Saturday, December 12, 2015

On Reading Flannery O'Connor's "A Circle in the Fire"

In “A Circle in the Fire,” Flannery O’Connor initially relies on idle gossip to once again dwell into the pain of everyday existence. Here we have Mrs. Cope and Mrs. Pritchard, two women fighting to stay negative yet seemingly positive, interested, and some ways relevant as they tend to the yard. Mrs. Pritchard prattles on about visiting a wake in which she calmly relays the spectacle of seeing a woman interned with her deceased child, a child conceived and born while the mother was in an iron lung. At the same time, Mrs. Cope praises her very existence, taking on the familiar debonair haughtiness found in much of O’Connor’s writing. This woman, while our focus, is barely likeable in that she feels that she occupies a sphere of greatness above all others: “‘I have the best kept place in the county and do you know why? Because I work. I’ve had to work to save the place and work to keep it” (178). Thus Mrs. Cope repeatedly shows just how much better she is, just how proud. The farm, her Negros, her life is hers and hers alone, her creation, but as she often mentions here fear of fire, said creation is in fact seen as tenuous. Further, in her mind, she stands as deserving due to her innate gratitude, one that she freely shares with the world around her: “‘All I got is four abscess teeth,’ she remarked. ‘Well be thankful you don’t have five’” (177). Because she works, because she is thankful, Mrs. Cope deserves rewards, position, and spiritual acclaim.

These rewards explode with the arrival of a former Negro farmhand’s son, Powell, and his two friends, each of whom upsets the gossip filled balance. Here stands three boys, starved, but unwanting of anything but the ability to have a run of the farm and live out the fantasy of Powell’s childhood memories riding horses and being free. These three boys stand as outsiders beyond Mrs. Cope’s grasp and understanding. Not only can she not control them, they fail to grasp the idea of control. Their rebellious spirit jabs at her, fueling the flames. Further they represent pure danger, for as Cope fears fire, their wild ways could ignite a blaze at any moment, not only on the farm but also in the innocence of her child, a character that exists seemingly as only a set of meek eyes in the background for the first half of the story until it becomes clear to the ladies that the boys are not just passing through and that their presence comes in the form of joyous lechery.

The boys treat the farm as their playground—they ride the horses, steal milk and food, lie about leaving, release the bull, and that is just the start. As O’Connor so often does, she forces a full hearty character in Mrs. Cope to face one thing she can’t control: people who lack the will to be controlled. Try as Mrs. Cope does to cope and control, the boys are faster, sneakier, and looking for something the woman seems unwilling to give: unbridled freedom. Thus she darts about in hopes of stopping an unstoppable force, the very hurricane she predicted could come at any moment during the story’s opening pages: “‘We might all be destroyed by a hurricane. I can always find something to be thankful for’” (177). These boys exists as the storm, arriving without notice and plunging her life into despair. While she worked to control every facet of her farm, the boys split hairs and push her buttons in their discord: “‘I think I have been very nice to you boys. I’ve fed you twice. Now I’m going into town and if you’re still here when I come back, I’ll call the sheriff’” (189). While the threats seemed to work, and the boys vanish, the tone remains ominous as the eye of the storm passes over. It is through the eyes of the child playing in the woods that the reader comes to see the end of Mrs. Cope’s security, the death of her hard work, and the realization of her biggest fear: fire.

Favorite Lines:

  • “He had on a sweat shirt with a faded destroyer printed on it but his chest was so hollow that the destroyer was broken in the middle and seemed on the point of going under” (179).
  • “She worked at the weeds and nut grass as if they were an evil sent directly by the devil to destroy the place” (175).
  • “They looked as if they were used to being hungry and it was no business of hers” (180).

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.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Robin Sloan's Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore: A Book Review

Wrapped in a glow in the dark cover and tackled in less than 300 pages, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore offers a modern, code driven mystery. Robin Sloan’s text flows, and while first person narratives often take on the search for self, Clay Jannon instead seeks the key to life through an ancient society hidden within Mr. Penumbra’s bookstore, a store with hauntingly high ceilings and strange members that never pay a dime for the books they seek. It is here that Sloan blends the past with the present, meshing a supposedly dying medium in books with a tech driven society. Author Robin Sloan spins a web of mystery, answers the questions, and asks some more as the pages and ideas cascade by.

