, not killed by unkindness. I bring my dead want into the place the dead place it shows up most easily, into writing. This has its purpose if by God’s grace it will wake another soul; but it does me no good.
The notion of God’s grace is central to O’Connor’s writing and her thought, as is made abundantly clear in these journal excerpts. She is constantly asking for grace to be bestowed upon her, and identifies the problem in Kafka’s writing as being removed from this grace. “Please give me the necessary grace, oh Lord,” she writes, “and please don’t let it be as hard to get as Kafka made it.” She is desirous of heaven and communion with God, both of which require grace to obtain. “Help me to feel that I will give up every earthly thing for this,” she says. “I do not mean becoming a nun.”
That last comment is indicative of another typical O’Connor feature that reappears in these journal entries: her wicked humour. She decries “stinking romanticism” and cleverness (intellectuals were one of her key targets in all her fiction), and castigates herself for saying “many too many uncharitable things about people … because they make me look clever.” And yet she has it in her to unleash throwaway zingers that cut pretension and hypocrisy to the bone: “If we could accurately map heaven some of our up-&-coming scientists would begin drawing blueprints for its improvement, and the bourgeois would sell guides 10¢ the copy to all over sixty-five.”
From Bull Head
The eight stories in Bull Head take place in a fictionalized version of British Columbia’s Elk Valley region, and feature (predominantly) working-class men struggling and scraping to get by, trying to wrest some form of meaning out of their constrained circumstances. What most crucially marks the stories is a resolute refusal on the part of the author to comment or offer any kind of moral opprobrium. These are true “exit author” stories: Vigna presents his characters and their situations, and allows his readers to draw their own conclusions about them.
Vigna introduces the collection with an epigraph from Flannery O’Connor focusing on the capability of violence to return people to an essential state, and certainly there is violence aplenty in these stories. Bull Head is, in sum, rough, scabrous, and nasty.
The nastiest story of the bunch is “South Country,” which mercilessly dissects the consequences of cyclical violence within the context of a hyper-masculine culture. The violence in the story is made even more unpalatable for being sexual in nature. But for all its amorality and savage content, the story shares with the others in the collection a thematic insistence on paralysis; the characters in “South Country” are trapped, by their circumstances, but also by an inheritance of violence and discord they are ultimately unable to rise above.
The heart of the story is Billy, the first-person narrator. Billy drives a cab and spends his evenings drinking at the Northerner bar, often in the company of Travis. Travis is misogyny incarnate, and has a particularly odious ongoing bet with his buddy: whenever one of them succeeds in taking a woman home and having sex with her, he owes the other $100. The other man is then obliged to sleep with the same woman; if he is unable, he owes double. The two men view the women in the town as nothing more than potential conquests, with a dollar value attached, at that. “To easy prey,” is Travis’s appalling toast to Billy over beers at the Northerner.
In the bar, both men take notice of a waitress with an Australian accent. Travis adopts a typical attitude of swagger and braggadocio, but it is Billy who ends up winning the woman’s affection, not by coming on strong, but by displaying sensitivity and vulnerability. The courtship between Billy and Linda, the waitress, forms a tender counterpoint to the masculine hyperbole and arrogance the two men engage in over beer.
It also forms a counterpoint to Billy’s relationship with the Bride, a local eccentric who earns her moniker because she goes around in a filthy wedding dress. The reason for the Bride’s choice of attire is never made clear, other than Billy’s assumption that “[s]he was a certifiable loon.” Although it’s never stated outright, it seems obvious that the Bride has been injured by some unspecified incident in her past, which makes her treatment at the hands of Billy and Travis that much more reprehensible. Billy seduces the Bride after Travis claims to have slept with her; not only does Billy have sex with the Bride and summarily abandon her, he steals her money on the way out the door.
That the Bride has suffered some misfortune in her past seems undeniable; certainly there is no escaping the injury and hurt Billy is heir to as a young man. Vigna makes this more than clear in flashback scenes interspersed throughout the story. The summer Billy is thirteen, he ends up on a cattle ranch with Harley, who has promised the boy’s mother that he would look after him. The crew consists of a barbaric sociopath named Hops, who rapes Billy with a bottle, and threatens a young woman with rape while Billy looks on.
