Sunday, August 7, 2011

Flannery O’Connor and the Mystery of Fiction

By Patrick Thomas Henry

“I’ll call anything a story in which specific characters and events influence each other to form a meaningful narrative,” Flannery O’Connor claims, with her characteristic tenacity. O’Connor’s attitude toward fiction welcomes reality—whatever that may be—as the originator of meaningful narratives. Fiction and reality, though disparate entities, are inextricably wound together. Stories are merely how we make sense of them.

An event on Aug. 4, sponsored by One Story, negotiated this line between fiction and reality, with O’Connor’s life and work as its hub. One Story editor Hannah Tinti and novelist Ann Napolitano discussed Napolitano’s new novel, A Good Hard Look, and O’Connor’s influence in the packed lower level of New York’s McNally Jackson. Napolitano set her novel, in which O’Connor is a pivotal character, in Milledgeville, Georgia, toward the end of O’Connor’s career. Napolitano riskily places her readers alongside O’Connor as the storied author struggles with the writing process.

One Story editor Hannah Tinti (right) listens as novelist
Ann Napolitano discusses her novel A Good Hard Look.
But the novel isn’t another how-to guide on literary craft. O’Connor’s presence as a person in this narrative binds her to the fictionalized Milledgeville community. Napolitano’s O’Connor forges relationships with imagined denizens of Milledgeville, including New Yorker Melvin Whiteson, who married former town belle Cookie Himmel, an ardent opponent of O’Connor’s seemingly clairvoyant prose. These ties lash an epiphany to O’Connor’s wrists: Life is a narrative, and somebody has to find meaning in it.

Tinti prepared the audience for the evening’s topic with O’Connor commenting on the art of the story:  “I have very little to say about short-story writing.... I hope you realize that your asking me to talk about story-writing is just like asking a fish to lecture on swimming.” O’Connor expands on her simile with the assertion that “nothing produces silence like experience.” The impression is that we must cope with experiences and histories by performing (and not simply recounting) those events in fiction. O’Connor does this in her prose, and Napolitano in turn dramatizes O’Connor and her struggle with lupus in a conceptualized Milledgeville.

O’Connor’s terminal experience with lupus provoked her to concentrate on writing before anything else, and her personal understanding of human frailty—both physically and psychologically—honed her prose into an honest reflection of humanity. She portrays this without transforming her characters into transparent avatars. Instead of a veiled retelling of her own life, O’Connor adapts her struggles to push her readers toward an understanding. In “Good Country People,” a tale at once cautionary and humorous, a con-man (posing as a Bible salesman) dupes a woman who has an artificial leg. Even with such apparent internal and external faults, these characters remain human in their own element, and nothing suggests a lament for O’Connor’s condition. O’Connor’s sentence-to-sentence precision, Tinti and Napolitano agreed, generates this effect in her stories.

Tinti commented that O’Connor’s fiction is “about trying to get to a moment of realization with her characters.” “With” is relevant here; astute readers can sense the author grappling for grace and redemption alongside the reader. O’Connor offers glimpses of salvation—even if the readers miss the textual clues—through a sequence of events that can, as Tinti said, “lead you to a strange place, but when you arrive, it feels perfectly right.” O’Connor attaches this journey to grace in describing her own work: “I have found that what is needed is an action that is totally unexpected, yet totally believable, and I have found that, for me, this is always an action which indicates that grace has been offered.”

Serendipity, grace, and influence all exist in the writing process, as well. Napolitano informed the audience that she owes A Good Hard Look to her copy of Flannery O’Connor’s letters, The Habit of Being. She read the book for an undergraduate writing project and, years later, saw it on her shelf while considering how to circumnavigate a roadblock involving the character Melvin Whiteson. The epiphany, for Napolitano, was that O’Connor had to be in the novel. Her previous experience with the personal, wry, and witty voice in O’Connor’s letters allowed her to shape a genuine, emoting O’Connor on the page.

Napolitano condenses O’Connor’s snide wisdom in A Good Hard Look, when O’Connor presents an address at a high school graduation ceremony. She offers the assembled crowd of students, parents, and teachers one token of advice, which doubles as a mantra for readers and writers of short fiction: “Take a good hard look at who you are and what you have…and then use it.”
†All direct O’Connor quotations come from the essays in O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners.