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Thursday, June 2, 2011

Tom Perrotta on superiority and vulnerability in Flannery O’Connor’s satire

In the latest of her continuing series focusing on “a specific piece of writing” that has influenced a writer or critic, Jenny Attiyeh discusses Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People” with Tom Perrotta, author of Little Children, Election, and The Abstinence Teacher. Perotta’s relationship with O’Connor, notes Attiyeh, “borders on kinship, and he admires and admonishes her as he would a family member.”

After reading a small excerpt from the story, Perrotta talks about the religious, autobiographical, and satirical elements of the story, and how in O’Connor’s later works she featured characters who were somewhat educated yet trapped at home, often with domineering mothers. “Good Country People” features the thirty-two-year-old Joy, who has lost her leg in a childhood accident and who, to her mother’s chagrin, has a PhD in philosophy. Joy has changed her name to Hulga, and her mother is “certain that she had thought and thought until she had hit upon the ugliest name in any language.” Perrotta, who was introduced to O’Connor as a teenager, describes how his approach to the story has evolved:
For a while, I really resisted the story, which seemed so simple: [Hulga] just gets humiliated. But when I read the biography I thought, oh my god, it’s not so simple as that, because O’Connor is seeing herself as Hulga. She’s the afflicted, college-educated, superior person who still wants love, and she still thinks she’s in control of a relationship that she’s not in control of. . . . It really made me see the story in a very different light, [because of] that doubleness: [O’Connor] is humiliating educated liberals who have gotten away from the truth of God, but she’s also implicating herself. And I think any satire that implicates the writer becomes much more complex and interesting—the position of superiority disappears. And I think that was the place O’Connor was moving towards in her later work: this way to keep her satirical tone but make herself vulnerable.
You can hear the full interview here. Perrotta also discusses his own writing, including his forthcoming novel The Leftovers, which will be published at the end of the summer.

Related LOA volume: Flannery O'Connor: Collected Works

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