In the second instance, Billy menaces Hops with a scythe, an implement laden with all sorts of metaphoric implication. “I wanted to tell her that it’s okay,” Billy says about the victim of Hops’s assault, “it will all be okay, that it will pass, and you’ll be fine. It might take some time, but you’ll learn to slash it out of you bit by bit, leave it behind until maybe there’s nothing left. Nothing left to do but survive.” But this idea proves chimerical; Billy ends up abandoning the scene of the incipient rape, running away through the forest, “screaming at something, a past, a future, a life that seemed like no way out at all.”
Here, Vigna makes explicit the theme of paralysis: Billy is trapped in a cycle of unending violence, which he was initiated into as a young man, and which he is doomed to repeat over and over again as an adult. Vigna does not excuse Billy’s behaviour, or let him off the hook, but the violence and degradation that are visited on him as a teen go some distance in explaining his desensitized nature in the present.
The tragedy of Billy’s experience is that he does manage to find a healthy, caring relationship with Linda, but is unable to sustain it, choosing instead to break his oath of loyalty to her by degrading the Bride in order to feel superior to Travis. Although the possibility of redemption is offered him, Billy is ultimately too far gone to recognize or accept it.
“Learn anything at church this morning,” Harley asks Billy in one flashback scene. “Yeah,” Billy replies. “We’re all going to hell.”
“Amen to that,” is Harley’s only response.
From Everything That Rises Must Converge
“I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace,” stated Flannery O’Connor in an address at Virginia’s Hollins College in 1963. “Their heads are so hard that almost nothing else will do the work. This idea, that reality is something to which we must be returned at considerable cost, is one which is seldom understood by the casual reader, but it is one which is implicit in the Christian view of the world.” Writers are often the least reliable sources of information about their own work, but it is difficult to quarrel with O’Connor’s assessment here, as it regards her stories and novels. A deeply devoted Catholic writer, the moment of grace she felt was offered her characters in moments of violence exists at the core of much of her fiction, nowhere more so than at the climax of “Greenleaf,” which sees the protagonist, the haughty landowner Mrs. May, gored by a bull that has been stalking her farm.
Mrs. May’s fate is sealed relatively early in the story, when she encounters Mrs. Greenleaf, the wife of a worker on her farm, engaged in a kind of ritualistic devotion in the pastures around her property. Mrs. Greenleaf is sprawled out on the ground, in what appears to be a religious reverie, repeating the invocation, “Jesus, Jesus.” Mrs. May’s response is typical, and indicative of characters in O’Connor’s fiction who are ripe for comeuppance:
Mrs. May winced. She thought the word, Jesus, should be kept inside the church building like other words inside the bedroom. She was a good Christian woman with a large respect for religion, though she did not, of course, believe any of it was true. “What is the matter with you?” she asked sharply.
It is the “of course” that settles things, an ironic twist after the assertion that Mrs. May is “a good Christian woman with a large respect for religion.”
In fact, Mrs. May does not have respect for much of anything at all, including her hired help, the Greenleafs, or even her own sons. Scofield, an insurance salesman, is thirty-six years old, and Mrs. May worries that he is past his eligibility for marriage, particularly since he specializes in selling policies to black folk in the area. “What nice girl wants to marry a nigger-insurance man?” Mrs. May asks derisively.
