Wednesday, October 10, 2012

If You Get Any Closer, You'd Be Me

I'd just read The Sound and the Fury and The Hamlet, and then started Wise Blood because I'd read an excerpt that was one of the funniest things I'd ever read. Those Southerners, you know. (I'm reading my way through my own Southern gothic course now--I'll continue with Faulkner, then more O'Connor, and go from there. I also want to read a biography of O'Connor, partly because she was such a strange person and partly because I'm interested in her Old Testament theology, being as I was brought up in that tradition myself.)

My daughters had read the excerpt, the part about Enoch Emery meeting the gorilla. The eldest by five minutes, the one who finished reading Anna Karenina in two days (she liked it so well she didn't want to stop reading), went on ahead and did her own thing. She's busy making up a list of classics she wants to read and then ordering the books on Paperbackswap. It's an ambitious list. She generously said, when I eyed the list with envy, that she'll loan me any book I like.

The other, my youngest, wasn't sure she fully understood the excerpt, or at least not enough to write the essay I'd asked her to write, so we talked about it.

As we talked, we kept looking back at the text for evidence of what we were thinking and saying. We started from a reader response perspective--How did she feel when she read the excerpt? What did she like about it, what did she not like? What in the text created this or that effect for her? What did she think the author meant by this or that?--and moved to comprehension and making inferences--What did she think about Enoch? Why was he so different from other people? How did that difference manifest? What did he want? Why?--and then talked about patterns and motifs and style:
  • the use of color (especially the black/white)
  • the animal motifs (the umbrella handle is the head of a fox terrier, the gorilla)
  • how seemingly harmless, everyday things transform into weapons (the joke box of peanut brittle, the landlady's cast-off umbrella)
  • the funny things--how Enoch never sets out to do anything without eating first; how Enoch is always thinking of something else the moment Fate is "drawing back her leg to kick him"
  • the economy of writing--how O'Connor gives so much information about Enoch without any heavy analysis of his character, instead letting the reader feel smart and draw those conclusions

The more we talked, the more we liked the writing.

There was so much there to talk about, and the conversation led to one about the bigger meaning, that of transformation and of the human desire for connection and to be loved--how Enoch had intended to provoke the gorilla with some obscene insult, but then the touch of the gorilla's hand, even in this sort of perfunctory handshake, awakened in him a longing to be close to someone--anyone! even a jerk in a moth-eaten gorilla costume-- and how it's impossible to transform oneself simply by making some superficial outward change, just as it's impossible to find a shortcut to being loved or to force people to love you, that the only way to be loved is to be lovable, and so Enoch's attempt is doomed from the start.

This is what close reading looks like.

This is what the CCSS require, that students move beyond basic literal comprehension to an analysis of the elements in order to make connections between the text and culture, history, our personal experience, and, ultimately, to its greater universal meaning. All the while, the students must return to the text for evidence. What did the author say? Why? Why this word, why this gesture, why this action. Why why why why why. 

Although we'd begun the conversation because my daughter had said she didn't really like or understand the story, by the time we were done talking, she liked it so well she wanted to read the whole of the novel.

(I couldn't remember if I'd read Wise Blood before, so I read it again. It's so good, and one of the funniest books I've ever read, especially in the first 100 pages or so--the woman on the train who, upon seeing the price tag still stapled to Hazel's suit, feels comfortable because she believes that places him, Hazel's insistence to all that he's not a preacher when he's clearly Jonah fleeing the voice of God, the sly asides--"After a few weeks in the camp, when he had some friends--they were not actually friends but he had to live with them--he was offered the chance he had been waiting for; the invitation"-- but the end is so horrifying and sad, I'm not sure my daughter will want to read it. I told her that, and she'll make up her own mind. Neither am I sure it would be as interesting to someone without a pretty solid understanding of the Old Testament, but maybe I'm wrong about that.)

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