Thursday, December 19, 2013

On Reading Flannery O'Connor's "The Train"

As Flannery O’Connor often does in her work, “The Train” puts you in the head of a character that feels absolutely certain about his convictions, so certain that his views of the world can be nothing else but stilted and convoluted. This time the title character comes in the form of Haze, Haze from Eastrod, Tennessee. Eastrod means something to him, and he affirms this fact over and over, uttering it mentally and verbally in an effort to both earn respect and goad the train’s negro porter into a state of fear: “I was raised in Eastrod, Eastrod Tennessee; he thought about the porter again. He was going to ask the porter… the porter would know Eastrod” (O’Connor 55-56). Yet, as mentioned above, O’Connor delves into Haze’s uncertainties. At one moment he loves the women he is to share a car with as she is chatting his ear off, the next he loathes her, only to soon have a reversal of fortunes. Likewise, in his memories, his mother always started conversations only to later, when he loathes his travel-mate, be characterized as the exact opposite.

Haze thus exemplifies characters that dot O’Connor's literature, ones with no certain home, no certain realm, and an overall lack of personal understanding despite their thoughts to the contrary. They are uniquely honest and human, just like the reader, and this quality draws one in, forcing us to acknowledge our own deficiencies. Adding to Haze’s problems comes his overall lack of confidence—he wants to investigate the porter but is afraid to go there, he wants to enter the dining car, but when told to wait feels a wave of embarrassment that haunts him. All eyes are on him, judging, condemning, looking down on the man from Eastrod, because he is from Eastrod: “He ordered the first thing on the menu, and when it came, ate it without thinking what it might be. The people he was sitting with had finished and, he could tell, were waiting, watching him eat” (59). These people are most likely not only ignoring Haze, but probable would have cared about his presence only enough to start casual conversation.

As expected, Haze is to confront the porter multiple times, and in doing so, he is to question the man, probing his past, trying to see if he is related to Cash from Eastrod. In Haze’s mind, this fact is a resounding yes. The porter must be Cash’s kin, must be his son, and due to this fact, the confrontation displays a moment one expects from O’Connor, where the title character, feeling all high and mighty, is ripped from their throne and tossed into a sea of uncertainty. It is with this feeling that the piece culminates, leaving the reader uncertain as to fate of Haze, his mother, the porter, and little Eastrod.

Favorite lines: “The way things happened, one thing right after another, it seemed like time went by so fast, you couldn’t tell if you were old or young. She looked as if it had been cheating her, going double quick when she was asleep and couldn’t watch it” (55). It exhibits the grace that O’Connor often has and works to keep common idioms fresh and new.

“He wanted it all dark, he didn’t want it diluted” (61). The line resonates, speaks to Haze’s mindset while giving a strong physical description of the setting.

“The tracks curved and he fell back sick into the rushing stillness of the train” (62).

Other posts on the The Complete Stories include “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” “The Geranium,” “The Barber,” “The Wildcat,” “The Crop,” “The Turkey,” “The Train,” “The Peeler,”“The Heart of the Park,” “A Stroke of Good Fortune,” “Enoch and the Gorilla,” “A Late Encounter with the Enemy,” “The River,” “A Circle in the Fire,” and “A Good Man is Hard to Find. If the book interests you, please use the link in the first paragraph or click the picture to support my efforts when you purchase the text.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

On Reading Flannery O'Connor's "The Turkey"

Post six of my trip through Flannery O’Connor The Complete Stories concentrates on “The Turkey.” This piece is number five of six of O’Connor’s master’s thesis from the Iowa Writers Workshop and thus stands without the polish and pizazz that would make her famous, a fact that perhaps accounts for why the piece never saw print in her lifetime.

As with the other pieces in this section of O’Connor’s work, “The Turkey” seems to diverge slightly from the other thesis pieces, showing a different side to the writer, different subject matter, age groups, and events, while covering convergent themes. Here, we have what seems like to be a western style showdown at the start, a dual to end it all, but in actuality, we find the main character, a boy named Ruller facing not a man, but a turkey. Ruller, who often lives in and occupies a fantasy world, pursues the bird. The turkey, which walks with a limp, stands as Ruller’s goal—to catch the bird will mean respect and success, to fail will mean personal failure, failure that others may not discover, but will haunt him.