Her other son, Wesley, is a university professor, one in a long line of O’Connor intellectuals held forth for mockery and ridicule. “Wesley … had had rheumatic fever when he was seven and Mrs. May thought that this was what had caused him to be an intellectual,” O’Connor writes. Wesley causes his mother “real anxiety” as a result of his intellectual tendencies:
He was thin and nervous and bald and being an intellectual was a terrible strain on his disposition. She doubted if he would marry until she died but she was certain that then the wrong woman would get him. Nice girls didn’t like Scofield but Wesley didn’t like nice girls. He didn’t like anything. He drove twenty miles every day to the university where he taught and twenty miles back every night, but he said he hated the twenty-mile drive and he hated the second-rate university and he hated the morons who attended it. He hated the country and he hated the life he lived; he hated living with his mother and his idiot brother and he hated hearing about the damn dairy and the damn help and the damn broken machinery. But in spite of all he said, he never made any move to leave. He talked about Paris and Rome but he never went even to Atlanta.
Intellectuals do not fare well in O’Connor’s fiction, and Wesley is no exception: he is a comic figure, made ridiculous by the disconnect between his pomposity and the reality of his situation.
Both sons are doppelgängers for O.T. and E.T. Greenleaf, the scions of Mrs. May’s hired hand, and the owners of the bull who is marauding around her farm, tearing away at her hedges and threatening to despoil her herd of cows. Mrs. May is envious of the Greenleaf boys, who have served overseas and whose children stand to gain in social status as a result:
“And in twenty years,” Mrs. May asked Scofield and Wesley, “do you know what those people will be?
“Society,” she said blackly.
Mrs. May’s sin is pride. She feels superior to both the Greenleaf family and her own sons, and although her sense of self-righteousness has a certain reasonableness to it (she is a widow who has worked hard to maintain the dairy farm that provides for her and her family), she is nevertheless ripe for a fall.
The instrument of her reckoning is the bull, first seen through Mrs. May’s bedroom window looking “like some patient god come down to woo her” – a clear intimation of what is to come. The scene in which the bull gores Mrs. May is shot through with implication; the bull’s horn pierces the woman’s heart, which recalls Mrs. Greenleaf on the ground in the woods, shrieking, “Oh Jesus, stab me in the heart!” The image of the bull with its head buried in Mrs. May’s lap, “like a wild tormented lover,” has ironic echoes of the widow’s fixation on her sons’ prospects as marriage material.
What makes the ending of the story so shocking, in part, is precisely this insistence on language that interprets the congress between Mrs. May and the bull as that between two lovers – the culmination of the opening image of the bull as a “patient god come down to woo her.” More so than elsewhere in O’Connor’s fiction, the divine and the carnal are united in the closing images of this story. As Miles Orvell puts it in his study, Flannery O’Connor: An Introduction:
In short, what O’Connor is dramatizing in “Greenleaf” is an image of the discovery of the mystery of Reality, and the language in which that discovery is portrayed suggests an association with the coming of Christ to the unsuspecting Mrs. May. Does Christ come like a bull? Does he gore those he saves? Not literally, of course, but in the sense that his coming is, presumably, an agony and, at the same time, a lover’s embrace. What makes “Greenleaf” convincing, finally, is the rich psychological dimension of the characterization: the various dreams, half-perceptions, fears, and anticipations of Mrs. May validate, it seems to me, the possibility of theological meaning.
“I’m interested in the aesthetics of violence,” says Stacey Madden, sitting in a downtown Toronto café and appearing pretty much the polar opposite of a violent character. Indeed, Madden admits his fascination with aggression in a literary context is somewhat paradoxical, given that he will go to just about any lengths to avoid it in real life. “If I hear a beer bottle fall over in a bar, I’m out of there, because I think somebody just smashed it over somebody’s head, not that somebody spilled their beer. Maybe it’s that fear of violence in life that attracts me to it in literature.”
The author has just published his first novel, the darkly comic neo-noir Poison Shy, which allowed him free rein to indulge his taste for fictional mayhem. “I wrote a book that I wanted to read,” he says. “I wrote a book that I thought would be dark, because I like to read dark books. I wrote a book that I though would be funny, because I like to read funny books. And I like to read violent books.”
