Monday, July 11, 2011

A Good Hard Look

"The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it."
--Flannery O'Connor 

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.

A Good Hard Look: A NovelWhen 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.

10 comments:

  1. Slow, Plot-Driven ReaderJuly 11, 2011

    A beautiful review that reflects current issues in my own life. Maybe I too can turn to literature to help answer burning questions in my life and find the burning source of truth that I need. Thanks for sharing.

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  2. You should definitely read Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. It's surprisingly well written and a fun look at what might have been Lincoln's motivations... had his mother been killed by vampires.

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  3. Thank you, Slow Plot. I think it is telling that you use the word burning twice in your comment. Some of the work that FOC asks us to do burns us deeply. We can think about the destructive nature of that burn--but thinking of the constructive fire of the forge is its flip side, isn't it?

    Amy, you are now the second person to tell me AL: VH is a great read. Maybe I'll put it on my Halloween reading list!

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  4. I kind of like the idea of seeing one of these novels about a living author. I am not sure the authors would like it, but it would be fun to read a fond send-up of a favorite author. Or even better a less fond send up of some author I didn't particularly like...like Philip Roth. Or maybe put V.S. Naipaul (whose books I like) in some sort of situation where he has to expiate for his recent misogynistic rant.

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  5. Thomas--What fun that could be! Do you happen to know of any fiction about still-alive folks (even if they are not writers?) Maybe we have to start writing these ourselves!

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  6. Thanks for bringing this very interesting sounding work on Flannery O'Connor to our attention-recently I read one of Kenzaburo Oe's Novels, Echo of Heaven, in which the narrator treats the stories of O'Connor as almost holy texts. I found this very interesting given the normal Catholic reading of O'Connor.

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  7. Wow! I don't think I've ever read this kind of book. I've never heard of Flannery O'Connor either. Looks like I'll be keeping an eye out for these writers...

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  8. The only one I can think of at the moment is The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett in which he imagines the Queen becoming a reader.

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  9. I really like the idea of this. I have THE PARIS WIFE from the library right now. Will have to find this one too.

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  10. I have to admit that I have never read anything my O'Connor even though she's been recommended to me many times.

    I'm glad this turned out to be such an amazing book. Thanks for being on the tour!

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