Short Stories All the Time

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... a few of my thoughts about 900, mostly contemporary, short stories.
Showing posts with label O'Connor. Show all posts
Showing posts with label O'Connor. Show all posts

05 June, 2015

Stephen O'Connor, "Next to Nothing"

The story is divided into thirteen sections which move around in time like snapshots or backstories.
1. The sisters, Ivy and Isabel, are introduced. They are a bit odd and the townspeople seem mystified by them. "They make the townspeople feel erased. They make the townspeople feel like a variety of wood louse."

2. The reader learns that both sisters are sociologists and spend summers at their parents' house with all six of their children. Ivy tells a story to the children before bed that includes some foreshadowing and emphasis on eyes. "You can take one toy with you." And, "But as soon as she was out of the castle, she put it down on the sand and a wave washed it away."

3. Ivy is confronted by an evangelical outside the grocery store and Ivy's response to why she doesn't believe in god is "Because I know that I am entirely insignificant, doomed to complete extinction, and I see no reason to pretend otherwise."

4. Isabel tricks her younger sister in a hide and seek game.

5. Some explanation about their sociological careers, financial futures and apocalyptic cults.

6. Now Isabel has to go to the store to try to find batteries again. Their mother wants them to be prepared for the hurricane. "The mission is hopeless, of course, but Isabel has undertaken it because actual failure is the only way of shutting up her mother."

Isabel is then confronted by an evangelical Christian and when asked if she has been saved, she turns the question around on the girl who has no response. "If I were to tell you that I know you are not saved, what would you think?"

7. There is some discussion about the statistically weird color of all of the children's eyes. I'm not sure what the eye details are about. Maybe, that idea of the eyes being the windows to the soul or maybe into the brain or the way a person thinks.

8. The two sisters share the ways in which they manipulate men. They both marry. "The sisters arrange a joint wedding."

9. The sisters have a secret language.

10. The youngest son of Ivy, Jerry, is scared of the storm and tries to get into bed with his mother. She will not allow it. She explains to him that hurricanes are fairy stories.  This is the one part of the story that feels inconsistent with Ivy's beliefs. She would believe that nature and physics would rule hurricanes and would be very real indeed, not a fairy tale.

11-13. The house starts to flood. The family gets into the van and attempts to escape. The family's van is caught in the flood waters.

This is a touching story and I enjoyed the religious discussions especially. Ivy and Isabel are nearly, in my untrained opinion, psychopaths. I'm not sure that the story takes a side in the question between religion or secularism. I'm not sure it needed to.

The first time I read the story, I thought that it felt forced but on second reading I didn't have that sense at all. Pertinent pieces put together to create a whole. I guess that's all any story is.

"Next to Nothing" was first published in the journal Conjunctions, issue 60, spring 2013, and then included in the 2014 issue of Best American Short Stories.

Favorite Line:
"For a long time Jerry does nothing at all. Then there is a shifting in the darkness, and she can hear his sweat-sticky feet making kissing noises along the floorboards. The door opens, then closes softly. The latch slides into the door plate with a minute sporing."

07 July, 2013

Flannery O'Connor, "The Lame Shall Enter First"

Another well-constructed story by Flannery O'Connor that pits intellectualism against religious faith. Sheppard, an atheist, is a do-gooder and desires nothing more than to convince a fourteen year old kid, Rufus Johnson, that he can be anything he wants to be while he ignores, even worse, doesn't even like his own kid, Norton. Sheppard hates that Norton is selfish, self-centered and piggish. However, the kid is only ten years old and lost his mother just one year earlier. Eventually Rufus convinces Norton that he will be able to be with his mother in heaven.

"The Lame Shall Enter First" is nearly forty pages long. There is quite a bit of back and forth with Sheppard encountering problems with Rufus. However, the writing is descriptive and suspense is created that the story doesn't really feel that long. I really did not see the end coming yet it seems completely plausible. Sheppard does realize that he has "stuffed his own emptiness with good works like a glutton" and that he has "ignored his own child." This is a story with a lot of psychological nuance and complexities about loss, faith, lack of faith, death and abuse. One nice thing about this author is that while her stories are somewhat didactic or moralistic, they are not simply one-sided. There is room for much discussion and debate.