The book in question is a nasty little number about Brandon Galloway, a gormless twenty-nine-year-old pest control worker who becomes involved with a provocative university student named Melanie Blaxley and her contemptible “roommate,” Darcy. Brandon spends his days tending to his mentally ill mother and working for Kill ’Em All, an extermination company in the fictional Ontario town of Frayne (the main street is called Dormant Road, and the locals refer to Frayne University as F.U.). At night, Brandon becomes ever more deeply enmeshed with the redheaded firebrand Melanie, an obsession that leads him into an uncontrollable spiral of sex and depravity.
Clocking in at fewer than 200 pages, the result is a lightning fast, tightly calibrated read. As reviewer Alex Good said in Quill & Quire, “It’s hard to think of a recent novel with less dead air.”
At least one reviewer did express reservations about the book’s structure, in particular Melanie’s disappearance, which is hinted at in the opening pages, but does not actually occur until close to the novel’s end. But Madden defends his decision to build his story this way. He didn’t want to follow the easy, predictable trajectory of a character who disappears early on with the other characters forced to spend the balance of the book looking for her. “If I had adhered to that formula, it would have made the book more like a novel, and less like the chaotic nature of real life.”
The work that Madden has produced is a kind of literary hybrid: not strictly a genre novel, but certainly not a work of documentary realism. “I didn’t want the book to be realist in the sense that a lot of writers mean that these days,” Madden says. “I didn’t want it to be so authentic that anything out of the ordinary shouldn’t be expected to happen because it’s too weird. I think that real life is very weird. Strange things can and do happen all the time.”
Given Madden’s penchant for anti-realist fiction laced with violence, it should come as no surprise that the author numbers Flannery O’Connor, whom he calls “an incredible prose stylist, and a writer of non-realist realism,” as one of his primary influences. “She totally changed my perception of what fiction could be,” Madden says. “I was kind of scandalized after reading her, in the best possible way. I thought: wow, you can say that and you can write about that kind of stuff and describe things in that way, and it’s okay?”
Madden wrote Poison Shy as his thesis project for the University of Guelph MFA program, where he was taught by Susan Swan, Karen Connelly, and Russell Smith, and mentored by Andrew Pyper. “It helped me in the sense that I’m kind of lazy,” Madden says of his experience in the program. “This kicked me in the ass to actually finish something.”
Although critics have suggested that MFA programs are akin to factories for writers, Madden disavows this interpretation as it applies to his experience. “I don’t think the program at Guelph-Humber is a factory. I don’t think it churns writers out like cookie cutters. Sitting here, I’d be hard pressed to think of any two writers [from my cohort] that I could compare and say, ‘These two do the same kind of thing.’”
Madden’s involvement with the Guelph-Humber program, and the writing of Poison Shy, was an outgrowth of a longtime affinity for books and writers, something he indulges as a bookseller at the Toronto mini-chain Book City, where he has worked for the past decade. “It’s helped me to feel like an insider, sometimes,” Madden says. “When I had aspirations about writing but didn’t know if I’d ever be published, I could still think, ‘Well, at least I work in a bookstore and sometimes writers come in and sign books.’”
Now that he is a published novelist, Madden retains his job as a bookseller, and claims not to be entirely fatalistic about the future of either profession. “I’m always a pessimist. But there’s a little flicker of optimism inside me.”
He goes on to say that his optimism about the book business comes from having met “a ton of avid readers and book buyers.”
“Some people say that books will become niche items, will become like what records are now. But I don’t know if I agree with that because every reader I know still buys books and swears that they will always do so,” he says.
“Books are here to stay.”
Stacey Madden will appear at Toronto’s International Festival of Authors along with Matt Lennox, Aga Maksimowska, Grace O’Connell, and Tanis Rideout on Sunday, October 21 at 4 p.m. Tickets and information available at the IFOA website.
It’s a bit daunting to think that this marks the fifth year I’ve launched into a month of short-story posts. The first, in 2008, was held in August, to coincide with the Canadian Notes & Queries/The New Quarterly Salon des Refusés of writers excluded from The Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories.
