Reviewed: Flannery O’Connor, The Complete Stories, Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Phuong had seen the film [Gone with the Wind] on a pirated videotape, and was seduced immediately by the glamour, beauty, and sadness of Scarlett O’Hara, heroine and embodiment of a doomed South. Was it too much to suppose that the ruined Confederacy, with its tragic sense of itself, bore more than a passing similarity to her father’s defeated southern Republic and its resentful remnants?
—Viet Thanh Nguyen, ‘Fatherland’, The Refugees
According to Flannery O’Connor, losing the American Civil War was the best thing to happen to writers in the United States’ South. In the essay ‘The Regional Writer’ (1963), she writes:
[W]e have had our Fall. We have gone into the modern world with an inburnt knowledge of human limitations and with a sense of mystery which could not have developed in our first state of innocence—as it has not sufficiently developed in the rest of the country.
An Irish Catholic, O’Connor alludes to the Fall of Man in speaking of White Southerners’ loss of innocence after the Civil War. This is not ‘innocence’ purely in a criminal sense; as in the Fall, this is akin to a state of blissful ignorance. Across The Complete Stories, O’Connor crushes the myth of a beautiful, peaceful antebellum South as her White characters reckon with the brutality of White supremacy, chattel slavery and class suppression that built it. Innocence coupled with power is insidious, and the only remedy is the truth.
The collection arranges stories by publication date, and its opener, ‘The Geranium’ (1946), establishes the complex character work foundational to her later, more mature writing. Told from the perspective of Old Dudley, an elderly White man who moves from Georgia to New York to live with his daughter, the story oscillates between his comforting past and the alienating present. In New York he’s largely confined to his daughter’s apartment, a claustrophobic space where ‘[t]here was no place to be where there wasn’t somebody else’. In contrast, ‘At home there was upstairs and the basement and the river and downtown in front of Fraziers’, with O’Connor using the concept of space as a stand-in for Old Dudley’s agency. It is a classic trope—a country bumpkin out of their depth in the city—and through this O’Connor sets up Dudley as a familiar if not guileless figure.
But Dudley’s memories of Georgia revolve almost entirely around Black people. The only other named characters are Rabie and Lutisha, Black workers of the boarding house in which Dudley previously resided. He recounts much of his time with Rabie in particular, which involved coercing him into hunting trips:
‘We ain’t gonna go huntin’ no ’possum tonight, is we, boss? I got a lil’ business I wants tuh tend tuh,’ he’d say when Old Dudley would start talking about hounds and guns. ‘Whose chickens you gonna steal tonight?’ Dudley would grin. ‘I reckon I be huntin’ ’possum tonight,’ Rabie’d sigh.
For Dudley, this is playful banter because—not in spite—of its racial underpinnings. In his recollections of the Black people he knew in the South, what he misses is not the people but his power over them as a White man. New York intimidates him, but ‘[i]f he could have showed it to Rabie, it wouldn’t have been so big—he wouldn’t have felt pressed down every time he went out in it. “It ain’t so big,” he would have said. “Don’t let it get you down, Rabie. It’s just like any other city and cities ain’t all that complicated.”’
O’Connor uses Dudley’s character effectively, showing how integral Black people are to White identity, whether on an economic or an existential level. She transforms what might be a run-of-the-mill, country-meets-city story into an unambiguous portrayal of nostalgia for quotidian White supremacy. Dudley remains out of his depth in New York. As he returns from running an errand, he gets caught up in a memory, physically re-enacting hunting with Rabie. An amused Black man snaps him out of it: ‘“What are you hunting, old-timer?” the Negro asked in a voice that sounded like a n[—]’s laugh and a white man’s sneer.’
For Dudley, who previously judged Black people without scrutiny (‘Rabie didn’t like ‘possum hunting … he was mostly a water n[—]’; ‘N[—]s don’t think they’re dressed up till they got on glasses’; ‘Lutish had a fondness for sashes. Most n[—]s did’), the realisation that he is being patronised by a Black man is shocking. O’Connor argues that White identity is the shamelessness afforded by White power, bolstered by an innocence to Black perception. It’s reminiscent of the words of the late Toni Morrison from a 2012 interview with Charlie Rose: ‘What are you without racism? Are you any good? Are you still strong, still smart, you still like yourself?’
• • •
A light truck cuts in front of us as I’m approaching the red lights at the turnoff onto the M4. My headlights dissolve into its decal, an Australian flag behind a downcast, pink-faced soldier. The bottom of the left door reads ‘Lest We Forget’ and on the right ‘Proudly Australian’.
