A – I chose this book because Flannery O’Connor is an author on an “I want to read everything written by” list I’ve been keeping since I was a teenager. During the weeks that I was reading this hardback copy of O’Connor’s short story collection, I was listening to audiobook versions of the last three books in Lois Lowry’s Giver quartet series. I’d picked these short middle school novels not only because Lowry is another author on that everything list but also as a respite after finishing the 18-hour audiobook version of Susanna Clarke’s magnificent, intricate Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell for a graduate school literature class. The series turned out to be a welcome contrast to O’Conner’s book as well. I don’t know if you could find another pair of writers more opposite in tone or thematic density than O’Connor and Lowry.
B – Lowry and O’Connor made it onto that everything list for works I’d read before in school. I read Lowry’s The Giver in elementary school, as many students in my generation did. It’s on my short list of novels I have read more than once because the 2014 release of a movie version reminded me how enjoyable my first reading experience had been. It’s worth an adult re-read. (The other three books in the series, alas, are not.)
C – In college, I read O’Connor’s well-known, lengthy short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” If you haven’t read it, do so as soon as you finish this post. If you think the beginning is boring, conventional, or annoyingly mundane, keep going. It’s worth it.
D – One of the stories, “Revelation,” takes place mostly in the waiting room of a doctor’s office. You might assume this would make for boring narration, but O’Connor cleverly develops Mrs. Turpin through her thoughts and dialogue. Like many of O’Connor’s flawed characters, Mrs. Turpin may not be likable, but you can’t say you don’t understand her.
E – “Everything that rises must converge” is not a phrase used in the titular story. It isn’t readily apparent to me why that is the title based on either the plot or what I see as the thematic issues it takes up. In an introduction, Robert Fitzgerald gives the vague explanation that the phrase comes from Teilhard de Chardin and was “taken in full respect and with profound and necessary irony” (xxx).
F – It may seem remiss to write about O’Connor’s work without writing about her faith. She is known as a Catholic writer as well as a Southern American writer. Anyone reading her stories can see she’s concerned with religious beliefs, even if it’s difficult to pin down her various meanings and messages. But I want to keep these ABCs blog posts secular, so this is the only time I will mention her faith. (If you would like to read about her faith and writing, here is an intriguing article, which I’ve admittedly only skimmed.)
G – “Greenleaf” centers on a woman’s conflicts with her neighbors, the Greenleaf family. The dangerous bull here is an excellent example of O’Connor’s ability to imbue very concrete and vividly described physical objects and moments with tantalizing symbolism.
H – It shows my dedication to this author that I read a hardcover version covered in plastic. I hate those plastic covers. This one has a plain white background that accumulates dirt like scotch tape, in a thin film you can’t completely brush off. I usually take off such plastic and then restore it with my own tape when I’m done. But someone must’ve glued down the cover of this edition from 1966, so I had to put up with over five decades of tiny filth.
I – Many of the stories end with an act of violence that O’Connor somehow makes both unpredictable and inevitable. After reading the first, titular story, you do come to expect some violent turn, but exactly what it will be or what it will reveal is difficult to predict. An aspect of brilliant storytelling.
J – In “The Lame Shall Enter First,” Johnson is a troubled teenager taken in by Sheppard, the single father of a ten year-old boy named Norton. The dynamic is such that you wonder who will do the other more damage – the clueless, self-righteous Sheppard or the adamantly deviant Johnson. Then of course it is the innocent, ketchup and peanut butter on chocolate cake eating Norton who suffers the consequences of his dad’s choices.
K – Due to some ambiguous endings, it is hard to say the exact number of characters killed in the stories. There are at least four violent deaths. Add three more if you’re a pessimist.
L – I’m glad I got this particular edition of the book from the Cincinnati Public Library because it was published a year after her early death from lupus and contains a well-written introduction about her life and work from a friend of hers named Robert Fitzgerald. I always wait until after I’ve read a work to read any introduction, even one written by the author, because I hate even the hint of a spoiler. Sometimes I forget to read it, but I am very glad I didn’t this time.
M – Three of the stories, including the titular one, involve a mother in conflict with her son. You might expect O’Connor to take the mother’s side, but she actually chooses to narrate only the sons’ thoughts in detail. Yet through sophisticated narration you can see how each son is actually as flawed and misguided as he thinks his mother is.
N – Flannery is one of those old-fashioned names that seems perfect for a wise, stately woman but is hard to imagine for a child. Like Edith or Florence.
O – O’Connor uses an evocative comparison when describing a character’s first sense that his life is not just ordinary but may have a deeper meaning. “It was as if a blind boy had been turned so gently in a different direction that he did not know his destination had been changed” (223).
P – I’m a big fan of the pointy tips on this font. It fits O’Connor’s unsafe stories.
Q – This quote from the first paragraph of “Revelation” shows off O’Connor’s flair for descriptions” “The doctor’s waiting room, which was very small, was almost full when the Turpins entered and Mrs. Turpin, who was very large, made it look even smaller by her presence. She stood looming at the head of the magazine table set in the center of it, a living demonstration that the room was inadequate and ridiculous” (191).
R – The racism of O’Connor’s time and location is present throughout the stories. O’Connor reveals the troubled ways in which her white main characters interact with black characters, especially the ways in which the white people pride themselves on how polite and accommodating they’re being when the reader can see they’re really being condescending and belittling.
S – In the one blurb on the back cover of this edition, Thomas Merton praises O’Connor by comparing her to Sophocles. Merton states, “I write her name with honor, for all the truth and all the craft with which she shows man’s fall and his dishonor.” I agree; she is an eminent tragedian.
T – A back tattoo is the central symbol in “Parker’s Back.” The story presents the desperation and frustration of a character with a tangled mess of motives trying to understand himself, change himself, and reveal himself to another person.
U – “Judgment Day” shows a rural Southerner’s fears of alienation and misunderstanding in an urban center through its setting in an apartment complex in New York City.
V – “A View of the Woods” has arguably the easiest deeper meaning to decipher – the conflict between generations and classes as shown in the main character’s arguments with his granddaughter about whether to sell part of his land. However, O’Connor throws in her trademark nuances of misguided motives and petty violence to make the meaning more slippery.
W – Warning: Don’t read O’Connor’s stories if you only like stories in which you can sympathize with the main characters. O’Connor’s characters are real in a sense that may make you cringe. But it’s a realness that I believe is worth confronting through reading.
X – O’Connor had nine chances, but she did not put a xylophone in any of these stories.
Y – I have not yet read O’Connor’s The Violent Bear it Away or all of the stories in her collection titled A Good Man Is Hard to Find. I remember enjoying the humor in Wise Blood, her other book that made it on the 1001 Books list, when I read it in high school. I am glad to have half of her body of fiction work still to enjoy. There are also collections of her essays on writing, letters to friends, and journals that I could check out.
Z – O’Connor has a random connection to the Cincinnati Zoo. She kept peacocks on her family’s farm during the last years of her life when her illness kept her confined. (FYI for those who have never been: the Cincinnati Zoo has peacocks that just roam around as they please.)