"The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it."
Recently a new kind of genre has begun to develop where authors use real historical actors as their central characters and real historical settings as their backdrops. These books are not traditional historical fiction. Instead, authors try to reanimate these historical actors in new stories and situations as a way to explore underlying motivations and personalities. In other words, these books use fiction to search for the deepest truths about history and people.
Some of the novels that come out of this genre are consciously playful. Although I doubt I'll ever actually read the actual book, just the title of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter makes me howl with laughter. Clearly the author was trying to amuse readers. But at the same time, this book seems like a serious engagement with deep themes in history and literature. By creatively twining Lincoln's real experiences in the fight over slavery with a fictional modern zombie fantasy, Seth Grahame-Smith turns one kind of political leadership into another and therefore has the freedom to explore the larger truth of Lincoln's commitments.
Some of my favorite examples of this new genre--or is it not new?--are the reanimations of literary authors. Whether it is Emily Dickinson or Earnest Hemingway or Louisa May Alcott, I'm fascinated by the possibility that fiction may be able to give us special insight into fiction writers.
When I found out that Ann Napolitano was trying to do exactly this kind of analysis of one of my very favorite writers, I started counting down the days to publication of her novel about Flannery O'Connor. And finally the day has arrived!.
Although I loved Flannery O'Connor's stories the very first time in late high school, I had no idea where they came from. They were funny and bitter and grotesque. I'm afraid I did not see "the heart laid bare" then at all.
Later, when I found a marvelous collection of her letters, it fundamentally transformed what I thought about O'Connor. I began to see that she struggled with issues of the right way to live--and the importance of moral courage--more than any other writer I'd read (including Charlotte Bronte in Jane Eyre). What I had originally taken almost as sarcasm and cruelty on her part was in fact a deep attempt to understand what she might have called the action of grace in the world, the sword of truth that pierces us until we are fully open to change. She was showing that what hurts us the most is the only thing that can forge us into the people we need to be.
Napolitano has written a stunning tribute to O'Connor. I love the balance in this book between O'Connor's style and Napolitano's own voice. She never tries to appropriate the original author's style, but she remains committed to the same explorations that O'Connor makes. A Good Hard Look is full of the same kind of flawed and quirky characters that populate O'Connor's writing. Perhaps most importantly, deep humor combines with a very serious engagement with the issues of honesty and moral courage.
Napolitano tells us that O'Connor's perception of the world was sometimes "like a magnifying glass burning a hole through a sheet of paper." It is that perception that makes O'Connor feel so dangerous and so uncompromising. She burns those around her--and us her readers--as she points out that we are (and that she is) as fragile, deluded, and self-righteous as her crazy characters. Napolitano is far gentler and less confrontational a writer than Flannery O'Connor is. But by the end of A Good Hard Look, we are stripped bare and left with the same sorts of questions that O'Connor asks: how can accept the truth without flinching or denying it? What are the gifts that pain gives? How can we let go of our defenses and live honestly, vulnerably, fully?
Napolitano's A Good Hard Look a book to come back to again and again as we spend our lifetimes trying to answer those questions.
Thank you so much to Trish and the team at TLC Book Tours who shared this wonderful book with me.