Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Old School - Tobias Wolff
There couldn’t have been a large audience for a novel almost entirely about literary matters. Even the first person narrator isn’t fully fleshed out; his dominant dimension is that of writer and reader. All this was fine with me, for I’m a bookish soul myself. Plus, I found Wolff’s straightforward prose pleasurable. Most of the action takes place at an exclusive boys’ prep school (a beneficent place loved by the narrator). It’s exclusive enough to be visited by Robert Frost, Ayn Rand and Ernest Hemingway. Around these visits the school arranges a competition. The boy who writes a poem or story that’s selected as the best gets a private audience with an author. In their appearances a wily Frost puts on a folksy act, Rand is a judgmental bully, and Hemingway gives a rambling telephone interview in which he offers no-nonsense advice on writing and brings up old grudges. In the depiction of these dead writers, I had my first problem with the book. How could Wolff know what any of them would do and say? Would Ayn Rand carry on so outrageously? As for the two men, they’re caricatures of their public images, and as such come across looking foolish. Moving on (past that speed bump) our narrator’s story is deemed best by Hemingway, but he doesn’t get to meet the Great Man because it’s discovered that the story he submitted was plagiarized. Unable to write anything of his own, he had found a story in an obscure periodical and had copied it word for word, with just the names and sexes of the characters changed. As he carried out the plagiarization, the boy believed the story to be his own; when, days later, he’s confronted with evidence of what he’s done, his response is “Even with the proof in hand, even knowing that someone named Susan Friedman had written the story, I still thought of it as mine.” Here my second, more serious, problem arose. Wolff tries, with verbal sleight of hand, to present a grubby act of dishonesty in an innocent light. I didn’t buy this for a second; only temporary insanity could account for the boy not knowing exactly what he was doing at the time he was doing it. After he’s expelled we’re taken on a sketchy tour of his life; he becomes, like Wolff, a successful author. This was no surprise. No effort is made to conceal the autobiographical nature of the novel; the dust jacket photograph shows the cafeteria of the same prep school that Wolff attended. Seen from this perspective – that the author and his first person narrator are one – the plagiarism scene needs to be revisited. When the boy reads Susan Friedman’s story he relates to her character because both are leading lives of deception. He’s a scholarship student trying to fit in with boys whose affluent backgrounds are radically different from his own. That’s why he gets it when she writes about “the almost physical attraction to privilege, the resolve to be near it at any cost; sycophancy, lies, self-suppression, the masking of ambitions and desires, the slow cowardly burn of resentment toward those for whose favor you have falsified yourself.” I get it too, which is why I’m bothered by the entire page that appears before the opening of the novel, and contains only the following words: “I cannot begin to thank Catherine Wolff and Gary Fisketjon for the incalculable help they gave me in their many readings of this book; my particular thanks as well to Amanda Urban for her help, and for all her encouragement and support over the years.” Why did Wolff devote a prominently-placed page of thanks to Fisketjon and Urban, two of the most privileged people in the literary world? Seems like sycophancy to me.

Everything That Rises Must Converge - Flannery O’Connor
A reappraisal of O’Connor is in order. I had read this collection many years ago; in this rereading several things struck me with considerable force. Foremost was the anger that infuses all but one of the ten stories. In three of them anger leads to murder; in three others a violent death occurs, with anger swirling around the event. In five stories grown sons live with their mothers; the feelings they have for her range from resentment to contempt to hatred. Love, though not totally absent in this book, is rare and meager, as is beauty. Sexual passion is nonexistent, while virulent passions abound. As for relations between the races, blacks and whites occupy hostile worlds. O’Connor’s niggers (for that’s how they’re referred to by most of her white protagonists) are either deceitful or murderous. Her whites are Southern Gothic hicks or self-pitying and hapless intellectuals; she treats both with scorn. These are the facts, based on the words O’Connor wrote, and what do they reveal about the author? What can be expected from a young woman cheated out of the life she hoped to lead by a ravaging disease? Her bitterness and anger flowed into her fiction. With steely-eyed cruelty she gloatingly exposed her sorry characters and their sorry lives. Also on display is her fascination with the grotesque (she would have loved the supermarket tabloids that have cover photos showing babies born with the heads of barnyard creatures). I’m rejecting the religious angle, which is commonly brought up when talking about O’Connor. When she inserts it into her stories it seems imposed. “Revelation” suffers from some mystical mumbo jumbo at the end; the rest of the story is lucid and direct, the conversations in the doctor’s waiting room are recorded with such accuracy that the reader could be sitting in one of the chairs. At the core of the story is a young woman’s anger, an anger venomous enough to erupt into violence. In this reappraisal how many times have I used the word “anger”? It’s a detriment when untempered. The first paragraph of the weakest story, “The Comforts of Home,” contains this sentence: “Rage gathered throughout Thomas’s large frame with a silent ominous intensity, like a mob assembling.” This rage culminates in murder; it’s all just too unrelenting. It’s significant that the two best stories – “Everything That Rises Must Converge” and “Parker’s Back” – close on a note of compassion. Maybe O’Connor would have moved more in this direction – toward compassion – if she had been allowed to live. To turn from content and judge the stories solely on an artistic basis, O’Connor too often messes up her endings. Sometimes it’s by the previously-mentioned imposition of religious significance, sometimes by the garishly awkward way she describes murders and other violent acts. She wasn’t a moderate writer; she dealt in extremes. This can be compelling, but when she goes too far incongruity sets in. She exposes self-deception in “The Lame Shall Enter First,” but she does it in a heavy-handed way; when she took a less cumbersome approach, as in “The Enduring Chill,” she was more successful. She was often outright funny, and her dialogue (where most of her humor is found) was pitch perfect. As for the prose itself, she put much effort into making her writing achieve a smooth-flowing clarity. She could capture a personality or a scene so that it attains solidity; she does it in part by selecting the animating detail (from “Revelation”: “The only man in the room besides Claud was a lean stringy old fellow with a rusty hand spread out on each knee, whose eyes were closed as if he were asleep or dead or pretending to be so as not to get up and offer her his seat”). Her work, so simple on the surface, has drive and energy. Lastly, even in her weaker stories O’Connor entertains; it mattered to her to do so. She was a writer with unique gifts, but one who is misrepresented; it was a misrepresentation that she encouraged. I think, deep inside, she knew the truth about herself and struggled with her dark side. But it’s that dark side which dominates the pages of this collection. *

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