Reading about a favorite writer is risky. No matter how diligently the reader tries to compartmentalize, disappointing revelations threaten to infect the very books that inspired curiosity about the author in the first place. Still, I love secrets, and biographies of my literary heroes are hard to resist. Thus did I succumb to temptation with Brad Gooch’s Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor, a chronicle of the brief life of one of this country’s finest short-story writers. In its painstaking honesty, the book is both a great gift to her fans, and a curse.
Previously: on O’Connor’s attention to the accretion of detail and meaning in fiction, her acceptance letter rejection, her letters to Betty Hester, her other correspondence, and her thoughts on the regional writer and the grotesque in Southern fiction.
CUNY’s Graduate Center is accepting abstracts for a one-day conference devoted to David Foster Wallaceâ€™s work.
The 2009 Tournament of Books ends with a match between Toni Morrison’s A Mercy and Tom Piazza’s City of Refuge.
Today at The Second Pass I consider C.E. Morgan’s first novel, All the Living, in the context of other fiction that takes up the question of faith — and as an example of what Marilynne Robinson has provisionally called “cosmic realism.”
Marilynne Robinson is the rare contemporary writer who has dared to devote entire novels largely to the question of faith. Gilead, presented as a dying pastor’s letter to his young son, sustains a subtle but tenacious momentum completely dependent on its narrator’s eloquence, insight, and complexity of thought. Yet fiction that directly engages religion can descend so speedily into sentimentality or sermonizing, or even caricature, that the stories most effective at compelling the agnostic reader to consider the possibility of God generally seem at the outset to be about something else. Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair, for example, transforms from an obsessive chronicle of a jilted lover’s efforts to discover who is sleeping with his beloved into an atheist’s unwilling screed against a deity he doesn’t believe in: “I hate you as if you existed.” Peter De Vries’ brilliant The Blood of the Lamb invokes religion from the start, but with the ironic (and hilarious) detachment of someone raised in, but estranged from, the church — until he needs a higher power to lash out at when his little girl is stricken with cancer. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road depicts a father and son trekking through charred forests in a frigid post-apocalyptic world that promises a life of scavenging and likely death at the hands of cannibals, and it is only when the man kills to protect the boy, saying, “I was appointed to do that by God,” that the reader is implicitly called upon to consider what sort of creator would allow humanity to exist in a state so bereft of hope.
Although his setting is singularly dire, McCarthy is of course far from alone in tying religious concerns to nature. Last year Robinson, in a review of Annie Dillard’s The Maytrees, tentatively identified an entire genre, “cosmic realism,” in which the physical world is “primordial, archaic, full of the fact of time past and persisting, unchanging, changing everything.” As Francesca Mari has observed, “Robinson’s labeling is cautious — perhaps because it approaches self-categorization. But the classification is inspired. [Cosmic realism] encompasses a range of description-driven novels steeped in transience and obsessed with iterations of ephemerality. Their substance is more thought than action, and the thought is almost as much perception as it is reflection.” These works, says Mari, owe a great deal to the Transcendentalists. At their best, the books evoke landscapes and moods to summon questions of being at the core of us all; at worst they are freighted with false solemnity, and objects and moments too trite or insignificant to bear the weight of the symbolism forced upon them.
C. E. Morgan’s contemplative and atmospheric first novel, All The Living, is cosmic realism subtly tinged with the anger of The End of the Affair or The Blood of the Lamb. Like The Road, it edges into spiritual concerns slowly, seeming at first to be a story about a young woman, Aloma, torn between her desire for independence and her passion for a man. Love, or at least lust, is winning as the story begins. Aloma has joined her lover, Orren, at the ragged and desolate Kentucky farmhouse where he grew up and has been living since his family was killed in a tragic accident a few months before.
I’m sorry it’s been so quiet here. Between allergy season and deadlines, I haven’t done much of anything this week but work and sleep. Even my Twitter feed lies fallow. Fingers crossed, things will have calmed down by Monday.
I did take a couple hours out last night for the Granta party at Idlewild, which was off the hook — insofar as a crowd of people milling around in a bookstore, drinking and talking about books, ever can be.
(If you click through to the photos, you’ll see evidence of exactly how short I am, as Saïd Sayrafiezadeh — whose work I’ve always loved, and who has just published a new book, When Skateboards Will Be Free, on growing up in the Socialist Workers Party — has to bend practically in half to commiserate with me over our fathers.)
The new Lost & Found issue of the magazine includes, among other things, fiction from A.L. Kennedy and Janet Frame.
More next week; meanwhile, happy weekend!
Hector Tobar visits Los Angeles’ new tamale shop and bookstore. Mama’s Hot Tamales, which faces MacArthur Park in what some call the cradle of Los Angeles’ Central American population, is sharing its space with Librería Hispanoamérica in the hopes that the two businesses can help one another survive the economic downturn. (Thanks, Sean.)
One of the bookshop’s owners is Guatemalan novelist Roberto Quezada, who also works as a court reporter.
Orwell’s adopted son, who may or may not have poured the writer’s “ration of gin” every evening, recalls the man who died when he was six.
Bob Dylan once claimed to have read every word Larry Brown wrote. His new album cover seems to be an homage to the late Southern writer.
The intensity of the argument linked above, if not the content, is awfully familiar. I’ve been so insufferable this weekend on the disappointments of the Battlestar Galactica series finale that I owe everyone I know who also watched the show an apology. I wasn’t allowed much access to TV as a child and consequently never learned to do that thing where you separate real life from the people inside the big, shiny box. Sorry, guys.
(As for the question posed here: cavemen, obviously.)
In a move the critic might not have welcomed, the journals of Roland Barthes have been published, and read aloud onstage.
The handwritten divisions on James Baldwin’s synposis of Crying Holy, the draft novel that evolved into Go Tell It on the Mountain, offer a look at his early thoughts about structure.
The page pictured above is the first of four; you can find the rest — and much, much more — in the online offerings of Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
For the fifth year running, I judged a match for The Morning News’ Tournament of Books. This time the contenders are Roberto Bolañ’s 2666 and Louis de Bernières’ A Partisan’s Daughter.
If you disagree with the call, you’re not alone. Commiserate in the comments.
Mark Salter wonders why some of the greatest Irish writers are completely unknown in the States.
Lauren posted two weeks’ worth of events last Monday, so, in lieu of a new Smart Set, here are a couple of things I’m up to in the next month and a half.
I’ll read from “When the Flock Changed,” a novel excerpt forthcoming in the spring issue of Narrative Magazine. Lizzie will read from the re-issued Check-In, her wonderful poetry collection, now including new poems. And Kate will read from her forthcoming novel, Trouble, a book so engrossing you might not even want to put it down to have dinner with the author. I speak from experience. (Kate’s calling it her beach book. “Every writer has one,” she told me. I immediately thought of Graham Greene — and then of Travels With My Aunt.)
Originally we were all threatening to learn and sing a country song, but we didn’t want to scare you off.
Powerful Women: On May 1, I’ll be exploring unusual manifestations of female power in the work of authors Marie Mockett (author of the forthcoming Graywolf novel Picking Bones from Ash, and of the fascinating essay Letter from a Japanese Crematorium) and Marlon James (The Book of Night Women) and photographer Stephanie Keith.
More about all three as the date draws closer.
Both events are free and scheduled for 7 p.m. We’ll have quizzes and prizes, and the bookstore sells beer, wine, and snacks. It’d be great to see you, if you’re in the neighborhood.
Saïd Sayrafiezadeh discusses his memoir, When Skateboards Will Be Free, and growing up as a “little revolutionary” in the Socialist Workers Party.