I punch the steering wheel and shout, ‘Indicator, idiot!’
‘Stay calm,’ Mum says from the passenger seat. ‘Then you can use quick eyes and quick hands.’
Her dollar-store perfume is all top notes, artificial green apple and frangipani festering in the migraine around my eyes. My jaw’s clenched. I reply in broken Vietnamese, ‘Give child angry. Easy than like that.’
Lights turn green. Truck doesn’t budge. Slam my fist against the horn. Lights flash yellow. Truck crawls onto the motorway. Red again. The sky is raw denim, but this day’s already a loss.
Not even a half-hour ago, Mum shook me awake and asked how to get to Bondi Beach. I told her and went back to sleep. She woke me again and said, ‘So I change at Town Hall for Bondi Junction, and then catch which bus again? Oh, never mind, I’ll figure it out. Sleep well.’
I sighed. Trains didn’t go to the city this early. Told her I’d drive. To the station? No, you’ll just get lost. Last Samurai cunts with all of two Asian mates make out like filial piety’s a big thing, but how else would anyone respond to these levels of martyrdom?
We hit the silver bitumen of the M4. I let out a deep breath. Movement.
‘This is the first time they’re letting Vietnamese soldiers stand with the ANZACs,’ Mum says. ‘Finally, they see that we fought those communist dogs, too. Ninety-four million! One thousand, nine hundred and seventy-five! Do you know what those numbers represent?’
• • •
Where Dudley is feeble in New York, O’Connor’s later work feature White characters comfortably in power in the South. In ‘Everything that Rises Must Converge’ (1961), the White college-educated narrator Julian loathes his dependence on his racist mother. When they catch the bus, he sits next to a Black man to spite her, noting her reaction:
Her feet in little pumps dangled like a child’s and did not quite reach the floor. She was training on him an exaggerated look of reproach … At that moment he could with pleasure have slapped her as he would have slapped a particularly obnoxious child in his charge.
O’Connor’s simile (‘like a child’) illustrates Julian’s condescension towards his mum’s regressive views on race, which she frames as an innocent helplessness. But this is an innocence protected by and protecting White supremacy. When a Black woman and child, Carver, get on the bus, Julian’s mother expresses her adoration of Carver to his mother:
‘I think he likes me,’ Julian’s mother said, and smiled at the woman. It was the smile she used when she was being particularly gracious to an inferior … Julian could feel the rage in [the Black woman] at having no weapon like his mother’s smile.
In her smile is a superficial benevolence so tactical and hurtful it is like a ‘weapon’. This is in line with what Matthew Day in Flannery O’Connor and the Southern Code of Manners (2001) frames as grace, where ‘a good woman—a graceful woman—is one who has cultivated an unflappable sense of propriety and decency’. Yet, as Day argues, she—among the other White women in O’Connor’s stories—is too preoccupied with looking graceful truly to practise it: ‘the sense of grace as attention to the markers of style and decorum has left no room for her substantive, theological understanding of grace as love, charity and forgiveness’. By revealing how Southern hospitality, as a social code, conceals and enacts White power through pleasantries, O’Connor shows that these racist structures exist to afford the privileged plausible deniability.
O’Connor’s depiction of racism is remarkable. In her worlds, racism is not the product of illiteracy in a conventional sense; if anything, only a high degree of social literacy could weaponise the power dynamics lurking beneath everyday interactions. At the end of the story, Julian’s mother gives Carver a penny. As Hilton Als notes in the essay ‘This Lonesome Place’ (2001), Julian’s mother is ‘the nice lady on the bus who calls you “n[—]” by offering your child a penny’. Carver’s mother sees this for the insult that it is and, in response, hits Julian’s mother, concussing her. Julian’s mother is knocked back to her childhood, where White power protected her from Black pain. It’s an ending both tragic and satisfying.
• • •
My mother interrupts my concentration: ‘… reading and writing so much, maybe you can study law. Your cousin works for the WA premier. And in America, Tony Pham was personally chosen by President Trump.’
The tunnel ahead glows orange. ‘Mum,’ I say in English, voice growing louder with each word. ‘Not now. Please.’
‘I’m just saying maybe you’d like to think about the future.’
She’s one to talk. All this Trump shit because she and her friends can’t get over some war their stillborn country lost 50 years ago. Now they want to fuck over everybody else with some chest-thumping fuckwit because he can scream ‘America’ the loudest. Reminds them to be grateful for the time a world superpower ate shit against some armed peasants. I sigh through gritted teeth. Maybe she doesn’t know he’s deporting Viets.
