April 20, 2005

Revenge of the Dubliners

Well, after much practicing and preparation, and despite a large number of rough spots which cropped up during rehearsal, our presentation on Flannery O'Connor went smashingly well. I expended far too much energy to get us the classroom with the stage and cool lighting arrangements. We had to talk Kubricht and Solganick into swapping classrooms around for us, and we wound up displacing about 90 students (counting our class). But it was worth all that effort in the end, for sure.

Most of our group showed up in Heath-Hardwick Hall about 45 minutes early, and then proceeded to mill around anxiously since we couldn't really do anything until some profs started to arrive and the 8:00 class let out. Anyway, we finally got in and set up at a frantic pace and generally milled around some more, bursting with nervous energy.

The class had been assigned to read "Good Country People" and "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," these being the focus of our presentation. The original assignment way-back-when was the former story only, but I had long since convinced Dr. C to throw in the latter (he really didn't bother to put up a fight, actually). Martinez gave a devo from Ecclesiastes, tying it neatly to the worldview of The Misfit, and then we were off.

Martinez gave Gallagher a rousing introduction, really playing up the quality we expected from him in presenting O'Connor's biography, and then Gallagher appeared from backstage . . . decked out in a garish green headband with two plastic shamrocks attached to it on springs and carrying a couple of pink plastic flamingos. Martinez appeared confused, but handed him the Power Point slide clicker anyway as he set the flamingos down.

As Martinez took his seat, Gallagher brought up the presentation and enthusiastically launched into a biography of Flannery O'Connor . . . which happened to be a complete fabrication. I think the only thing he got right was her gender. I know he borrowed heavily from the life of James Joyce in creating this farce, and I assume the rest of it came from himself, largely. He discussed her role as a great Irish author, her hobby of raising flamingos, and her startling resemblance to Sinéad O'Connor (the Irish pop star). All of this was delivered in a heavy brogue.

After a few moments of this, the rest of the group was visibly confused, then completely panicked. Before long, we had all dashed to the front and were conferring in hushed, anxious tones just to the right of the stage. Finally, when Gallagher declared that Flannery O'Connor wrote Revenge of the Dubliners in 1944, Randy and I stepped firmly forward and hauled Gallagher off the other side of the stage. While we lectured him quietly and generally waved our arms around, Martinez apologized and Ashley pretended to frantically leaf through a few books so she could throw together a rudimentary bio.

Loudly commanding Gallagher to have a seat next to Coppinger, (who asked him if he was doing alright emotionally, and if he needed counseling) Randy and I turned and stage-whispered to Martinez to stall. So he started tap-dancing a bit, nervously trying to come up with something to say. Now, Martinez had just completed a presentation in his Intro to Research class the period before on Positive Electron Flow from Ion Emitters (or some such nonsense), so he now brought that up on the screen and launched into a discussion of the aforementioned topic. Randy and I glanced at each other and ran up to help Ashley with her research. About 20 seconds later she stepped forward to relieve Martinez and from that point forward we controlled the Power Point slides from off-stage (a tactic which we hoped would allow the presentation to flow more smoothly . . . I would say it worked quite effectively).

What has the presentation thus far had to do with Flannery O'Connor, you ask? Well, absolutely nothing, really . . . but we had a lot of fun and ultimately wasted less than five minutes. It was well-received by the class and left them ready to listen and see what might happen next. After Ashley's brief bio, I stepped up to talk about O'Connor's writing philosophy, style, and the general themes present in her work. You can find the basics of my portion beneath the fold. I read a few prepared excerpts from Mystery and Manners (these being quite difficult to select . . . there's so much good material there). Then I discussed four important aspects of her short stories and how they apply generally to the two stories we were presenting on. Finally, I read excerpts from two of her other stories to help illustrate the "moment of grace."

I hated not being able to talk about more things, but I only had 8 minutes. Ah, well . . . they'd have gotten bored eventually anyway. I just did my best to talk people into going out and reading more O'Connor before introducing Gallagher and Randy. The gimmick for their portion was that they had gotten into an argument over which story had the better set of characters: Good Man or Country People. In an attempt to promote a peaceful solution and actually get them to gather some info for the class, the story went that we had allowed them the option of engaging in a formal debate in front of everyone to help decide the question.

This debate consisted of each one discussing a major character or a few minor characters in-depth followed by a burst of concentrated, scripted witty banter running the gamut from the thumb-biting bit from Romeo and Juliet (verbatim) to derogatory remarks about personal appearance, hygiene, and ancestry. This culminated in Gallagher pulling his trump character: Pitty Sing (the cat from Good Man). Randy responded by referencing Gallagher's failed biography attempt (obviously a sore point), and Gallagher fired back with "You didn't even vote for Bush!"

The inside joke here, of course, is that Randy, in fact, did not vote for Bush . . . but after a momentary pause while this sunk in, Randy howled "You just called me a Democrat!" and chased Gallagher from the stage. At this point, Scholl (who had come to watch) walked forward wearing his thick, black cloak and carrying the Ice Cave's mascot, Murray (a skull on a stick, essentially). He also had another of the Ice Cave's mascots, the blue plush frog, wrapped around his head. Stepping to center stage, he solemnly intoned, "And now for something completely different" and returned to his seat.

This bit of utter randomocity was followed by the final portion of our presentation, a discussion of the themes in the two stories. This was to be carried forth by Ashley and Martinez, who were pretending to be a couple of random college students on an awkward first date at the Olive Garden. We had a table set up, Randy played waiter with an apron and towel, and Dean Martin crooned quietly in the background to set the mood. As I cued up slides, the class watched Martinez clumsily attempt to engage a bored Ashley in conversation before suddenly remembering the wise words of Dr. Coppinger: American Literature is great date conversation material. At this point, Ashley enthusiastically joined him in a discussion of the similar themes of Good Man and Country People which, we believe, proved enlightening to our classmates.