As the mystery unravels, and Jannon is driven further into the maze of a secret society and protecting a boss he has come to revere and love, we find the power of the internet being tossed into plain view. Whether through crowd sourcing a puzzle or dropping a complicated task into the Google’s master server for three seconds (and partially disabling the internet for that length of time), Jannon proves resourceful. He embodies the do it yourself movement sprawled across the internet landscape, creating an intricate book scanner from cardboard, and transverses the New York City street view of Google maps with the help of thousands of bored internet users. A failed techie himself, Jannon’s quest turns a secret society on its heels while allowing for a gradual character change and eventual assimilation into society with the typical cries of displeasure one finds.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Published Fiction: Frozen Iguanas

This piece landed in the Summer Solstice 2015 issue of Kudzu House Quarterly. Inspired by Florida, I think it received the most positive rejections I've ever encountered before finally finding a home.

Frozen Iguanas
The day before the iguanas fell, I touched the waddle of my elbow. My wenis, as I had heard my students call it, had thickened. So in the middle of a lecture on the merits of might is right, I discovered scaly layers in lieu of pliable leather.
“My epidermis is hardening,” I said. Teenagers doodled or played with their phones under their desks, whatever it is they do when I talk. Standing in front of them as a body only to be tolerated and mocked, my personal anecdotes and details mattered not. One asked if my epiphany would be on test. I told him yes out of confused spite and he made note unsure of my sarcasm. They were never sure, hell I was never sure--I’d been told that my every comment was delivered in the same semi-facetious tone so that I could make up my mind after the fact. Class continued; I felt phantom tingles of classification, calcification.
The next day was cold. Miami cold constitutes anything below seventy degrees Fahrenheit. Come sixty-nine, expect sweaters, long pants, woolen coats, and chattering complaints. Temperatures hit forty-one that night and iguanas dropped from the trees. Rigid reptiles hailed from coconut palms as peopled bitched at their dogs to pee; ten pound bodies bombarded the landscape, denting cars and thumping onto the concrete. People were perplexed, local newscasters horrified.
On weekends I collected suburban trash to earn extra money. At first the job had been below my station, but the money mattered. Driving a white pickup along a meandering bike path that encircled a series of interconnected lakes, I stopped to empty trash bins and encounter awkward giggles and cellphone pictures for hashtag fodder. Anything out of economic necessity.
So I collected scattered debris: plastic bottles, candy wrappers, the occasional used prophylactic, and on that particular Saturday, rigid iguanas. Their mass death mystified me. How cold was too cold for the invasive beasts? Equally intrusive, I wore a once black beanie and a jacket with a torn sleeve filched from the school lost and found to stay warm, but their coarse exterior had failed. Actual answers didn’t matter, and I fell into a rut: pick up random garbage, grab three or more iguanas; empty the trash, procure some more, each time thumbing sandpaper skin, each time debating if their condition had something to do with mine, if they hardened like I was hardening and felt their coming demise like I could feel mine. My life was shutting down between the white concrete blocks of my Miami-Dade county classroom and neighborhood litter. No one cared, including myself—but my plight was all too typical, all too hailed and discussed.
When the bed of the truck was full I headed to empty it at operations. Hundreds of lifeless bodies interspersed with human waste filled the space. Half-full water bottle here, medium sized iguana there. I envisioned an updated news story: Iguana Epidemic Sweeps Miami, Invasive Species Mysteriously Destroyed. I sensed fame, I sensed importance, and for a time my internal tingling abated. Perhaps even a minute of fame could veil the truth. After a snapping a few photos, I started the roughly four mile drive, leaving the lakes for city streets in search of the dumpster.
Driving, I wanted the truck to have a working radio. I wanted to sing and jam out. I wanted to go home and bunker myself in, to be warm, to sit the corner and stare at flakes of paint. My life was full of failed wants and perhaps that was my problem.
 Somewhere along the way I started to hear scratching, somewhere I began to take notice. Miami warms up fast even when it’s cold. Forty-nine and sunny combined with the heat of a car engine can create the illusion of seventy-five regardless of one’s misconceptions to the contrary. There, driving down the street, iguanas scuttled around the pickup. Reanimated, they chewed on banana peels, the ripped apart plastic grocery bags—the mirrors exposed all. They began mounting the cab, sliding down the windshield. As they bounced off the vehicle, falling to their permanent death, I struggled to come to grips with their predicament. How had they come to? Was I to blame? As wheels crushed bones, I reached for my elbow and pondered what I had in store, glad I was alone.