Monday, May 31, 2010

Wise Blood by Flannery O'Connor

Wise BloodMy rating: 3 of 5 stars
From the author's note to the second edition:
That belief in Christ is to some a matter of life and death has been a stumbling block for readers who would prefer to think it a matter of no great importance. For them Hazel Motes' integrity lies in his trying with such vigor to get rid of the ragged figure who moves from tree to tree in the back of his mind. For the author Hazel's integrity lies in his not being able to.

You can run but you can't hide. Lord knows, Hazel Motes tried. Haze came from a long line of southern preachers, and he had, it seems, every intention of falling in line. But something between boyhood and the place where we first meet him -- on a green plush train seat headed home from the war -- he lost his faith. That's an oversimplification; he lost his belief in redemption -- in the need for it. So, it simply follows, that he lost his faith in Christ.

That is a lie. Hazel Motes, to the day he died, never stopped believing in Christ. He runs from the "ragged figure who moves from tree to tree" -- this is a book about that running -- but, in an ironic twist that only God could cook up, his efforts to push away only bring him closer. He goes to see a prostitute and she mistakes him for a preacher -- a common occurrence throughout. He forces himself to seduce a 15-year-old girl, Sabbath Lily Hawks -- one day he says something to the effect of "Gee, I really ought to seduce that girl" and writes her a crude note -- but her vigorous affirmative response throws him off. Whereas he is forcing himself into sin, to prove a theological point, she seems to revel in sin for sins' own sake. Nevertheless, he goes through with his plans of "seduction" and his ultimate redemption comes rather dramatically: he blinds himself with quicklime.

This book is preoccupied with the sensation of sight. Why, even the name, "Hazel Motes"..."mote", literally a speck or particle, is familiar through Mathew 7:3 "And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?" And the character is sometimes called Haze, which is both an Army-like nickname for concealing the girlish "Hazel" and a synonym for fog. Then there is Sabbath's father...we learn through a newspaper clipping that he tried to blind himself in the name of the Lord, as a public spectacle. A second article proclaims that he chickened out.

From a relatively simplistic perspective, Wise Blood can be seen as one in a line of novels in the Southern Gothic style -- that peculiarly American branch of the Gothic novel that used the grotesque, ironic, and odd to explore deep issues of politics, society, and *surprise* religion. At the fore of this view is the character Enoch Emery (there are some great names in this book), whose ridiculous adventures replicate -- in a grotesque, minstrel show way -- the inner struggles of Hazel. He dresses in bright, day-glow suits; he steals a primitive human mummy from a museum, perhaps perceiving it to be the "new Christ"; and finally, he overtakes a man in a gorilla costume and takes his place. Enoch is the leader of a parade of ridiculous characters, who all jump into Haze's life and quickly jump out again. There is Sabbath and her father (reminiscent of Paper Moon); there is the prostitute; there is a con artist who hijacks Haze's soapbox preaching for a money-making scheme; there is the doppelgänger Hazel that the conman uses in Haze's places (Hazel later kills him with his car); there is the cop who pushes Haze's car off a cliff, smiling; there is even the car, the Essex. Haze and his Essex go through a lot -- it is his home, his soapbox, even his murder weapon; a number of essays have been written about their relationship.

Is this a book of despair? In my mind, not at all. Why, it ends how you would expect any good Christian work to end: with the man finally meeting his maker. Seeing the way so many Christians act towards death, one may be lead to believe it's a bad thing. Life may be absurd, and death even moreso, but please don't despair. This is not a book about, in, or on despair...At times it seems even comical: it brings to my mind a particular type of cheesy religious illustration, depicting ordinary people at their lives while Jesus looks on helpfully. Well, Hazel simply never bothered to turn his head -- in fact, he obstinately refused. There is a kind of pitiful irony to the fact that the only character who claims to reject Christ is the only one who truly believes.

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1 comment:

  1. I am just reading it now and am glad to see that I was not alone enjoying in the humorous aspect of this novel. It does become absurd. I appreciate the way each strand of symbolism is woven into each characters, even the ones that are present in memory.