Peacocks, crutches, a Byzantine Christ: when we think of Flannery O’Connor, whose dark, Bible Belt American brilliance surpasses William Faulkner’s, we need things on which to peg our thinking. Flannery herself hardly seems to exist at all. Her life, as any reader of Brad Gooch’s recent, measured biography will tell you, is short on dramatic incident: no sojourns on other continents; no sex to speak of; no alcoholism or addiction; no mental breakdowns. In short, all the standard fare you might expect in a mid-century writer’s life-history (think Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, John Berryman etc) is conspicuous by its absence. In its stead is a relatively brief narrative comprising three main strands: aesthetic endeavour (or should I say struggle); the fight against Lupus, the auto-immune illness that killed her, aged 39; and her methodical and theologically driven Catholicism, always symbolized for me by the tattoo of a Byzantine Christ her character Parker decides to have etched on his back, like a giant stigmata-cum-icon, in her late, masterly story ‘Parker’s Back.’ Peacocks, crutches, and Christ; the emblems of a life.
Not much to go on, perhaps. But from those meagre materials came the peacock beauty of her first novel, Wise Blood. A weird perfection radiates from every page. Nothing about the protagonist, Hazel Motes, usually referred to as Haze, fits together. Nothing is likeable. He is emotionally skewered and skewed; a loveless old man in a twentysomething body. Yet I dare anyone to look away from the sour spectacle he presents. We stare at him, like gawping children, from the first page to the last. This is how O’Connor introduces Motes in the opening paragraph of her novel.
Hazel Motes sat at a forward angle on the green plush train seat, looking one minute at the window as if he might want to jump out of it, and the next down the aisle at the other end of the car. The train was racing through tree tops that fell away at intervals and showed the sun standing, very red, on the farthest edge of the woods. Nearer, the plowed fields curved and faded and the few hogs nosing in the furrows looked like large spotted stones. Mrs Wally Bee Hitchcock, who was facing Motes in the section, said that she thought the early evening like this was the prettiest time of day and she asked him if he didn’t think so too. She was a fat woman with pink collars and cuffs and pear-shaped legs that slanted off the train seat and didn’t reach the floor.
Humour, beauty, sexual disgust and suicidal despair are all in the lovely, fluid onrush of prose. Above all, there is movement. Read O’Connor and you wade into a river, where the writing feels as if it has the molecular structure of water. And like water, her prose has the ability to absorb all the taints and tints of the glorious, brutal world she describes. It happens through her knack of seeing every element as if contained within every other element. The trees seem to move away and not the train. The hogs are stones, the fat woman’s legs are pears, and later in the chapter Haze is described as having a nose ‘like a shrike’s bill.’ Haze is a bird-man, but with eyes ‘the color of pecan shells,’ he is food and hardness and emptiness too. His suit is alive and electric with anger, a ‘glaring blue’, but with the price tag ‘still stapled on the sleeve of it’ he seems like a beast going off to market or a slave or a mannequin. He is botched, odious and oddly beautiful.
O’Connor is like this. What Keats would have called her ‘poetical character’ is so complete that not only does her personality seem to have vanished into her work, the Thomist theology which fuelled her prose is also consumed within it, leaving no trace. Like Elizabeth Bishop’s iceberg, ‘it saves itself perpetually,’ cutting its facets from within. Parker cannot see his tattoo of Christ without the use of two mirrors, and the tattooist forces him to look at the bloody, newly-etched image. In this moment, art and deity are indistinguishable and become a burden and an affliction. For Flannery O’Connor, the skin and the flesh see and bear as much as the eye.