This prospect of failure rings true through much of O’Connor’s work. Her characters strive to find a place, a home, and a niche. Yet, it is this exact pursuit that pushes a Lucynell Crater into a roadside diner in “The Life You Save May Be Your Own or plagues Old Dudley of “The Geranium” as he focuses on a flower pot for safety.  Everyone wants and needs a place, and the journey to get there can reveal one’s true character. Here, Ruller tackles the task to prove his worth, to make his friends understand that he is capable of monumental tasks: “He guessed they’d be knocked out when they saw him; he guessed they’d talk about him in bed” (O’Connor 44). Yet, Ruller lives in this dream world, not reality. Reality is he is a boy, one who doesn’t have a gun and haphazardly chases the bird. Reality is that he is driven by his hopes, slamming through hedges and into trees as he rips his shirt, scratching and scrapping his body.

Each setback, represents the fact that Ruller is further from his goal, not closer. The turkey can and will elude him just as he can and will elude the directions of his parents and his mother’s drive from him to refrain from taking the Lord’s name in vain. Regardless of how close he will come, Ruller will be haunted by the idea that his actions will never be enough, that his life will be partially empty, and that his scars will be his only prize in the end.

Favorite lines: “he strained his eyes to the ground to see if there was a stone near, but the ground looked as if it might have been swept” (42). Love the imagery in this one.
“He said them again but the laughing had gone out” (47). Great flow and ideas here.

Other posts on the The Complete Stories include “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” “The Geranium,” “The Barber,” “The Wildcat,” “The Crop,” “The Turkey,” “The Train,” “The Peeler,”“The Heart of the Park,” “A Stroke of Good Fortune,” “Enoch and the Gorilla,” “A Late Encounter with the Enemy,” “The River,” “A Circle in the Fire,” and “A Good Man is Hard to Find. If the book interests you, please use the link in the first paragraph or click the picture to support my efforts when you purchase the text.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Chuck Palahniuk’s Zombies: A Review

Zombie: A New Original Short Story by Chuck PalahniukChuck Palahniuk’s latest literary creation (beyond Doomed) comes in the form of a short story called “Zombies,” available free here (you may not want to open the link at work, the story has been published by Playboy, the link is clean though). As Palahniuk often does, the story focuses the social complexities of modern life calling foul where need be as he is painfully honest to those who wish to deny the truth of life, all with his unique brand of humor.

The topic this time is the life and times of high school students. The piece does not focus on drama, but rather digs into the scholastic and parental expectations of our era.  Specifically, Palahniuk explores the pressures placed on teenagers as they are pushed to excel socially, academically, athletically, and artistically in an effort to get into the right college, a college that will theoretically push them into the right job, a job that subsequently slots them appropriately on the ladder of life, yielding lifelong success. In theory this success would extend to their offspring and so on. Of course this idea is not uniquely American, but it is a common story, a common situation. The narrator of “Zombies” notes rather quickly how the idea heaps stress on the teens, and they respond by either plowing through adversity or buckling.

Yet the teens in the narrative almost uniformly opt to leave the game and become Zombies of a sort. Do not expect the undead here, expect characters that instead have become fully alive through elective lobotomy by way of a defibrillator to the head. These teens shock away their problems, forgetting the stress and yielding to the temptation to give up. Instead of focusing on grades, they elect to go the way of reality celebrities: they want to be mindless slugs focused only on the pleasures of life without taking a moment to endure the troubles that come along with it. They figure if Honey Boo Boo and Kim Kardashian can be rich, famous, and mostly carefree, why can’t they too have a ticket to easy street? It is in this vein that the protagonist confronts his personal decision on whether to end it all and become a member of the mindless or endure a life based on reality. While I won’t reveal the situation or detail each step of the trip the reader takes to get there, I will note that Palahniuk does not disappoint as he pulls the reader through the narrative.

 Below is a rough recording of Chuck Palahniuk reading the story on a promotional tour. I did not record this, I only found it on the web: