Thursday, July 16, 2015

Wise Blood, by Flannery O'Connor

From the first sentence, Flannery O’Connor’s 1952 novel Wise Blood is serious.  It’s not a casual or lighthearted read.  There are many moments of humor and outright comedy, but the humor is directed at characters who are isolated and suffering—Hazel Motes and Enoch Emery, and many other faceless denizens of Talkingham.  The humor emphasizes their plight, and those who see the novel as yokel humor miss the point.  Humor is O’Connor’s means to a non-humorous end.  Hazel is abrupt, totally unsocial, and bordering on dementia.  Enoch often seems barely able to function.  O’Connor’s style is flat and descriptive, almost in a journalistic way.  Her sentences are crisp and flat, largely devoid of adjectives.  It’s an effective prose style but rarely does it seem distinctive in the way that Faulkner or Welty or Joyce are distinctive.  It’s devoid of ornamentation and stylistic flourish and not self-referential.
In general the novel’s vision of the world is harshly merciless.  Hazel returns from several years in the military to find his family dead or moved away.  Enoch’s father has thrown him out of the house.  Sabbath Lily’s father has no affection for her at all.  Mrs. Flood sees Hazel mainly as a source of income. Religion is hucksterism—it is sold in the same way that the peddler on the street corner hawks the  potato peeler, or the man in a gorilla suit promotes a film, or Onnie Jay Holy (Hoover Shoats) sells the church of Christ without Christ. In this world of absolute falsehood, Hazel searches for authenticity.
Although there are defects in the novel, moments of clumsiness, they do not prevent it from working.  In fact, I think it is a great novel—powerful, unsettling, unhappy, moving.  Its main attribute is in its characters, not only Hazel and Enoch but Asa Hawkes, Sabbath Lily Hawkes, the whore Leora Watts, the landlady Mrs. Flood, and the policeman who pushes Hazel’s car off a bluff.  O’Connor is especially adept with her physical descriptions of characters, but mostly she delineates them through what they say.
In her introduction written for the tenth anniversary of the novel’s original publication, O’Connor wrote about Hazel as a “Christian malgré lui,“ and of Christ as a “ragged figure who moves from tree to tree in the back of his mind” (she took this image from a moment early in the novel, where she also refers to Jesus as a “wild ragged figure motioning him [Hazel] to turn around and come off into the dark . . .”).  I wish she had not characterized the book so explicitly.  Not that she isn’t accurately describing it—she clearly is—but readers who read the introduction before reading the novel are deprived of the experience of discovery. But this is a small point.
Even when the novel’s concern with Hazel’s unwitting redemption is clear enough, the ending remains disturbing and mysterious.  Despite everything he has denied, his emphatic embrace of the rational Nothing (which is for O’Connor the characteristic faith of the modern world), there is mystery and unsettlement in Hazel’s demise. 

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