Saturday, March 20, 2010

(Book #10) Flannery O'Conner - Everything That Rises Must Converge

The book 'Everything that Rises Must Converge' is a collection of short stories by Flannery O'Connor. The stories were published in this volume after she died in the mid-60's. The stories all took place in the South, and were written in the late 50's-early 60's era, and portrayed a wide range of colorful characters, while depicting brief but very realistic emotions and encounters between them. Having never read any of her writing before, I wasn't sure what to expect with these stories. What I got was reminiscent of Raymond Carver, dark yet compellingly human perspectives of morally chilling moments.

Before the actual content of the book began there was a lengthy introduction written by O'Conner's friend and boarder, giving a deeply personal perspective of her life, work and some context of her stories. Oft times I may skim through the introduction or skip it altogether to get to the real meat of the book, particularly when it isn't directly related to the narratives. In this cases, having a little background gave a depth of understanding to some of the subjects, language and references.

The first story is the book's namesake, and was probably one of my favorites of the batch. In the end I wondered if it was my first exposure to O'Connor that struck me, or if the structure and many dualities within the story were just that compelling. In this as in her other stories the characters and their individual emotions and grudges are pitted against each other. The stories are told from the perspective of one of the characters, but none of them are really protagonists. Rather, they perceive themselves as protagonists in their own stories with every other character an antagonist to them, inhibiting them from their own views or agenda. There is an ugliness that is embodied in her stories, tapping into aspects of the human condition that we dare not admit, but recognize and relate to as soon as we see them. Repressed hostility, bitterness, spite, jealousy, condescension, and hypocrisy are all prevalent in her characters. Though they are seldom aware of their own flaws, they are quick to point them out in others.

In several books I have been reading this year, there has been a common theme--the climax of life. In two very different books, there was a moment in a character's life when the act of living reaches a symbolic crescendo that embodies all that the character is, has, and ever will be. This moment can be pin-pointed time and time again in all of O'Conner's stories. It is a literary surety that after this culmination the most drastic of circumstances befalls the character. This peak is followed by the steepest of declines resulting in a pivotal change in the character and those around them.

As many of the stories dealt with death itself, we are left to wonder if the subject weighed heavy on O'Connor through her final years, while dealing with her lasting battle with Lupus. In grappling with the mortality of her characters, she may have in fact been reflecting on the end her own life.

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