Joyce Carol Oates’s Sourland

Joyce Carol Oates got some great reviews for her most recent short story collection Sourland and was only doing one event to promote the book (as far as I could tell). Luckily, for me, the Sourland reading took place in New York, so I’m almost able to graduate to two hands when counting the times I’ve seen Joyce Carol Oates live. (I don’t count the time I passed by her at Bryant Park.) Since the last time I’ve seen her, her husband has died, and in Sourland, it seems that Oates is coming to terms with his unexpected death by mining the experience over and over again, covering aspects in her different short stories.

Many of the stories’ protagonists are widowed women who have unexpectedly lost their partners and are trying to figure out how to live, and most of the stories are about lost love. A couple of the widowed characters have to deal with the experience of probate court, which appears to be humiliating, justifying who you are and what you are entitled to based on how your relationship is documented on paper–marriage certificate, death certificate, etc. Another widow finds herself restricted to two rooms that she cannot avoid: the kitchen and the bedroom. The rest of her house has become ghost rooms because she can’t be in them without being haunted by memories of her husband. Love comes up again and again in these stories, especially how one in a relationship loves more and the other less.

My favorite story in the collection, though, stars a young woman who’s twenty-six years old and sports a pair of prosthetic legs. The best part about the character is how she flaunts her disability. Jane dreaded people’s stares as a child after the accident, but now she invites them, dressing up to show off her prostheses in short-short skirts and patterned tights. She wears these clothes like armor, announcing, “Here I am!”:

“On this windy April day I was wearing a pleated skirt made of cream-colored wool flannel, that resembled a high school cheerleader’s skirt, & I was wearing a crimson satin blouse with a V-neckline glittering with thin gold chains & small crystal beads, & if you dared to lean over, to peer at my legs, or what was meant to represent my “legs,” you would see the twin prostheses, shiny plastic artificial legs & steel pins & on my (small) feet eyelet stockings & black patent leather “ballerina slippers.”

“Amputee” reminds me so much of my favorite Flannery O’Connor story “Good Country People,” but Joyce Carol Oates goes much further than Flannery was able to. What Flannery hinted at–well, Oates fills in with lurid detail. And it’s ugly and beautiful.

Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor by Brad Gooch

Flannery O’Connor’s literary legacy was entrusted to her friends Robert and Sally Fitzgerald, and when the young writer Brad Gooch wrote Sally Fitzgerald about doing a biography on Flannery O’Connor, she responded politely that it was probably not a good idea, as she was writing a biography on O’Connor as well and there would be considerable overlap in their material. Gooch waited and waited for this biography to appear, but it never happened, and Sally Fitzgerald died in 2000, leaving behind an unfinished manuscript. So Gooch–a name I think O’Connor would appreciate–applied himself to the project, and the result is the first definitive biography Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor.

It is strange to have the nuts and bolts of Flannery O’Connor’s existence laid out in print after what I have envisioned her to be like, based on snippets I have heard throughout my life. This is my Flannery: A private old maid who did not drink and lived with her mother in Georgia. A woman obsessed with peacocks, who didn’t care what anybody thought of her, and often sewed clothes for her birds. A religious woman who used her powerful imagination to show God in the modern world, using freaks and unspeakable violence as her tools. An author so shy that she couldn’t bear to read her stories aloud while at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

This is Gooch’s Flannery: A woman who was silent when she nothing to say, but could be gregarious when surrounded by like minds. She planned a writer’s life on the East Coast until she became sick with lupus and had to return home to Georgia, where her mother could take of her. She was always a guy’s best gal pal and had her heart broken a few times. A woman who was the product of her times and collected racist jokes. She went to eat with her mother daily at the same restaurant, sitting at the same table, and her favorite dinner was fried shrimp. She sewed clothes for one of her chickens during college to avoid a hideous home economics project, where she was required to sew an outfit for herself. She liked rum. Her accent was so thick–they called her Flannel Mouth–that somebody else would have to read her stories out loud so they intelligible to other students. Her environment was narrow in Milledgeville, Georgia, and she used every scrap of her daily life in her her stories. (Her mother is set down true to life in "Greenleaf." The waiting room scene in "Judgment Day" comes from her own experiences in the doctor’s office.) She liked to watch TV and was a sports fan, especially enjoying football and stock car races.

Here’s my favorite bit from Gooch’s biography: Flannery hated photographs of herself so much (she said she had a "watermelon face") that she wanted her self-portrait with a peacock used for her author’s photo. Sadly, Harcourt wouldn’t cooperate with this request.

Flannery stripped of her mystique is still an admirable figure for me. Now, though, rather than imagining her as a prophet, I see her for what she really was: a writer, and a writer who worked damned hard at her craft, endlessly revising and polishing the gems that we have today.

Brotherhood of the Wolf directed by Christophe Gans

Brotherhood of the Wolf is one of my favorite movies, and I wanted to watch it again during my current research, though it’s not technically a werewolf movie. During the reign of King Louis XV, a small French village is terrorized by a wolflike creature, with steel fangs and a spiny back, that will eat man, woman, or child. Besides an army regiment, the king sends forth his naturalist Grégoire de Fronsac (Samuel Le Bihan), along with the man’s companion, an American Indian named Mani (Mark Dacascos). This all takes place before the French Revolution, but the conditions that lead to the revolution are played up in the movie.

The naturalist de Fronsac falls in quickly with the powerful and rich de Morangias family, enchanted by the young daughter Marianne (Émilie Dequenne) while equally repelled by her one-armed brother Jean-François (Vincent Cassel, who always plays such a good bad guy). Marianne is watched over carefully by the town’s priest Sardis, her chastity worth much money, and through the portrayal of female villagers, aristocracy, and prostitutes in Brotherhood of the Wolf, it’s shown that the value of women in eighteenth-century France is mainly as sexual creatures. The women that appear to have the most freedom during this time period are the prostitutes, and the unlikely person who possesses the most power in this movie is Sylvia (Monica Bellucci), an intriguing Mary Magdalene character, who holds the key to all the secrets.

Despite all of the political, religious, and social maneuvering, the movie is not boring, and where the Brotherhood of the Wolf succeeds best, in my opinion, is in its violence, its lovely, beautiful violence. The harsh rural countryside is shown as the arena, and when the "wolf" hunts, action is shown through both its eyes and the omnipotent eye: jittery, bloody scenes, where the human is hunted and humbled. The violence serves a purpose like in Flannery O’Connor’s work–it is used to bring the villagers closer to the unexplainable, the mystical, or God.

The wolves are treated callously by the villagers in Brotherhood of the Wolf; they are vilified and slaughtered, seen as something evil. But in the cinematography and through the recurring white wolf motif, the director portrays wolves as majestic, mystical creatures–they are leaders, seers.

I think that is what I’ll take from this movie–the idea of wolves as noble animals.