Review: The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, by Carson McCullers

heart_mccullersIn a small unnamed town in the American south lives a deaf-mute named John Singer. For 10 years, he had a comfortable life living with his deaf-mute friend Spiros Antonapoulous. Antonapoulous begins acting out, and is sent away to an insane asylum by his cousin. Singer is alone, until other people in the town begin to gravitate towards him and spill out all their troubles. There’s Mick, a teenage girl who lives in Singer’s boarding house; Biff Brannon, proprietor of the New York Café; Dr. Copeland, a black doctor; and Jake Blount, an alcoholic communist. The novel is set over the course of about a year and a half and focuses on the lives of these five characters.

The title gives us a big clue about one of the major themes of the novel: loneliness and heart-ache. Everyone has their own troubles to deal with, and these characters are no different. Mick’s family have been struggling to make ends meet since her father lost his job due to an accident. She spends her time fantasising about far-off countries, or thinking about music. All this is on top of the normal stresses associated with growing into adulthood. Biff Brannon would like to be a father, but he and his wife never had any children and have grown cold and distant. He spends most of his time working, but still they have money troubles. Things become even worse when his wife dies. Dr. Copeland is educated and intelligent, but he has a burning need to save the black people from the crushing injustices that they live under. Because of his single-mindedness, he has become estranged from his family and community. Jake Blount is also determined to help and educate people, but his enemy is capitalism. Unfortunately, he is an alcoholic with anger issues, so he has great difficulty in getting people to understand his position.

These four characters don’t interact much–their main connection is through Singer. Singer is an attentive listener and becomes a confident for them, while also becoming something of a mythical figure to the rest of the townsfolk. Mick talks about her “inside room and outside room”–the inner and outer world. Most people do not get to fully and truly express what is inside them; they feel awkward and scared of harsh judgement. Because he doesn’t talk and appears to listen to everything they say, everyone concludes that Singer is deeply intelligent and understands their troubles. They all interpret him in their own way: he’s Jewish; he’s Turkish; he understands the plight of the worker’s, or black people:

Each man described the mute as he wished him to be.

Despite all these friends and admirers, there is no one left to listen to Singer, not since Antonapoulous was taken away. Talking about one’s troubles is a way of lessening them, and because Singer cannot let his out, they begin to fester. His only outlet are his unsent letters to Antonapoulous, but it’s not quite the same without some sort of human feedback. From his letters we learn that Singer is not the messiah figure he appears to be. He doesn’t understand half of what Blount or Copeland or the rest say to him, but he smiles politely because being with anyone is still better than being alone.

There is one other figure who seems to hang over much of the novel: Karl Marx. During the Christmas party, Dr. Copeland diverts the discussion away from Jesus to try and educate his community about the ideas of Karl Marx. Karl Marx is one of the most important philosophers associated with communism. He critiqued the capitalist system which put wealth over people, and which invariably led to a few owning most of this wealth, while the majority laboured for scraps. Jake Blount is another character who is deeply influenced by Marx’s ideas. Both of them agree that the south in particular is a place of terrible inequality and poverty, though Copeland believes that it is more than just a class issue, that the problems of black people must also be taken into account. One of Marx’s theories was alienation, which is the “process whereby people become foreign to the world they are living in.”[1] Due to living in an unequal and miserable world, the average person, the worker, begins to feel like they have no control over their life and destiny. Mick and Brannon, doomed to work with little hope of achieving their heart’s desires, seem to embody this concept quite well.

 


Recommended for people who enjoy: the American South; multiple main characters; sadness; Marxism.

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Review: Wise Blood, by Flannery O’Connor

48467“Wise Blood”, published in 1952, is a novel partly created from some of O’Connor’s short stories, so anyone who has read her Collected Stories may recognise a few scenes and characters. The protagonist, Hazel Motes, has recently returned from the war in Europe and finds that he has nowhere to go. He heads to a nearby city, it being as good a place as any. He meets a blind preacher and his daughter, Asa and Sabbath Hawks, begging in the streets and becomes inexplicably drawn to them. A strange young man named Enoch Emory, all alone in the world, attaches himself to Hazel. Hawks notices Hazel following them and hands him a bundle of flyers to hand out to people. This tips him over the edge. He throws the flyers to the ground and begins preaching a new truth: that there is no Jesus, no redemption, no sin. He has found the Church Without Christ.

