Reading F. O’Connor is a disturbing and slightly terrifying experience. It’s a lot like wandering through a carnival where all the freaks, clowns, bearded ladies and sword swallowers look even more ghoulish than they ordinarily do. When a new character is introduced in Wise Blood, even a minor one, I often cringe. The very sight of them is disgusting, like shredded carrion with a pulse or a twitching lip. It’s not that they’re ugly, which they very often are. Nor that they lack any of the customary social graces, which they almost always do. It’s that there’s something fundamentally inscrutable about them. This isn’t by accident, either.
In Kafka’s fiction, by way of contrast, an aggrieved consciousness confronts an external world that doesn’t make sense, be it a bureaucracy or one’s newly hatched condition as an insect. The aggrieved consciousness is largely intact, however. Not so in O’Connor’s world, where the interior dimension of her characters’ lives is profoundly unhinged, misaligned, broken. They stagger across the pages like obscenities to common sense.
“Eyes like bullet holes”
O’Connor sustains an eerie mood with demented little touches. Black clothing is common; people drive “high rat-colored cars”; faces have expressionless eyes and sharp, dirty teeth. To heighten the sense of isolation and loneliness, characters talk over, around and through each other without ever really exchanging thoughts and feelings. Wavering shadows in the streets or reflections in glass or storefront windows might mingle, but people rarely do.
Because O’Connor’s project is one of heresy and blasphemy, she HAS TO traffic in ugliness. Her literary techniques MUST glorify this chief end. She has no choice. In many respects, O’Connor is like Nietzsche, at least the Nietzsche in The Twilight of the Idols. Suppose Nietzsche is correct and the body is the manifestation of one’s soul. Then Socrates’ ugliness has a spiritual cause, and if Socrates is as ugly as a pig, then it’s not at all surprising that O’Connor’s characters are, too.
A tilted wacky world
Although Nietzsche wins cheap laughs with a funny ad hominem at Socrates’ expense, O’Connor is deadly serious about the derangement of subjectivity and the torments of interior life. She dramatizes this by presenting characters who are not only ugly but whose beliefs and actions are systematically unhinged. Objective appearances and subjective realities are torn apart. Hazel Motes is an atheist who is a theist and blinds himself with lye and walks with barbed wire around his chest and shards of glass in his shoes; a blind evangelical preacher is a sighted crackpot; an innocent girl is a sexually precocious freak gone wild; and a scam artist is an earnest but lapsed Christian who confesses his sins right before he dies at Hazel’s hands for not being “true.”
A broken human being kills another broken human being. One is tempted to see in homicide a crime. But in O’Connor’s fiction, murder pales in comparison to a more basic and fundamental crime. Namely, being “guilty of the sin before sin.” Presumably this is the guilt of mere existence. Remediation of this disease goes well beyond the powers of any author, whether of words, deeds or worlds.
Compared to O’Connor’s universe, Kafka’s is downright homey.