When they finished with all that, they stood up together, and Martinez moved on to his love of poetry, talking about how he and his lit class had recently "felt Emily" as they went backstage. The sound of a resounding slap was heard, and Martinez staggered back onstage with the accompanying slide: ". . . just don't get too carried away." And that was the end of our presentation.

But wait! Class still lacked half an hour, and we had already secured permission to lead the discussion. So the five of us lined up at the front and attempted to get people talking. And . . . people talked. About six people, to be exact. You know . . . us five and Dr. C.

Actually, a few other people did jump in at various points, and I really enjoyed fleshing things out in more depth with Dr. Coppinger's observations mixed in. We really experimented with a lot of new presentation techniques that we had never tried before, and a lot of things could have gone wrong. Ultimately, however, the presentation was well received, and Dr. Coppinger was pleased with our efforts. We had a great time (as always) throwing it together, and I would classify it as a definite success.

Yay us.

Mystery and Manners

I see from the standpoint of Christian orthodoxy. This means that for me the meaning of life is centered in our Redemption by Christ and what I see in the world I see in its relationship to that. I don’t think that this is a position that can be taken halfway or one that is particularly easy in these times to make transparent in fiction.

My own feeling is that writers who see by the light of their Christian faith will have, in these times, the sharpest eye for the grotesque, for the perverse, and for the unacceptable . . . I think that . . . often the reason for this attention to the perverse is the difference between their beliefs and the beliefs of their audience. Redemption is meaningless unless there is cause for it in the actual life we live, and for the last few centuries there has been operating in our culture the secular belief that there is no such cause.

The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; and he may well be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience. When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.

I suppose the reason for the use of so much violence in modern fiction will differ with each writer who uses it, but in my own stories I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace. Their heads are so hard that almost nothing else will do the work. This idea, that reality is something to which we must be returned at considerable cost, is one which is seldom understood by the casual reader, but it is one which is implicit in the Christian view of the world.

I think the writer of grotesque fiction does [things] in the way that takes the least [doing], because in his work distances are so great. He’s looking for one image that will connect or combine or embody two points; one is a point in the concrete, and the other is a point not visible to the naked eye, but believed in by him firmly, just as real to him, really, as the one that everybody sees.

Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one. To be able to recognize a freak, you have to have some conception of the whole man, and in the South the general conception of man is still, in the main, theological . . . approaching the subject from the standpoint of the writer, I think it is safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted. The Southerner, who isn’t convinced of it, is very much afraid that he may have been formed in the image and likeness of God. Ghosts can be very fierce and instructive. They cast strange shadows, particularly in our literature.

Now the word symbol scares a good many people off, just as the word art does. They seem to feel that a symbol is some mysterious thing put in arbitrarily by the writer to frighten the common reader sort of a literary Masonic grip that is only for the initiated. They seem to think that it is a way of saying something that you aren’t actually saying, and so if they can be got to read a reputedly symbolic work at all, they approach it as if it were a problem in algebra. Find x. And when they do find or think they find this abstraction, x, then they go off with an elaborate sense of satisfaction and the notion that they have “understood” the story. Many students confuse the process of understanding a thing with understanding it.

In most English classes the short story has become a kind of literary specimen to be dissected. Every time a story of mine appears in a Freshman anthology, I have a vision of it, with its little organs laid open, like a frog in a bottle.
Some people have the notion that you read the story and then climb out of it into the meaning, but for the fiction writer himself the whole story is the meaning, because it is an experience, not an abstraction.

Characters: Flawed & Grotesque

-General Sash (A Late Encounter With the Enemy)

-Ruby Hill (A Stroke of Good Fortune)

-Asbury Fox (The Enduring Chill)

Plotlines: Task or Obsession Leading to Exhausting Physical/Spiritual Exertion

-Climbing the Stairs (The Geranium)

-Woodland Chase (The Turkey)

-Lost in Atlanta (The Artificial Nigger)

Violent, Shocking Epiphany

-Arson (A Circle in the Fire)

-Spousal Abandonment (The Life You Save May Be Your Own)

-Drowning (The River)

Moment of Grace: Redemption and Purification

Mr. Head stood very still and felt the action of mercy touch him again but this time he knew that there were no words in the world that could name it. He understood that it grew out of agony, which is not denied to any man and which is given in strange ways to children. He understood it was all a man could carry into death to give his Maker and he suddenly burned with shame that he had so little of it to take with him. He stood appalled, judging himself with the thoroughness of God, while the action of mercy covered his pride like a flame and consumed it. He had never thought himself a great sinner before but he saw now that his true depravity had been hidden from him lest it cause him despair. He realized that he was forgiven for sins from the beginning of time, when he had conceived in his own heart the sin of Adam, until the present, when he had denied poor Nelson. He saw that no sin was too monstrous to claim as his own, and since God loved in proportion as He forgave, he felt ready at that instant to enter Paradise.
(The Artificial Nigger)
The old life in him was exhausted. He awaited the coming of new. It was then that he felt the beginning of a chill, a chill so peculiar, so light, that it was like a warm ripple across a deeper sea of cold. His breath came short. The fierce bird which through the years of his childhood and the days of his illness had been poised over his head, waiting mysteriously, appeared all at once to be in motion. Asbury blanched and the last film of illusion was torn as if by a whirlwind from his eyes. He saw that for the rest of his days, frail, racked, but enduring, he would live in the face of a purifying terror. A feeble cry, a last impossible protest escaped him. But the Holy Ghost, emblazoned in ice instead of fire, continued, implacable, to descend.
(The Enduring Chill) Posted by Jared at April 20, 2005 01:37 AM | TrackBack