The idea was straightforward: each day of the month, I would select and write about one short story. By month’s end, I would cover as close to thirty-one stories as possible. (One story per day is always the goal, but it’s also important to be realistic about time pressures, other commitments, etc.) In the initial conception, I wanted to focus on the breadth of short fiction since the turn of the 20th century; subsequent iterations of this project have reached back even further, and have covered stories from Canada, the United States, Britain, Russia, Argentina, Japan, Israel, and elsewhere.
If the idea was straightforward, it became clear quite quickly that the execution would be anything but. Selecting stories, reading (or rereading) them, and trying to come up with something somewhat cogent and (hopefully) engaging to say about them on a tight timeframe proved challenging, but people seemed to enjoy the results of this process. (Indeed, the annual 31 Days of Stories is one of the most trafficked sections of TSR.)
So, once again charging in where angels fear to tread, I’m going to pledge to post on one story per day during May 2012. (The story month moved from August to May in 2010 as a means of piggybacking on Dan Wickett’s annual online celebration.)
Inevitably, there will be some overlap in authors, because it’s my damn site, and I’m the one doing the choosing. Flannery O’Connor, Alice Munro, and James Joyce, all 31 Days of Stories alumni, will no doubt be making repeat appearances over the coming weeks. (I’ve often thought I could devote the middle two weeks of this annual endeavour to each of the fifteen stories in Dubliners to obviate the need to choose from among them: they’re all that good.) But, we’ll try to mix it up a bit, to include a healthy serving of stories in translation, and hopefully to spotlight some surprising or overlooked stories that deserve a wider audience.
Things kick off tomorrow, and continue throughout the month. Join me?
(The Short Story Month banner is by designer Steven Seighman.)
A Rage in Harlem. Chester Himes; $12.00 paper 978-0-141-19644-2, 214 pp., Penguin Books
It’s inexplicable why Chester Himes is not better known or more widely read today. The author’s ten hard-boiled crime novels featuring the detective team of Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones have been compared to Chandler, but have been largely unavailable in recent years. Penguin Modern Classics has done an invaluable service by reissuing three of them – A Rage in Harlem, The Heat’s On, and The Real Cool Killers in widely available, modestly priced paperback editions.
The first novel in the series, A Rage in Harlem (1957), was originally called For Love of Imabelle, but the alternate title stuck because, as Luc Sante points out in his excellent introduction, “it combined two nouns guaranteed to act as flint and steel in the mind of the average 1950s American drugstore paperback browser.” This attitude itself attests to the kind of pervasive and systemic racism that Himes spent most of his writing life protesting. Indeed, the author commented that “The Harlem of my books was never meant to be real; I never called it real; I just wanted to take it away from the white man if only in my books.”
Himes’s version of Harlem is a seething, roiling place where passions – both violent and sexual – can erupt in a heartbeat, or the flick of a switchblade. In at least one instance in his novel, extremes of sex and violence are explicitly conjoined: a con man who has his throat slashed is described “jerking and twisting … in death convulsions as though having a frantic sex culmination with an unseen mate.”
Elsewhere, Harlem is depicted in terms that combine a brand of kitchen-sink realism with a dash of Daliesque surrealism:
Looking eastward from the towers of Riverside Church, perched among the university buildings on the high banks of the Hudson River, in a valley far below, waves of gray rooftops distort the perspective like the surface of a sea. Below the surface, in the murky waters of fetid tenements, a city of black people who are convulsed in desperate living, like the voracious churning of millions of hungry cannibal fish. Blind mouths eating their own guts. Stick in a hand and draw back a nub.
That is Harlem.
It is by no means accidental that Himes insists on situating Harlem in a valley below the Hudson, or imagining the “city of black people … convulsed in desperate living” as existing underwater. It was white America that lived in a mansion on a hill; black Americans were jammed together in decrepit tenement dwellings where they eked out meagre existences, feeding on one another like “millions of hungry cannibal fish.”
