Monday, June 17, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 55: Flannery O'Connor, The Train (#40)

Flannery O'Connor, "The Train" (1948) from Flannery O’Connor: Collected Works:

When I first heard the term "Southern Gothic," I thought it referred to stories likes "Dracula on the Mississippi" or "Frankenstein of New Orleans"--stories that don't exist, but easily could. I didn't understand that it wasn't the trappings of the Gothic exactly, but more the thematics--the crumble, the ruin, the degeneration, the immorality, the haunting of the past. And as much as I've read Southern lit, I'm not sure I can think of any other story that so captures the Southern Gothic as Flannery O'Connor's "The Train."

Like Edith Wharton's "A Journey," O'Connor's "The Train" locates train journey as a site of horror, a mix of private and public space. And just as Wharton's story used some free indirect discourse to capture both what was happening and how the journeyer felt about it, O'Connor situates her narrative focus firmly in the unbaked and unhinged mind of Hazel Wickers, who would become Hazel Motes in Wise Blood, when "The Train" was rewritten as the first chapter.

Haze Wickers isn't exactly a reliable narrative focus, in part because he doesn't always focus so well. The story opens
Thinking about the porter, he had almost forgotten the berth. He had an upper one. The man in the station had said he could give him a lower and Haze had asked didn't have no upper ones; the man said sure if that was what he wanted, and gave him an uppe one.
It goes on like that for five more sentences before the porter is mentioned again, and in all that time, we're left with the question of what Haze is thinking about. And the question: "If he's thinking about the porter, why does he seem to be mostly thinking about his berth?" Or put another way: Why is he trying not to think of the porter?

Haze's story is very slow to come out and is very often marked in that down-home dialect. Apparently, he's coming from the army camp to visit his sister, but he took a detour to visit the old town. On the train, he finds a porter who looks like one of the black people of the town--a boy who ran away and might not know about the Horrible Thing that happened to his father. There's a talkative cabin-companion and an awkward trip to the dining car, both of which are interesting as historical, anthropological stories and as delaying tactics before we hear about the Horrible Thing.

And here's where O'Connor throws us a curve: the standard story here would be for Haze to tell the porter, "your father got lynched and I'm haunted by the memory." But as it turns out, the old town is totally deserted, the black man died of cholera, and Haze is haunted by his dead mother, who he imagines walking through the dead town. The slow dread of being locked into Haze's POV comes out in the double image of his mother, unconfined to any coffin, and Haze, confined to his upper berth without exit.

Honestly, this story reminds me of what's missing from O'Connor that is suffocatingly present in Faulkner, which is a notion of history. Haze's story turns out to be a personal story verging on madness, and though it plays with certain tropes of the South, it never digs in the way Faulkner does. The result is something closer to Poe's personal madness stories than Faulkner's historical and national investigations.

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