For pure, devastating, comic brilliance and originality she stands quite alone in America - except perhaps for Nathanael West. Both of these writers maintain incredible distance in their work, both explode the reality around us into meaningful new patterns, both treat disability and inadequacy and hypocrisy with brutal humor, both of them deal fiercely with paradox and use deceptively simple language in such a way as to achieve fantastic verbal surprise and remarkable poetic expression.
She's an extraordinary woman with what I like to think of as a demonic sensibility. I've been trying to persuade Flannery O'Connor that as a writer she's on the devil's side. Her answer is that my idea of the devil corresponds to her idea of God. I must admit that I resist this equation. Certainly in her two great short stories, "A Good Man is Hard to Find," and "The Life You Save May Be Your Own," as well as in her brilliant first novel, Wise Blood, it's the unwavering accuracy and diabolism of her satiric impulse that impresses me most.
Regular readers of this blog will know I have a love/hate relationship with Flannery O’Connor. She is an astoundingly good writer, and the way she uses humour to describe brutality is nothing short of amazing. Cormac McCarthy’s use of humour is similar, but even he cannot combine the comic and the horrific in quite the way O’Connor achieves.
But to what end? This has always been my difficulty with Flannery O’Connor. The violence she wreaks on her characters in the name of her God is so extreme I have tremendous difficulty identifying anything remotely Christian in it. This is perhaps explained by her observation, as reported by Hawkes here, that his conception of the devil corresponds to her God. There is an awesome darkness to this vision of Christianity, as evidenced by the gruesome self-abuse of Haze Motes and his eventual, miserable death, or by the buggery of Tarwater by the Devil, an act which leads directly to his redemption. Redemption through rape? A Christian ideal? Really?
I fully accept that what I am doing is surveying O’Connor’s profoundly held and theologically reasoned position from a shallow perspective. In terms of both literary criticism – in which I am being too literal – and theological debate – in which I could not hope to match O’Connor’s erudition – I am projecting too much of my own beliefs onto an analysis of her work. But it is hard not to. O’Connor’s vision of humanity is of a broken, flawed, failed community helpless before God and hopeless in its earthly dealings. She deals such a rigged hand there is no prospect of success. And her vision of God appears to owe much to the Old Testament. There is a brutality to it that I can’t and wouldn’t want to accept. For sure, there is evil in the world. But there is also goodness.