Tim Lawlor points out that the train whistle cutting through the Harlem air in the novel offers a potent symbol of white capitalism that is similarly degraded and debased among the desperate denizens of the neighbourhood. “The fact that the train ‘thunders past overhead’ emphasises the futility of the situation: the black community are unable to stop something so established and powerful that relentlessly circles their city and traps them within.” Trapped inside the suffocating confines of their cannibalistic community, the men and women of Harlem have no choice but to turn to crime, which cannot end happily for them. It is also not an accident that Jackson, Himes’s hapless protagonist, works at a funeral parlour and spends much of the latter part of the novel trying to make off with a cache of what he believes to be gold secreted in the back of a hearse. The explicit images of death testify to the futility Lawlor identifies, a futility many of Himes’s characters fall victim to.
The rage – or righteous fury – that Himes felt about the institutional racism in America infuses his Harlem crime novels, but does so in a less overt or didactic way than in his earlier, non-genre novels, such as his well-regarded debut, If He Hollers Let Him Go. Much of this is due to the way in which A Rage in Harlem and its successors came to be written.
Himes was born into a middle-class family from Missouri, moved to Arkansas when he was twelve, then to Ohio. He was expelled from university for a prank and later arrested on an armed robbery charge, a conviction that came with a sentence of twenty to twenty-five years. He began writing in prison and published articles in various magazines, including Esquire. He was paroled after seven years and published his first novel in 1940, following which he spent a brief time as a screenwriter in Hollywood, an experience that solidified his hatred for American society. In the book City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles, Mike Davis writes that “Himes encountered an implacable wall of racism in Hollywood. As his biographer describes the incident, ‘he was promptly fired from … Warner Brothers when Jack Warner heard about him and said, “I don’t want no niggers on this lot.”‘”
Following in the footsteps of black American writers such as Richard Wright and James Baldwin, Himes emigrated to Paris in 1953; he would never return to live in the United States. In France, he encountered Marcel Duhamel, the editor in charge of Gallimard’s series of crime novels, La Série Noir. Duhamel convinced Himes to write for the series and, in so doing, helped Himes find his mature voice, which was of necessity stripped of pretense and hauteur. As Sante writes:
Himes had been a difficult writer – difficult in his bitterness, alienation, obsessiveness, and self-consciousness, as well as formally difficult at time[s]. Now, however, the narrative conventions of the genre (“Make pictures,” Duhamel told him. “We don’t give a damn who’s thinking what – only what they’re doing”) forced Himes to channel all his preoccupations without betraying them, to proceed by stealth and indirection, to mask his rage as humour, to transfer his focus from himself to the diverse and particular inhabitants of an entire teeming world, to trade his defensiveness for a gleeful assault on all fronts, and to treat social issues with an apparent insouciance that would penetrate the defences of his readers. Popular fiction, popularly considered narrow, broadened Himes as a writer.
Sante’s reference to humour is significant, since in addition to its other merits, A Rage in Harlem is a very funny book. (As Flannery O’Connor once said of her first novel, “It is a comic novel … and as such, very serious, for all comic novels that are any good must be about matters of life and death.”) Much of the novel’s humour is centred around Jackson’s twin brother Goldy, who dresses as a nun and sells the religiously motivated citizens of Harlem passes into heaven: “No one who noticed thought it strange for a Sister of Mercy to kick a cur dog in the ribs, enter a dope den, and quote enigmatic Scripture to reefer-smoking delinquents.” In other cases, the humour is situational, as when Jackson tries to escape the police by commandeering a horse-drawn carriage:
Jackson lashed the nag’s rump, trying to get away. The junkman ran after him in a shuffling gait. Both horse and man moved so slowly it seemed to Jackson as though the whole world had slowed down to a crawl.
“Hey, he stealin’ my wagon.”
A cop looked around at Jackson.
“Are you stealing this man’s wagon?”
“Nawsuh, dat’s mah pa. He can’t see well.”
The junkman clutched the cop’s sleeve.
“Ah ain’t you pa and Ah sees enough to see that you is stealing my wagon.”
“Pa, you drunk,” Jackson said.