‘Old man Trump throw away which visa of that people Vietnamese live in country America,’ I respond. ‘Ten thousand people. That people before 1991. If Mum live in country America, old man Trump and guy Scott throw away Mum too there.’
I speak Vietnamese like a three-year-old, ever since she pulled me out of LOTE in Year 2. The teacher had gotten us to make Vietnam’s flag out of cardboard. It turned out to be the wrong one—a star, not stripes. Mum cracked the shits at her after school.
She wags a finger at me. ‘Ah! Their government is only kicking out all the Vietnamese people who are criminals or communists. If you ask me, they should do the same here. Your thinking’—she says ‘thinking’ in English—‘is small because you don’t know the world like I do. Maybe when you’re 30, we can talk.’
My therapist said I should breathe deep and count five sounds, sensations, or sights if I was ever overwhelmed. Mum’s rancid perfume shoots up my nose and stabs outwards from between my eyes. Man, when I’m 30, I’m just going to speak Vietnamese like a two-year-old. And Mum’s still gonna laugh about it to her friends, like I can’t hear her bellowing into the microphone every night in her chatrooms tepid with ex-soldiers and grifters and—
‘Fucking hell,’ I yell. ‘Stop.’
‘What is wrong with you?’ she mutters.
• • •
Old Dudley and Julian’s mother are products of their time, comfortably if unwittingly racist. But good intentions are not enough. In ‘The Enduring Chill’ (1958), Asbury is a 25-year-old White writer in the depths of illness, seeking to inflict as much misery on his family before what he hopes is a poetic death. Bedbound, he reminisces about the year before, when he worked on his mother’s dairy farm with her Black employees, Morgan and Randall. O’Connor is subtle in alluding to their working conditions under White supremacy: when talking to Asbury, they avoid direct eye contact ‘as if they were speaking to an invisible body located to the right or left of where he actually was’. Asbury interprets this as a lack of rapport.
Desperate for their approval, Asbury pours himself a glass of milk and drinks it. He pours another and offers it to Randall: ‘[T]he world is changing. There’s no reason I shouldn’t drink after you or you after me!’ Randall and Morgan turn him down, citing his mother’s rules: ‘That the thing she don’t ’low.’ Asbury believes that their fear of his mother is so ingrained that they cannot liberate themselves.
There’s a real pleasure to observing O’Connor’s story structures, and in ‘The Enduring Chill’, Asbury’s naivety comes full circle. His illness is revealed to be undulant fever, and his mother speculates that he must have gotten it from drinking unpasteurised milk. Although O’Connor’s earlier stories are radical in unmasking White supremacy, the metaphor in this one betrays something closer to her unease with racial integration—Asbury attempts to bring non-Southern racial relations home, but it only leaves him with a lifelong illness. Things work differently in the South, a fact that both enriches and limits O’Connor’s work. Ruthless in dressing down the White Southern world she knows and tactful in depicting the opacity of the Black world she can only imagine, O’Connor’s stories are so thoroughly immersed in her present that it’s easy to overlook their hostility to any kind of future.
• • •
Bondi is a hellhole of smug pricks and overpriced groceries. The sky, lightening now, shines off the Audis, Subarus, and Kombis that fill every parking spot. A mass of people spills from North Bondi RSL onto the grass and sand.
Mum is coordinating with a friend on the phone as I drive down Campbell Parade. We pass a small stone footbridge, where Viets in berets and fatigues that billow at the chest rise above a crowd of South Vietnam’s 3-que—red stripes running across yellow beanies, tracksuits and flags. This is standing with the Anzacs? We might as well be in Gallipoli.
‘Here!’ Mum cries, unbuckling her seatbelt.
Quadruple headlights flash in my rear-view. I’m not stopping in the bus lane. ‘I’ll be fast,’ she says, flicking the door handle. ‘Come on, quick eyes, quick hands!’
I indicate, swerve to the kerb, and stomp on the brakes. Hollow thud on the dashboard. Bus wheezes to a stop. I turn to Mum. She’s slumped over: one eye dark staring at me, the other glazed, reflecting gold and lavender dawn clouds.
‘Mum?’ I shake her gently. The clouds in her eyes darken. The bus belches its horn. I punch the hazard light, look around. Mum wheezes, her head still. From the bridge hobble the silhouettes of soldiers in too-big uniforms, their shadows stretching towards us. •
Stephen Pham is a Vietnamese-Australian writer from Cabramatta. His writing has appeared in Meanjin, Griffith Review, Overland and Sydney Review of Books.