01
Oct
13

Judgement Days: The Collected Stories of Flannery O’Connor

The Complete StoriesThe Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor (Noonday Press)

The Collected Stories of Flannery O’Connor is a behemoth collection of powerful fiction, equally moving as it is disturbing and a hell of a read.

This is one of those times where I’m at a bit of a loss for words. These stories are powerful: when they hit, they hit you hard. Since I finished reading some of them earlier this summer, I’ve been thinking about them: the grandmother in The Life You Save Might Be Your Own; Tanner in Judgement Day; the Bible salesman in Good Country People. They’re all flawed people, sometimes racist, sometimes corrupt or vain and shallow. They’re southern grotesque, but not in the cartoonish way of Louis Nordan (previously reviewed here). And they all feel more real than anyone in, say, a David Foster Wallace story, where he telegraphs how he wants you to feel about his characters in a way that feels judging and arrogant.

One of my favourites here was The Partridge Festival, where a young man hears about a man who went crazy and shot some people at the town courthouse. He interprets the shooting as the act of a sane individual driven to an extreme by a society that won’t let him be; the shooter had been sent to a mock jail for not buying a button to support the local festival. He goes around town and everyone tells him that the shooter was a weird guy. He thinks they’re all too simple to understand. His well-meaning Aunts set him up with a local girl, he judges her equally harshly until finding out she has the same arrogant attitude. They spend the evening together criticizing the town and decide to visit the shooter. He drives, she brings a copy of a Nietzsche book. And they have their youthful illusions shattered:

…and at that moment he got his wrist free and lunged towards her but both attendants sprang after him instantly. As Mary Elizabeth crouched against Calhoun, the old man jumped nimbly over the sofa and began to speed around the room. The attendants, their arms and legs held wide to catch him, tried to close in on him from either side. They almost had him when he kicked off his shoes and leaped between them onto the table, sending the empty vase shattering to the floor. “Look girl!” he shrilled,  and began to pull the hospital gown over his head.

This one caught me right between the eyes. Its maybe a little more direct than some of her other stories – perhaps that’s why she withdrew it from her second collection of stories – but those two kids have an attitude we still see all the damn time. Most recently, I’ve seen it with terror suspect Jahar Tsarnaev; there’s a group of people online who think he’s either innocent or at least wish to excuse his acts of terrorism. But sometimes people who do truly terrible things are terrible people. It’s an ugly truth, but life isn’t as clean cut as some people would like.

The idea of coming to grips with how things are is here often; it reminded me a lot of the epiphanies one sees in James Joyce‘s fiction (who gets namedropped by some of the more pretentious characters in these stories). People, pushed to a point of nearly breaking, have a moment of revelation, it’s impact often echoing long after the story is over.

That’s not the only story I enjoyed in this collection. Personal favourites include Parker’s Back, Judgment Day, The Enduring Chill and The Life You Save. But there are stories here which aren’t up to the same high standard. After all, this is a collection of everything she wrote; the earlier stories (The Barber, which kind of reads like a rough draft of The Partridge Festival) sometimes feel like the works of someone who’s knows what they’re going after but aren’t there yet. That’s probably the reason she didn’t include them in either of the collections she put together in her lifetime.

It’s a huge collection, encompassing the two collections of her short fiction and parts of her novels Wise Blood, plus a handful of other stories. Just because of this sheer bulk, I’m not sure it’s an ideal starting place – personally, I’d recommend Everything That Rises Must Converge – but if you’re at all interested in her stories, this is where to go. Recommended. Just make sure you take the time to read each story on it’s own.

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