The novel’s humour bleeds from satire into absurdist farce, and frequently gives way to sudden violence in a manner that prefigures the films of Quentin Tarantino by more than thirty years. Himes also anticipates Tarantino’s affinity for colourful lowlifes and corrupt lawmen. But he does so within a milieu that, exaggerated and fictionalized though it may be, cuts an incisive line through the social and economic conditions that kept black Americans down in the pre-Civil Rights era of the late 1950s and early ’60s.
The novel’s plot, concerning a trio of criminals who cheat the naive Jackson out of all his money, and Jackson’s increasingly desperate attempts to redeem himself, is almost beside the point. What is most important is the social canvas that serves as Himes’s backdrop, and the vibrant eccentrics who people his story. Ignore Bill Duke’s watered-down 1991 film version and seek out the Modern Classics edition of this potent novel. You won’t be disappointed.
The Toronto Public Library is smack in the middle of Keep Toronto Reading 2011, a month-long series of readings, events, and activities aimed at celebrating books across the city. In conjunction with the TPL festival, Jen Knoch of the Keepin’ It Real Book Club has been hosting a series of videos featuring bookish types recommending titles that have had transformative effects on their lives. I was invited to participate, and contributed a short video about one of the few books that I reread regularly: Flannery O’Connor’s corrosive and iconoclastic first novel, Wise Blood.
This past weekend, Howard Jacobson published an article in the Guardian bemoaning the lack of attention comic novels receive among literary critics and readers of “serious” literature:
The novel was born of restless critical intelligence, and it was born laughing. “It pleases me to think,” said Milan Kundera, in the course of accepting the Jerusalem prize for literature in 1985, “that the art of the novel came into the world as an echo of God’s laughter.” If this is so, then talk of the comic novel is tautologous. If we are to be true to the form there will be only “novels” and they will be effusive with wit and humour; thereafter, to help the bookshops categorise, we can allow all the sub-species they have shelf-space for – the novel of distended plot and fatuous denouement, the novel of who cares who dunnit, the novel of what Orwell in his great defence of Henry Miller called “flat cautious statements and snack-bar dialects,” the novel, to sum up, of anorexic mirthlessness. But let’s not forget that those are the anomalies.
As if to lend credence to Jacobson’s analysis, the Man Booker Prize jury, chaired by poet Andrew Motion, awarded The Finkler Question this year’s £50,000 honour, trumping the heavily favoured C by Tom McCarthy, and such heavy hitters as Room by Emma Donoghue and Parrot and Olivier in America by two-time Booker winner Peter Carey.
The Finkler Question is being touted as the first comic novel to win the award, which is not entirely true: DBC Pierre’s Vernon God Little is technically a satire, but it could be argued that the 2003 Booker winner is a comic novel (the distinction between satire and comedy is razor thin). Still, it’s nice to see a book that is not utterly morose and sombre walk away with a major literary award.
Of course, the second-guessing has already begun. On the Guardian‘s blog, Sarah Crown writes:
I – like quite a few others, if the comments on the books blogs are anything to go by – preferred [Jacobson’s] 2006 novel Kalooki Nights; it’s difficult to shake the faint sense that tonight’s prize is somewhat in the nature of a lifetime achievement award.
Nevertheless, Jacobson’s win is a validation of Flannery O’Connor’s assertion in the introduction to the second edition of her debut novel, Wise Blood: “It is a comic novel … and as such, very serious, for all comic novels that are any good must be about matters of life and death.”
It would appear that this year’s Man Booker Prize jury agrees.
Even as a child, I was distrustful of the Choose Your Own Adventure series of novels, which allowed young readers to decide the outcome of the stories by selecting one of a group of preset options. (If you want the hero to jump off the cliff, go to page 98. If you want the hero to bite the head off the bat, go to page 66.) From the time I started reading fiction, I understood intuitively that one of the reasons I gleaned so much enjoyment from the practice had to do with relinquishing control: for the duration of my reading experience, I put my own desires and predilections aside and allowed the author to take me on a journey. Perhaps the journey would not lead to the expected destination, and perhaps I’d be disappointed with where I ended up, but this too was part of the magic. In a very few cases, the author would see to it that by taking me somewhere I didn’t expect – or possibly even want – to go, my own narrow horizons were expanded, even just a little.
