I haven’t read anything by Jim Shepard but man, that’s going to change. His seasonally appropriate rumination on Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” that appeared on The Atlantic last week is just so deeply encouraging. He articulates O’Connor’s crucial insight about how/why people change with such humility and precision, i.e the notion that conversions are not a one-time thing–far from it–but that that doesn’t make them any less real or good. His observation about the relative impotence of information is also pretty striking, both as it relates to life in general and literature in specific. To be honest, I may have to start pointing people toward it as an explanation for why we chose the name ‘Mockingbird’, ht NW:
When I first encountered “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” I read it the way many people do when they first encounter the story—a kind of social satire that veers over into random violence, plus a little spasm of hard-to-sort-through theology at the end. But when you spend more time with it, it becomes clear the story is a hugely powerful acting-out of a theme O’Connor said was crucial to her work: the action of grace in territory held largely by the devil.
Writers talk a lot about epiphanies—what O’Connor, in her Catholic tradition, called “grace”—in short stories. But I think we’re tyrannized by a misunderstanding of Joyce’s notion of the epiphany. That stories should toodle on their little track toward a moment where the characters understand something they didn’t understand before—and, at that moment, they’re transformed into better people.
You know: Suddenly Billy understood that his grandmother had always gone through a lot of difficult things, and he resolved he would never treat her that way again.
This kind of conversion notion is based on a very comforting idea—that if only we had sufficient information, we wouldn’t act badly. And that’s one of the great things about what The Misfit tells the Grandmother in the line I like so much. He’s not saying that a near-death experience would have turned her into a good woman. He’s saying it would take somebody threatening to shoot her every minute of her life.
In other words, these conversion experiences don’t stick—or they don’t stick for very long. Human beings have to be re-educated over and over and over again as we swim upstream against our own irrationalities.
(There’s a great line in Orson Welles’ film Citizen Kane, where one of the protagonist’s enemies says to him: “You’re going to need more than one lesson, Mr. Kane, and you’re going to get more than one lesson.”)
Now, O’Connor really believes that we can flood, momentarily, with the kind of grace that epiphany is supposed to represent. But I think she also believes that we’re essentially sinners. She’s saying: Don’t think for a moment that because you’ve had a brief instant of illumination, and you suddenly see yourself with clarity, that you’re not going to transgress two days down the road.
I find this idea enormously useful in my own work. My characters are all about gaining an understanding of the right thing to do—and avoiding it anyway. That sense that we can be in some ways geniuses of our own self-destruction runs, in some ways, counter to the more traditional notion of the epiphany—which tells us that stories are all about providing information to characters who badly need it. Epiphanies are, in some ways, staged and underimportant. But you still don’t want to write them off.