Posted by: Harold Knight | 12/14/2010

Prophecy: the ambiguity of killing the grandmother

Reading a novel short story is not for the timid.

Students ask teachers, “What’s your favorite novel?” Most teachers hate that question. I’ve heard some reply with a stock answer that barely masks their dislike of the question (and the person asking). I’ve heard some go into scholarly explanations about differing types of novels, categories, nationalities, I’m sure designed to bore the questioner away.

I have several answers, depending on who’s asking—my answer to any given questioner is but a momentary truth—anything by Louise Erdrich, Cormac McCarthy or Richard Ford. Often it’s Richard Ford’s Independence Day (not of the horrible movie starring Will Smith). Some of my writerly women friends can’t imagine why I like such a male-chauvinist novel. I’m not discriminating. Perhaps, I’ve spent so much of my life in the shadow of alpha males I hardly recognize one when I see him.

When someone asks me the question, I’m afraid to show my woeful shortcomings in novel reading. I’ve spent the preponderance of my life either drunk or practicing the organ or both. Neither is particularly conducive to reading novels. I’ve never read War and Peace or Ulysses or An American Tragedy or Middlesex or any novel by Nadine Gordimer (I own one) or The Pathfinder or The Golden Notebook or—  The holes in my reading far outweigh the cheese. If I were a real reader I’d know better than to make such an awful metaphor.

However, I’ve read Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot! I’ve read Jack the Modernist and The Redneck Way of Knowing and Orlando and Uncle Tom’s Cabin and They Whisper and Margery Kemp and The Art Lover and Mama Day and The Good Earth and The Wedding. I tried Atonement on my last plane trip, but I can’t get into a story beginning with a little girl giving a play in her family’s living room.

But ask me about short stories. My answer never changes. I don’t have one favorite, but always anywhere any time any story by Raymond Carver, Flannery O’Connor, or James Joyce—no matter how many times I’ve read it—makes my heart glad and excites my mind.

A teacher of creative writing in whose seminars I was enrolled defined a short story as, “Something happens to someone.” He also said that, in order to write a story that works for anyone other than yourself, you have to show lots of “body parts.” Flannery O’Connor asserts that human knowledge begins

through the senses, and the fiction writer begins where human perception begins. He appeals through the senses, and you cannot appeal to the senses with abstractions. (1)

My students this semester read (and next semester will read) “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” by O’Connor. This is no abstraction. It appeals (or repels) through the senses.

It’s as grotesque as any story I know. It’s dark. Oh, so dark! A friend of mine will not read another O’Connor story because he found it so depressing. His business involves stepping into situations where someone has died because of hospital error and helping the aggrieved parties work through their pain and anger. More depressing than his work? At least O’Connor’s work is fiction.

I shouldn’t give the story away. A grandmother gets herself and her whole family murdered. Something happens to someone, and it is shocking.

Reading a work of literature is not for the timid.

Students have to be guided through “Good Man.” Many are so disturbed by the cold blooded murders of the grandmother’s family they can scarcely bring themselves to think—much less write—about the story as it is. They’re like my friend who deals with death and dismemberment but thinks fictional murder is too dark to countenance.

Of the scene in “Good Man” in which the grandmother’s insists on her own way, setting up the family’s murders, one of my students wrote, “The narrative of the story would take a much different arc if this scene never took place.” She thinks the story should not be what it is. It’s too ambiguous for her (and most of my students) to cope with.

Reading a work of literature is not for the timid because literature is tragic. We experience so much tragedy in the “real world” we don’t want to ponder it in a world we absolutely cannot control. The story would take a much different arc if . . .  Unfortunately, that’s not what O’Connor created. We want to escape, not to be drawn into a place where “everything is contaminated.” Everything is contaminated by ambiguity,

[f]rom all mistresses-turned nuns to all detective-gangsters, by way of all tormented criminals, all pure-souled prostitutes. . . all the sadists driven by love, all the madmen pursued by logic, a good “character” in a [story] must above all be a double. The plot will be “human” in proportion to its ambiguity. Finally the whole [story] will be true in proportion to its contradictions. (2)

Another literature we all know is contaminated by ambiguity.

You shall eat, but not be satisfied, and there shall be a gnawing hunger within you;
you shall put away, but not save, and what you save, I will hand over to the sword.
You shall sow, but not reap; you shall tread olives, but not anoint yourselves with oil;
you shall tread grapes, but not drink wine.
––(New Revised Standard Version, Micah 6:14-15)

Flannery O’Connor’s stories are not of the Bible, Catholic theologian though she was. She doesn’t preach (and neither do I). This is all I’m saying: the prophetic—whatever form it takes, is never comfortable. Literature is tragic because it is prophetic. We don’t get to be comfortable when we read. Even comedic literature is prophetic.

. . . the prophetic demands two qualities; humility and the suspension of the sense of humour. . . humility is in place just now. Without its help we shall not hear the voice of the prophet, and our eyes will behold a figure of fun instead of his glory. And the sense of humour—that is out of place. . .In the Bible, one cannot help laughing at a prophet. . . but one can discount the laughter and realize that it has no critical value and is merely food for bears. (3)

So don’t ask me about my “favorite” novel. Ask me about the novel I’m reading now that humbles me, that “begins where human perception begins” and goes to a place where “everything is contaminated” by ambiguity. All of those novels I’ve read are prophetic. I don’t know about the others. Shall we talk about what “prophetic” means?
(1) O’Connor, Flannery. “The Nature and Aim of Fiction.” Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose.” Ed. by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1964 (67).
(2) Robbe-Grillet, Alain. For a New Novel: Essays on Fiction. Trans. Richard Howard. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1989 (62).
(3) E. M. Forster. Aspects of the Novel. New York: Harvest Books, 1927 (126).


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