WISE BLOOD BY FLANNERY O’CONNOR

I read this again over the last two days partly because I hoped it would help me to figure it out. I needn’t have bothered. Not because the book is bad, or because it isn’t worth reading numerous times for sheer enjoyment of the characters, the plot and the prose, but because I will never completely figure this thing out. Wise Blood, for me, is like Sci-fi; Hazel Motes and Enoch Emery, the two boys at the heart of the novel, might as well be from another planet, so alien to me are their thought processes and preoccupations. Perhaps that is part of why I love the Southern Gothic genre, because the motivations and the ideas behind the best works are so outside of my experience that it is like a holiday from myself. You’ve probably noticed from my reviews that a lot of my reading leads back to me; I’m completely self-obsessed, I guess, but then I don’t know how to work with texts other than to try and link them to my experience of the world. That isn’t something I could ever, with complete success, do here.

This is not to say, of course, that the book is unintelligible, even re: Motes, the stupendously odd central character. On one level Hazel is your archetypal mixed-up kid, railing against the world. He’s a brooding anti-hero; a Brando, a Dean. At the beginning of the novel, with the suggestion that he is returning from the army – a regimented, brutal occupation – I felt as though I was on familiar, comfortable ground. Kid comes out of the army, takes out his resentment and despair on the world. Gotcha, Flannery. But then we’re told about the grandfather who had Jesus in him like a stinger and one starts to connect that with Motes telling one woman that he wouldn’t believe in Jesus even if He existed. Is Wise Blood a novel about upbringing, about how one might try, and yet cannot, so to speak, throw off the shawl placed upon your shoulders by your family? Is this a novel about how, to paraphrase Larkin, they fuck you up, your Mum and Dad [and your religion]? Yeah, to a certain extent. You could call Motes A Rebel Without A Faith, but, truly, it isn’t that straightforward. Motes has faith, it seems to me, otherwise he wouldn’t be so obsessed with the shyster preacher he meets and he wouldn’t talk of Jesus as though he accepts his existence. Wise Blood may be then about the battle for the soul; the pull of atheism, or sin, but the need for Christ. I dunno.

So, um, religion, huh? There’s probably little more likely to turn people away from a book than religion. I see in my personal life, that as soon as anyone speaks about faith or belief in God or whatever that people immediately start to shift uncomfortably in their seat, and sometimes even become quite aggressive. Now, I am not religious at all, nor are any members of my family. But I do find religious belief fascinating, so perhaps I was still primed to get a kick out of this book; on that basis, me recommending Wise Blood will not convince those who squirm at the mention of anything holy, those, and there are plenty of them, for whom Christianity, Catholicism etc are anathema.

I have tried to explain what I think are the universal aspects of the novel – the way that your upbringing affects you throughout your life, how what you are taught, what you see in childhood still lingers into adulthood – but there simply is no getting away from the fact that Wise Blood is a religiously-focussed novel, and O’Connor a Catholic writer. I spoke about getting the book at the start of my review, and it is that stuff, redemption and sin and so on, that eludes me; all that just cannot fully resonate with me. Motes’ and Enoch’s journeys are spiritual ones, they are searching for something, although it isn’t always clear what. Motes is surrounded by conmen, hypocrites, crims, and jezebels. That, that questing for truth and place, is a universal idea. Most people, young people, can relate to that. In a way Wise Blood is a darker, more intense version of Catcher in the Rye. One crucial difference between the books, however, is that I wasn’t ever sure whose side O’Connor was on, if anyone’s.

However, if you can get over all that stuff there’s so much to appreciate, to love. Most people seem to believe that O’Connor’s stories are the highpoint of her output, and while I do rate them [I’d place Wise Blood on par with the Everything That Rises collection as the best things she published], I think that her prose is at its best here. Her imagery, in particular, is almost peerless. I’ve already mentioned the stinger line, which is a brilliant simile, but my favourite is the description of Jesus as moving from tree to tree in the back of his mind, a wild ragged figure motioning him to turn around and come off into the dark where he might be walking on the water and not know it and then suddenly know it and drown. That’s one of my favourite pieces of writing in anything, ever.

Wise Blood is funny too. I’m not saying you’ll piss your pants, but you might chuckle like a dickhead. I did. O’Conner’s humour is sardonic and cutting and deadpan and satirical; she’s like Jane Austen with PMS.There are plenty of lines that amuse, like when Mrs Hitchcock tells Motes that times goes so fast you can’t tell if you’re young or old and Flannery writes he [Motes] could tell her she was old if she asked him, but I particularly enjoyed Motes’ church, the Church Without Christ. I dunno about you, but the idea of someone setting up a church to preach against Christ is pretty fucking funny to me. The book is, also, thrillingly bonkers. I mean, seriously, it’s completely bats. I find craziness in art funny, and I think you’re meant to a lot of the time, but even if you don’t I’m guessing most of you enjoy a bit of grotesque mind-fuckery; if so, there is plenty of super-weird stuff to goose you in Wise Blood. Such as? Oh, random murder, self-mutilation, stealing a mummy from a museum…that kind of shit. And that ending? Boy. An eye for an eye, indeed.

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9 comments

      1. I read it last year. I was taking part in a reading-and-writing workshop with a publisher and everyone said it was wonderful. They said O’Connor was absolutely to put on my to-be-read list. Ok. So I read it and was quite perplexed. Wonderfully written but not my kind of novel. I loved the language and above all the use of the metaphor but couldn’t feel involved.

      2. You might not like Wise Blood either then, as it is similar-ish, just more sophisticated. You might like her stories though, those aren’t all quite as dark and oppressive.

      3. Yes, probably. I am not a religious person but would be attracted by books about the religious experience. I thought O’Connor was about this but it would be more correct to say that she puts her philosophical system and her belief into literature. This is a bit less attractive for me.

      4. To be honest, I don’t know what she was trying to say half the time. If her stuff is pro-Catholicism as some claim then it doesn’t read that way. I dunno. I just think she was a very great writer. Tolstoy wrote some utter guff about religion as well.

      5. I’m not sure about that. I think it’s about the battle between atheism and religious belief, about how faith isn’t like a coat that you can take off and put on at will.

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