Times have changed since I read those Choose Your Own Adventure books as a kid. Society has become more narcissistic, more demanding of instant gratification, more needy. People insist that their own needs and desires be met, and on their own terms, in virtually all transactions – social, professional, even artistic. The rise of the focus group has ensured that the mainstream movies coming out of Hollywood in the past three decades have cleaved to a boring middle ground, and the rise of first-person video games has solidified the idea that the viewer should be at the centre of the story and should be able to actively participate in determining the story’s outcome.
Channelling this über-individualistic strain of the zeitgeist, The Walrus magazine is launching a Choose Your Own Adventure–type novel in its November issue. Written by Stephen Marche, the novel, Lucy Hardin’s Missing Period, will appear a section at a time, and readers will be allowed to determine the trajectory of the story by clicking their preference online.
The first part of the novel is online at The Walrus website. The rubric around the project reads as follows:
Lucy Hardin’s Missing Period is an interactive novel with hundreds of possible storylines and multiple outcomes. It uses a Web format to capture the reality of a young woman in Toronto in the early 2000s, allowing the reader to explore different aspects of Lucy’s life and times and the city in which she lives, while following her through the labyrinth of her various futures. Lucy’s fate, like our own, is up in the air, open to negotiation and sudden change.
The reader is then invited to read the story’s opening paragraphs, which find a woman and man in bed together, naked, apparently having just had sex. The writing here is supple and erotically charged, reminiscent of Marche’s debut novel, Raymond and Hannah. Much time is spent describing the man’s penis, which is first presented “sapping ultra-fine strands of liquid crystal onto a patch of coarse hair at his thigh” and is then compared to a “retreating snail mocking shamefacedly with its white lash of tongue.” Observing this, the woman’s “obscene mind” recalls her dead father, a startling and unexpected juxtaposition. We are then informed that the woman’s period is late.
The extract ends with the reader being directed to make the following decision: “Back down into the deepest sleep ever” or “Rise to greet the glorious new day.” Depending upon which choice the reader makes, a different passage, dramatizing a different set of circumstances, follows.
A press release sent out yesterday quotes Marche as saying: “This novel began with a simple idea, that in novels the future is predetermined, but the future in real life isn’t. I wanted a way of capturing how life splits apart and how people have many possibilities inside them.” This is an intriguing premise from an author who has dedicated his writing career to expanding the scope and the form of the conventional novel. However, the interactive aspect of the novel still puts too much control in the hands of the reader, who gets to determine the fates of the characters. Granted, this is done on a limited scale: Marche is still in control of the writing, and the reader’s decisions can only direct them toward one story strand or another. Still, the reader’s decisions will be based on his or her own preferences about storytelling and narrative; these preferences may yet be subverted, but there is nonetheless a relinquishing of control on the part of the author and a handing over of power to the reader. Don’t like where one story stream takes you? Never mind: you can always backtrack and make a different choice until you find one more to your liking.
Flannery O’Connor, who knew something about how fiction works, once said that the writer is only really free when he can tell the reader to go jump in the lake. O’Connor knew that not every reader would like the way a novel or a story unfolded; she also knew that that was none of her concern as a writer. Fiction is already interactive: the interactivity comes from a reader actively engaging with a text. Anyone who has ever reread a novel after several years have elapsed since her first encounter with it will be familiar with the experience of feeling that the novel has changed somehow, even though the words on the pages are exactly the same. It is not the novel that has changed, of course, it is the reader. This, too, is one of the things fiction can do for us. It can illuminate our own maturation, our own evolving responses to the world, and to an individual text.
Marche’s experiment is an interesting one, and perhaps the evolution of the novel online will open my own eyes to the new possibilities of a Web-based interactive form of fiction. At this point, however, I’m still fairly convinced that Flannery O’Connor was right.