Thursday, July 15, 2010

Everything That Rises Must Converge

Short stories, as I've said before (it's worth repeating though), often need to be read as part of a collection. I'm not saying they can't be read alone, published in a magazine or in an anthology, but that sometimes you don't realize their brilliance when you only get a little taste of the author and then move on. If, for example, you read only one story from Everything That Rises Must Converge and no others, you most likely wouldn't think anything of Flannery O'Connor's  style. Not to say that she wasn't an excellent writer, but her particular style probably wouldn't stand out as being that different than many excellent writers.

After reading two or even three stories you might start to think that she was unnecessarily morbid – shocking you for no good reason, but as you continue to read through her collection of short fiction and notice the pattern that emerges, it becomes like a game. This isn't a spoiler, but in order to understand O'Connor you need to know that she kills off her characters. That is to say, in almost every story, someone will die. Not that her stories are about death, exactly; rather, where James Joyce's genius was in writing beautiful but grey-tinted stories that often culminated in an epiphany, O'Connor's is in writing fairly ordinary stories that somehow still manage to kill someone.

That's where the game comes in: as you read through her stories, you find yourself wondering who she'll off in this one. Usually, you will be wrong. And when you're right, you'll be wrong about the method. O'Connor is a tricky one to figure out and her sense of humour is often her characters' downfall.

There are a lot of other things going on in Everything That Rises, though. O'Connor is from the Southern U.S. and she wrote this in the 50s. The politics, racial tensions and societal concerns are overlaid with more classic issues of mortality and aging, body image, parent-child relationships and how to deal with the heat. O'Connor's descriptions of the body are also a notable part of her style; she writes honestly about the very physical side of being human, about how skin feels and the way sweat moves and the shapes your body parts make when covered by clothing.

O'Connor isn't shy and her descriptions of life are just as potent and almost-shocking as her refusal to turn away from death. In a lot of ways, her stories seem like scenes from old movies, which were often much more honest than the airbrushed versions of glamour we have now. An laced through everything is O'Connor's ever-present grin, because whatever else is going on in the story, you know O'Connor enjoyed working out the details so she could shock a smile onto your face.

Everything That Rises Must Converge
by Flannery O'Connor
First published in 1956 (cover image shown from FSG Adult edition)

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