O'Connor paints an ugly picture of Sheppard, an atheist, but also shows that blind faith is not the answer either. Rufus says he believes but is a bit fanatic when he eats pages of the Bible, "like Ezekiel" and he believes that he is going to hell.

04 June, 2013

Flannery O'Connor, "A Good Man is Hard to Find"

The Misfit with his speech impediment is an escaped murderer. Everyone and his or her dog have an opinion about this story so I need not try to add to all of the writing about "A Good Man is Hard to Find."

A family is going to drive to Florida despite the fact that the grandmother wants to go to see "her connections" in east Tennessee. Bailey, the father, is grumpy and usually put out with his mother. John Wesley and June Star have no respect for their parents or grandmother. The baby keeps the children's mother busy. The mother is never given a name. Pitty Sing, the surreptitiously stowed cat, and the grandmother fill the car and they all  head to Florida. The grandmother sets and keeps the plot in motion until the final scene. If you haven't read it; you must. It is a classic and included in many anthologies.

"In case of an accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady."

"'She wouldn't stay at home to be queen for a day,' June Star said without raising her yellow head."

Flannery O'Connor on Wikipedia
Andalusia Farm web page
Flannery O'Connor web page
PBS web page about O'Connor's religion
NY Times article

14 March, 2013

Flannery O'Connor, "Good Country People"

Hulga, nee Joy, is thirty-two years old with an artificial leg due to an accident when she was ten. It is circa 1955, on a farm. Hulga's mother, Mrs. Hopewell, is divorced and has hired Mr. and Mrs. Freeman to work her farm. Mrs. Freeman is nosy and impossible to insult as well as the first to have any opinion or idea. Hulga, still called Joy by her mother, is grumpy, well-educated, atheist and a virgin. Along comes a Bible salesman to upset their situation.

Once, Mrs. Hopewell hears the Bible salesman refer to himself as "country people" she's eager to please him. She invites him to dinner. Long story short, Hulga manages to meet outside the Bible salesman as he is leaving and they agree to meet each other the following evening.

They have a tryst in the hay and the Bible salesman steals Hulga's prosthetic leg, puts it in his Bible, alcohol and porn card carrying case. And, away he goes, leaving Hulga (Joy) in the hay loft.

Woven throughout the story are some philosophical quotes and names. Joy's PhD is in philosophy which, to her mother, is useless. "That was something that had ended with the Greeks and Romans." One day her mother read a passage from Heidegger's Being and Time from one of Joy's books. "...worked on Mrs. Hopewell like some evil incantation in gibberish."

The story is told in a third-person limited but shifting point of view with no closeness of the Bible salesman's mind. We only see and hear his actions and dialogue. We are never privy to his thoughts. For me, the theme of the story is that religion is sometimes used by people to manipulate. While philosophy asks many questions, it does not give relief.

The title, "Good Country People," illustrates hypocrisy and judgmentality. These good, country people only live in the country. As soon as the Bible salesman referred to himself as "country people" Mrs. Hopewell's entire attitude changed. Once the "secret" word or code had been passed, he was in. People love to see themselves a certain way and when that is encouraged or reinforced by someone, people tend to give that person some leeway as Mrs. Hopewell found herself inviting the salesman to dinner no less.

It's funny to me how Hulga's (Joy) appearance and clothing are that of a silly youngster and that the colors are the same as the salesman's when he comes calling that second evening. Is the salesman just another side of Hulga? Her spoiled brat unbelieving side. The salesman says he has never believed in God. Did he mean that or was he lashing out? "'I hope you don't think,' he said in a lofty indignant tone, 'that I believe in that crap!'"

Then we find out that he goes around collecting things from women. "One time I got a woman's glass eye this way." He's "building" a person? He's incomplete because he is an unbeliever?

I wonder why Mrs. Hopewell and Mrs. Freeman are the last in the story? They witness the salesman walking away--they do not know he is leaving behind Hulga (Joy) without her  leg--and they assume he was selling his Bibles.

Again at the end, we see the way Mrs. Freeman sees herself. "'Some can't be that simple,' she said. 'I know I never could.'"

