Friday, April 20, 2012

A Good Man Is Hard To Find and Other Stories, by Flannery O'Connor

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Every major character in a story should always want or need something. That's what stories are, right? A person starts off in one position, has a desire or a requirement to change that position, struggles to do so, and either succeeds (Star Wars) or fails (The Empire Strikes Back, or you know, Hamlet.) Sometimes the desires are revolutionary, sometimes they are trivial; Kurt Vonnegut famously advised (I'm paraphrasing from here) that every character should want something, even if it's just a glass of water.

And you know what? I think it's tougher to write that good story about a glass of water than to write the one about a murdered king-father or an oppressive other-galactic empire. Because the story isn't about walking into the kitchen and getting a glass of water -- it's about the obstacles a character has to face in order to accomplish that task. Big problems are somehow easier to conjure and then to work with.

Which is why Flannery O'Connor's stories are so impressive and so deceptively enjoyable. They seem so simple on so many levels -- a woman's just going upstairs, an annoying grandma just makes her family take a wrong turn on their road trip. But her characters have so many tumultuous folds that no simple task can be smooth sailing.

If it's true that the short story is coming back in vogue, what with all the talk of short attention spans and demands on our time (to which I normally say "bull honky," because I think we can all make time for more reading if we really want to, but that's another post, another day), then the least we can do is read stories as rich and as unsettling and as provocative as these.

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