Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Blind Assassin

The Blind Assassin
by Margaret Atwood
read: 2013
Time 100 NovelsGuardian 1000 Novels, Man Booker Prize, Orange Prize

In The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood deals with the written word itself, by embedding a story within the story - the title The Blind Assassin refers to a novel-within-the-novel written by the narrator's sister Laura. And within that story, the unnamed male creates stories of his own, crafting pulp and genre tales for the amusement of his lover (presumably Laura in a roman a clef). The novel is partially about storytelling, and how fiction can shape reality.

History is fluid, as Iris, the narrator, notes: "[I]s what I remember the same thing as what actually happened? It is now; I am the only survivor." As a youth, Laura is struck by a passage in The Bible where God himself lies, giving false prophecies. Ultimately, the novel-within-the-novel The Blind Assassin is a lie, written by Iris but published under Laura's name, but that lie becomes part of the fabric of reality, as Laura is adored in death, and symbolically misquoted in graffiti in bathroom stalls. The novel is cut with newspaper article that tell the story of what happens to Iris and Laura but is misleading or incomplete. Language cannot be trusted.

Iris pens the narrative itself for reasons she doesn't fully understand, and it is unclear whether it will even be read. She sums up the unreliability of language in the following quote:
In the beginning was the word, we once believed. Did God know what a flimsy thing the word might be? How tenuous, how casually erased?

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Play It As It Lays

Play It As It Lays
by Joan Didion
read: 2013
Time 100 NovelsGuardian 1000 Novels

I devoured this in two days. It's a very quick read, but it's also one of the most depressing novels I've ever read. Didion's prose, Like Flannery O'Connor's, is brutal. It's the sort of book you want to lend to someone after reading, but you're not sure if it's because you think they'd like it or because misery loves company.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Complete Stories of Flannery O'Connor

The Complete Stories of Flannery O'Connor
by Flannery O'Connor
read: 2013
National Book Award

According to the Wikipedia page for one of the stories in this collection, Flannery O'Connor once said:
 "All my stories are about the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it, but most people think of these stories as hard, hopeless and brutal."
The collection contains stories about a family getting murdered by a serial killer, a 5-year-old who drowns himself, a father who so neglects his son that the child hangs himself, a one-armed man who abandons a mute girl at a diner, and many more. It's not hard to see why most would categorize them as "hard, hopeless, and brutal."

"Grace" is a difficult theological concept as it is (as defined by the Catholic Church), "free and undeserved." It's easy to feel that the central characters in O'Connor's stories are "undeserved." They are frequently short-sighted and act against themselves and their best interests, usually with tragic results.

O'Connor generally does not portray the artists in her stories favorably. In modern America, we often value the independent mind and spirit, the iconoclast, the maverick. O'Connor does not share this view. One example is "The Partridge Festival," where a young would-be writer returns to the hometown he disdains out of a fascination with a spree killer, who he sees as "a man who would not allow himself to be pressed into the mold of his inferiors." But when he meets the man, he finds a lunatic. He runs from his true calling, sales:
Selling was the only thing he had proved himself good at; yet it was impossible for him to believe that every man was not created equally an artist if he could but suffer and achieve it.
It's hard not to wonder how O'Connor felt about her own vocation, especially considering how laborious she found the writing process, as described by editor Robert Giroux in the introduction. Did she forsake some more natural grace? Or did she feel she was doing God's will with her writing? Maybe she was uncertain - one memorable story, "Parker's Back" tells of a man who is inspired to impress his very Christian wife by getting a large tattoo of Jesus on his back, only to have her throw him out of the house for idolatry. This is not an easy set of stories to read, and it sounds like it was equally difficult for O'Connor to write.