Hazel has been struggling with faith throughout his life. He seems to object to the idea of original sin, that all of us are sinners and Jesus died to redeem us. “If Jesus existed, I wouldn’t be clean”: he rejects the idea that he can only be sinless and spiritually pure by accepting Jesus, even if he has never actually sinned. He is always trying to escape his own deep-seated guilt at his inability to accept Christ. His interest in the blind preacher is a manifestation of this hidden desire to be accept and be saved. Hazel’s own preaching is an attempt to convince himself that Christianity in not the way of truth. Though he constantly pushes people away, he appeals to others because he wants to know that there are others that feel and think as he does. But what he truly wants is peace, and “there’s no peace for the redeemed”. It’s all a bit confused. One thing that could be analysed is the effect that Hazel’s time in the war had on him. It is quite possible that, along with physical wounds, he is also suffering psychologically.

Another character driven by confused desires is Enoch Emery. Though not as major a character as Hazel, it is his compulsion that gives its name to the book. Enoch’s “wise blood”, which he inherited from his daddy, is a sort of animal intuition that guides him. It is a controlling force, but also a source of divine wisdom. It frustrates him at times, especially when he needs to do something or go somewhere, but he never questions the commands it gives him–he has complete faith in it as something grander than himself. It is the wise blood that keeps him connected with Hazel’s story; it is the wise blood that compels him to steal a mummy from a museum and present it to Hazel as “the new Jesus”. In contrast with Hazel, there is no religious strife in Enoch: he is just a lonely man looking for a friend. He seems to have a thing about apes, though, similar to how Hazel feels about Jesus: revulsion mixed with a certain longing.

Despite its grotesque characters, dark atmosphere, and heavy themes, there are moments of absurd humour throughout the novel. Hazel’s car could be considered something of a running gag: despite clearly being a piece of crap, he calls it a good car and has unwavering faith in its ability to take him anywhere. There’s a great moment when he is trying to escape from the con man Hoover Shoats. The car jolts forward or backwards of its own accord, preventing him for driving away and forcing him to simply sleep in the back. Another part involves Hazel and Sabbath both deciding to seduce the other for their own personal gain. The pathetic Enoch also provides much amusement (mixed with pity) in his desperate attempts to make friends in an uncaring world. I suppose the amount of humour you find in this book depends on your tolerance of weird and often disturbing situations.


Recommended for people who enjoy: religious themes, dark humour, oddball characters, the American south.

Review: Saints and Sinners, by Edna O’Brien

saintsandsinnersEdna O’Brien is an award-winning Irish writer of novels, plays, poetry, short stories, and biographies. Saints and Sinners is her 8th short story collection, and after it’s release in 2011, it won the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. It contains 11 stories, of about 10-30 pages each.

O’Brien is a versatile writer: she utilises a number of different styles, and she effortlessly adopts the narrative voice of a variety of characters. Her protagonists are young, old; male, female; rich, poor. Their stories are told as a series of diary entries as in “Green Georgette”, or as a rambling monologue as in “Madame Cassandra”. She uses first- and third-person views with equal skill. “Shovel Kings” uses a nice trick of a shifting first-person point-of-view, starting with the unnamed narrator’s, then slowly changing to Rafferty’s as he tells his life’s story.

There’s a certain timelessness to these stories. Except for the odd mention of a mobile phone, they could exist anywhere between the mid 20th century and our current age. The primary form of long-distance communication is still the letter. Contrasted with a vagueness of the time, the place is concrete: unless stated otherwise, it is rural Ireland. (Other settings are London and New York, two cities with large a Irish diaspora.) This is the Ireland of O’Brien’s childhood, most likely: slow to change, lacking any sort of novelty, and with an undercurrent of repression. Oddly enough, there are almost no explicit explorations of religion. Perhaps it was simply before many of the churches practices began to be questioned. Though it’s not clear what her opinions of Ireland then and now are, it is clear that she has a complex relationship with her place of birth.

