Thursday, 26 June 2014

The Violent Bear It Away by Flannery O'Connor

This little book very nearly blew me away. I say very nearly, because there's one incident right near the end that upset my own sensibilities - but more than that, I've been mulling it over, and I can't for the life of me figure out what it adds. Except for that, though, this is an astounding look at obsessive faith - in religion, in rationality. About those who who cannot allow for nuance, for degrees, for any amount of doubt, for it would shake their self-knowledge to the core and possibly kill them. Take the schoolteacher, and the fear he has of his love for his son, because that love could shake his intense faith in rationality.

Much of the rest of the family has put their extreme faith in God - or at least, the crazy old uncle who considers himself a prophet, kidnapped the schoolteacher and baptized him when a child, then came back and kidnapped the next generation to baptize him, and ended up raising him.

That third generation, Tarwater, after the death of the man who raised him, fights against his destiny to come back and baptize the child of the schoolteacher, and thus take up the mantle of obsessive testifying and religion. There's a voice in his ear - whose it is, I leave you to decide.

This struggle between the generations, between a man and his soul, or the simple struggle to negotiate foreign worlds or to walk familiar paths - O'Connor's writing is gorgeous and compelling and absolutely impossible to look away from.

But because this is so much internal, so much focused on Rayber, the schoolteacher, and Tarwater, the nephew, and their interactions and battle for supremacy, not so much of ideology but just of simple will, the book has a hypnotic element, and you watch things go down paths that can't possibly turn out well, no matter what happens. But I think it is best when the focus is maintained on that struggle, and so much of the book is that.

And then the part I have an issue with, what seems completely arbitrary, and what's more, unnecessary, homosexual rape. I don't get what it adds. Tarwater is already on a collision course for his destiny, and this little section completely pulled me out of that inexorable path and into bewilderment. It doesn't amp things up for him, it distracts. Plus, it requires a belief that gay men (with lavender eyes and sweaters, no less) are cruising around the backroads with drugged whiskey, looking for young male hitchhikers to pick up, drug, and rape. The homophobia of that bothers me extremely. And the way that it detracts from the thrust of the story makes it so superfluous.

I don't get it, I probably won't ever, and I am sad, because it was the one moment that felt entirely wrong in a novel of perfectly intense and tight-knit inevitabilities of violence and horror.


  1. The key to the incident at the end of the book is Old Tarwater's admonition: "You are the kind of boy," the old man said, "that the devil is always going to be offering to assist, to give you a smoke or a drink or a ride, and to ask you your bidnis. You had better mind how you take up with strangers. And keep your bidnis to yourself."

    The man in lavender is the physical manifestation of The Voice. He is the devil.

    1. You may indeed be right, but that would actually make me like it *less*, conflating homosexuality with the actual Devil.