Monday, January 17, 2011

Review: Collected Stories, by Frank O’Connor

The short stories of Frank O’Connor have been on my hit list for quite a while, so I decided to read the entire canon of them by tackling his Collected Stories, edited and introduced by Richard Ellman, in one single gulp – all 700+ pages. There is something to be said about absorbing a writer’s oeuvre in this way – especially a writer with the reputation and consistency of O’Connor. By taking on these stories in one go, you get a bird’s eye view of the man’s career, watching patterns and visions and obsessions emerge in a way that you may not by reading individual stories or even whole collections over a longer period of time.

O’Connor’s Collected Stories is as definitive as you can get: nearly all of his best-known tales are gathered here, including “My Oedipus Complex,” “Guests of the Nation,” “The Masculine Principle” and “First Confession.” (The only story conspicuous by its absence is “The Man of the World,” recently featured in The New Yorker’s short story podcast series.) O’Connor made no apologies for the regional slant to his writing: his short stories read like a psychological history of Ireland in the first half of the 20th century. And yet most of his themes remain squarely on the side of the universal: love and infatuation, faith and religion, nationalism and personal freedom.

Most talented short story writers are adept at capturing the small in order to illuminate the big, but O’Connor always went one step further: he was incredibly skilled at showing the helplessness inherent in the small when squaring off against the forces of the big. For a writer of his period and background, these forced equated to three main areas: the Catholic church, Irish nationalism in the face of colonial influence by England, and the institute of marriage.

Indeed, in nearly every one of these 67 tales, one (or more) of those forces come to bear on the characters. “The Impossible Marriage” tells the story of a man trapped by the expectations of his family while pursuing true love. “The Wreath” is a heartbreaking tale about secular influences playing a role in the funeral of a beloved priest who has passed away. “Guests of the Nation” reveals the very human side of a rapid, unthinking nationalism. O’Connor is an extremely versatile writer – equally comfortable writing from the point of view of a soldier, a priest, a workman, and (most often and most successfully) a small child fighting against the apparent irrationalities of the adult world.

Still, there aspects of O’Connor’s writing that grates on a 21st-century reader. His portrayal of women is, frankly, cringe worthy and annoying. Too often he makes broad, sweeping generalizations about the female gender – boiling girls down to a one-dimensional essence of vanity, manipulation or all-out idiocy. After a while, I also began to notice a pattern emerge with the way each story began, whereby O'Connor would provide the reader with a superficial physical description of a character and have this stand in as a moral judgment on his or her person. (This reoccurring tract may have been a result of the house style of The New Yorker at the time, where many of these stories were first published.)

Still and all, O’Connor definitely earned his place within the short story canon and there are some exceptional examples of the form in this book. Students of the genre could not go wrong by reading these tales and unraveling the way they reveal the human condition is so many well-crafted and unexpected ways.

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