The philosopher Nicolas Malebranche, 17th century rationalist philosopher, known as the "occasional philosopher," is quoted by Hulga (Joy) when she screams, "...we are not our own light." Does Malebranche mean that we cannot see ourselves as we are? Mrs. Freeman does not see herself as she is but she thinks she does. LOL Hulga (Joy) puts great effort into "appearing" one way or another. She dresses like a child and "lumbers" when she wants to make a point instead of using her intellect in adult conversations. Perhaps she has tried in the past and it just didn't work so she's resorted to her mother's and Mrs. Freeman's level of discourse.

I think O'Connor has captured very well the ways in which people manipulate and judge and fool themselves into believing they are one way when they are another. The author also criticizes faux- religious people.

"Get rid of the salt of the earth," she said, "and let's eat."

"Her forward expression was steady and driving like the advance of a heavy truck."

"Mrs. Hopewell had no bad qualities of her own but she was able to use other people's in such a constructive way that she never felt the lack."

02 September, 2011

Flannery O'Connor, "Everything That Rises Must Converge"

I read a disturbing quote from Flannery O'Connor that proves she was a racist and I cannot read her stories anymore. I had read her stories before as showing the white people who were racist as stupid. She was a product of her time and place but it is unforgivable to perpetuate racism. Granted we all continue it when we do not speak out against it. She actively worked to continue it. Disgusting. (my added note 4/15/2012)
This classic short story was first published in New World Writing, 1961 and takes place in the 1960's. The  editor was Theodore Solotaroff. The story was reprinted in 1962 in The Best American

Short Stories
anthology and it's been published many more times.

"Everything That Rises Must Converge" takes place on a bus ride to exercise class so that Julian's mother can lose some weight and lower her blood pressure. Julian's mother is a racist, passive aggressive, a martyr and he's dysfunctional, also racist but probably does not think that he is and emotionally bound to her. Of course, O'Connor carefully shows us these traits in action. The "fun" really begins when an African-American woman wearing the same hat as Julian's mother gets on the just integrated bus.

I detected one place that shifted viewpoint from a close 3rd of Julian, "Though his mother would not realize the symbolic significance of this, she would feel it." When writers as skillful as O'Connor shift POV, there's a reason. Here it seems to point to and highlight the fact that Julian's mother is stubbornly oblivious and only ignorantly "feels" that something is awry. And later in the story Julian tells her, "'You aren't who you think you are,' he said." His mother is not at all self-reflective.

Wikipedia biography
Flannery O'Connor - Andalusian Foundation
NYTimes article about O'Connor by Brad Gooch
link to the story

11 June, 2011

Frank O'Connor, "Christmas Morning"

This short story was first published in the New Yorker in 1946. It is only about ten

pages long, written in first-person POV and tells of a sibling rivalry that ended with the older boy, Larry, only nine or ten, learning just how difficult his mother's life is and what a lout his father is. The story is told at some point after Larry is a grown man; although, it is not clear just how much later the narrator is recounting the story. And, as a first-person narrator is usually an unreliable one, perhaps he is exaggerating his brother's antics.

I like that the ending and the change in Larry is not the expected. Larry could have only realized that he'd hurt his mother's feelings and that there is no Santa Claus but he learns, in a way that he'll never forget, that his father is a mean drunkard and his mother fears the same for him but he is, despite what he earlier thought, his mother's hope for happiness. And, at this moment, the reader wonders which way Larry will turn out. My bet is that Sonny will turn out to be the lout as he already knows how to manipulate and cajole people, although, he's pretty shallow at it.

Reading the story again, I see there is a clue early on that Larry did indeed become better at his studies at the age of nine or ten. So, I think he did grow up okay. "Until I was nine or ten I was never much good at school..."

"Christmas Morning" was originally printed in The New Yorker and later in the collection, The Collected Stories of Frank O'Connor. And, in 1998, "Christmas Morning" was included in the anthology, A Walk in My World: International Short Stories About Youth.

Wikipedia site
Britannica encyclopedia entry
interview with O'Connor, The Paris Review

23 August, 2010

A. M. Homes, "The Omega Point or Happy Birthday Baby"

view of Coyne's exhibition

This short story is publication no. 139 of One-Story. It's 37 pages long and written in a third-person shifting point-of-view. The story itself is almost an example of maximum complexity which is the meaning of Omega Point. In "A Note from the Author," A. M. Homes states that the story was written for artist Petah Coyne in conjunction with the artist's exhibition, "Everything That Rises Must Converge" which shares its title with the famous story by Flannery O'Connor.