Reading the title, we might be tempted to label the characters as either saints or sinners. But of course, people, morals, and life itself are a bit more complicated than that. Other than the plundering soldiers and maybe the greedy McSorley, there are no villains in these stories. Nor are there heroes, really. Like real people, they are mix of the good and the bad, and they endure life as best they can. The almost-eponymous story “Sinners” is an interesting take on a morally grey area. I won’t spoil it, but I will say that, by the end of it, we are left wondering if Delia’s reaction to what the other characters did was because of her firm morals, or because of her own suppressed desires:

She had forgotten the little things, the little pleasures, the give and take that is life. She had even forgotten her own sins.

There is a deep loneliness in many of the characters. They have lived lives of struggle and want, or they’ve lost love, or been left behind. In reaction to their trials, they’ve hardened their hearts to others to protect themselves. We feel deeply for them all because of O’Brien’s ability to create characters so effectively in so few words. The beautiful “Manhattan Melody” tells the story of an “other woman”, who wanders the streets of New York after being abandoned by her lover, who has returned to his wife. While she walks, she remembers all the little encounters they had, the glances across the room, the post-party embraces, and wonders if she was nothing more than a fling to him, him who she loves. “Old Wounds” is about two estranged cousins who become reacquainted after many years. They come to value each other deeply, until a minor, almost inconsequential incident causes a rift to form once again. Relationships are difficult to make, and even more difficult to keep.


Recommended for people who enjoy: slow/melancholy stories, lovely prose, wistfulness, introspection.

Review: Can’t and Won’t by Lydia Davis

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Lydia Davis is known for writing “flash fiction”, which is a general term used to refer to very short stories, usually only a couple of sentences long. This collection is a prime example of her flash fiction, but it also includes a number of longer pieces as well (which can throw you off because of the expectation of stories being no more than a page or two). There are also a few stories adapted from the dreams of Davis and her friends, and a couple of “stories from Flaubert”, created from the journals and letters of Gustave Flaubert.

With many of the stories being so short, we are left wondering: what does it mean? Why did Davis choose to make something out of such short, mundane experiences? This makes us look closer at the story with the view of deciphering exactly what it means. Meaning is a tricky thing, though. Is what we think it means what the author intended it to mean? Does it matter? I think that maybe there is no intentional or closely-contructed meaning behind many of the pieces: Davis just found something that she feels is meaningful and presents it to the reader to make what they will of it. If you know what I mean. It’s sort of like with dreams: they might not mean anything at first glance, but there’s something about them, and if you start digging and analysing, you might be able to find some sort of narrative or meaning. In a way, the more you put in, the more you’ll get out.

The eponymous story “Can’t and Won’t” gives us a better understanding of Davis’ intent:

I was recently denied a writing prize because, they said, I was lazy. What they meant by lazy was that I used too many contractions: for instance, I would not write out in full the words cannot and will not, but instead contracted them to can’t and won’t.

She is said to use too many contractions in her work. The criticism can be seen as a meta-criticism against the seeming laziness of flash fiction. By its nature, flash fiction is minimalist: it shows more than it tells, and hints at more than it shows. In this way it is a contraction of a traditional story; it strips away the unnecessary and leaves us with just the essentials.

There are very few exciting scenes in these fragments. All the major events have passed and we are left in the limbo of everyday life. Many stories take place in trains or cars or planes: the characters are always going to some vague destination. They are on business trips, where they eat alone in restaurants (one gets used to eating alone in restaurants). But there is joy and wonder to be found in this boredom of life: if they had not done such and such seemingly inconsequential thing, they would not have witnessed this common yet special event. What follows is the thought of all these events occurring right now that one will never see or experience. It’s what life is made of, these little moments, and they should be cherished.

But reading these ephemeral moments might leave you feeling unsatisfied. The stories can pass through your mind and leave little to no impression, and you might find yourself reading through the book too quickly because of the length of the stories. Well, that’s how it was for me anyway. More attentive readers might find much more in this book than I could. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it, but maybe I need to read a bit more of Davis’ stuff to begin to fully appreciate her.


Recommended for those who enjoy: short short stories, minimalism, everyday insights.