Hello readers and welcome to the final installment of this portion of the 2018 Reading List. Last time I read a recommendation from my editor, David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars. This time I took on another recommendation from a co-worker: Flannery O’Connor and her stunning 1952 debut novel Wise Blood.
This was without a doubt the weirdest and darkest novel I have read this year, but I would also say by far one of the best. The tale of Hazel Motes and his attempt at building a church of “Christ Without Christ” is a compelling look at religion and how it affects people. Finally escaping the clutches of a deeply religious family myself, I found the narrative to be a stinging critique of all types of belief, and a demented rumination on blindness, swaying people, the notion of “destiny” and many other things. I don’t want to give too much more of the plot away (such as it is) so let’s hit the two major lessons I feel writers can gain from this work.
Use of language. Upon beginning these reading experiments, I naively considered Faulkner the voice of the “Southern American” literary tradition. But O’Connor is far and away the master, deftly weaving in colloquialisms, the best portmanteaus this side of Cormac McCarthy (“listenhere,” “theter,” “thisyer”), weird situations (a man in a gorilla suit shaking hands with children in front of a movie theater) and tons of oblique references to religion and the way it undermines people. In the simple way the language flows, O’Connor makes you care very little that we don’t know the background of these characters or what their motivations even are. That’s how phenomenal the writing is throughout the entire novel, which seems to end on a fairly depressing note, but that may depend on your interpretation.
Using the novel to talk about religion. This is ostensibly the novel’s greatest strength, and yet even the main character struggles with the concept throughout the work. Hazel Motes is the son of a traveling preacher who then becomes a traveler in his own regard, preaching against religion. This gets him tangled up with a not-blind blind man who works crowds for money with a young woman, a false “preacher” who uses his own version of Motes to fleece crowds, and various other sordid characters. All the while he considers what he is doing and why, and when attempting to go to another city gets his car wrecked by a policeman. I wish I could say there was a unifying religious theme connecting all of this, but the writing was so understated and bizarre that I don’t feel comfortable stating anything specific.
I can’t say much else but to fully recommend this book to anyone who wants to read a writer who was clearly a master of her craft, and a true heir to the southern tradition. Faulkner was great and spoke for a certain class of people, but it’s O’Connor’s bleak view of humanity that really resonated with me. This is one novel that I will be pondering over for a long time.
Up next, I’m mixing up the way I’m doing the Reading List. First it feels appropriate to read some James Baldwin, an author I’m tragically embarrassed to say I’ve never read. First up will be his essay The Fire Next Time, then I will pivot to his second novel Giovanni’s Room. After that I’m going to be taking on a different type of literature, so stay tuned. And thanks for reading and writing.
Hello readers and welcome to another installment of the 2018 Reading List! Last time I took a first look at Joyce Carol Oates, this time I’m catching up with a recommendation my editor gave me around the time I started this as an experiment. That would be David Guterson’s stunning 1994 novel Snow Falling on Cedars. This tale of love, loss, and small-island prejudice was the first novel for Guterson and according to Wikipedia took him ten years to write. This shows immensely through the writing, and I want to take a close look at what I considered the two major lessons of this book.
Use of framing. Guterson uses the courtroom on the island where the story is set to launch into the personal narratives of all the characters. When the plot focuses on the murder trial of a Japanese-American man (accused of killing a white fisherman), it stays with the lawyers as they aggressively cross-examine witnesses, asking multiple versions of the same question. Guterson captures this very well and uses it to ensure we get a good understanding of the facts. But it’s when he uses the witnesses to delve back in time that the writing really shines, as we get to experience the story from their perspectives. This is a master class in framing one part of a story in order to tell another, deeper one.
Use of identity. In a novel that wades through many dark themes (racism, war, murder) it is the concept of “identity” that ties everything together. Two of the main characters fall in love but cannot be together due to the perceived difference in their ethnicities, and there is much discussion and consideration over identity. Years later, this causes an unfortunate ethical dilemma for one of them, and Guterson writes this so well I wasn’t sure up until the very end what the newspaperman would actually do. This notion is also apparent more broadly in how the islanders see the Japanese-American citizens among them, before and after they are detained in internment camps.
I felt this was an important book to read right now, in light of the obscene nationalism that has gripped our body politic. It is important to remember similar rhetoric to that which we are hearing today led in the past to mass incarceration of persons based upon their race. It was wrong then, and remains abhorrent today. Guterson does an amazing job showing how the torment of war and death divide a small community struggling to adjust with a world war, and how the most base prejudice could lead to an innocent man being put to death. I would definitely recommend this novel to anyone looking to understand either the past or present moments. It’s a masterpiece in terms of construction.
Up next, I’m going back again to the recommendations from my co-worker of modern literary women and hit an author I’ve been wanting to get to for years: Flannery O'Connor and her novel Wise Blood. I also hope to get some kind of post done on the editing process, and another more reflective one by end of summer on writing itself.
Thanks as always for reading and writing, and happy summer!
John Abraham-Watne is an author and freelance journalist located in the Twin Cities, where he lives with his wife Mary and their two cats. This blog is his attempt to catalog all the events that culminate a local writer's life.