On the grotesque in fiction (channeling Flannery O'Connor)

Grotesque has gotten a bum rap. Too often, it's reduced to a variant of "gross," as in disgusting, or worse, turn-away-from-it-silly.

So it's time to invoke the ghost of Mary Flannery O'Connor and reclaim some space for the grotesque as worthy territory in fiction.

For O'Connor, the grotesque was essential, because it carved out space to address a reality beyond – apart from – mere typical daily existence. This approach to fiction is rooted in a fierce and determined realism. The ground O'Connor claimed, which is the ground where I live and write, is not something less than, or even other than, realism.

"Many readers and critics have set up for (fiction) a kind of orthodoxy. They demand a realism of fact which may, in the end, limit rather than broaden (fiction's) scope."

All fiction writers, she believed (as I do) are fundamentally seeking to express what is real. But the realism of each writer will be influenced by what they view as the important realities of life: which aspects of reality merit a writer's investigation, a reader's careful attention.

Compare, for instance, the reality of Marilynne Robinson's novel Housekeeping with the reality of Richard Ford's The Sportswriter. Ford's protagonist, Frank Bascombe, is defined by what surrounds him in physical daily life. The mundane shows us what Ford wants us to know about who Bascombe is. That's one kind of reality, for one kind of novel. Housekeeping provides another. In a difficult passage that is absolutely essential to the book, Ruthie has a sort of reverie in which she imagines the inhabitants of an abandoned homestead she finds while she looks for Sylvie, who seems to have abandoned her (as her own mother had). This reverie goes on for eight pages. And I've heard people dismiss this passage because "it isn't realistic like the rest of the book." But that's where they are wrong (he said, risking arrogance). It is realistic exactly like the rest of the book. It is realistic in its portrayal of Ruthie's sense of loss. Embodying that loss, and making it relentlessly tangible. Housekeeping is a book about emotional, rather than physical, reality.

For a certain kind of writer, O'Connor said, "what [s]he sees on the surface will be of interest to [her] only as [s]he can go through it to an experience of mystery itself. This kind of fiction will always be pushing its own limits outward toward the limits of mystery, because for this kind of writer, the meaning of a story does not begin except at a depth where adequate motivation and adequate psychology and the various determinations have been exhausted."

What O'Connor called mystery, I might call chaos. Or simply that which can't be explained.

This kind of writer, O'Connor contended, and I resonate, will be "interested in what we don't understand rather than in what we do." For me, this is the type of fiction that resonates most. It's the type that explores human behavior, not the type that explains it.

Fiction is not bound to represent the typical. But if your concerns are different from, or go beyond, the typical, you face a particular challenge to get readers to move their focus away from preconceptions with the typical toward where you want their focus to be. One effective way to do this is to jolt them, or to otherwise make it clear you are doing something different. In O'Connor's words, to "draw large and startling figures."

In these grotesque works, she said "we find that the writer has made alive some experience which we are not accustomed to observe every day. We find that connections which we would expect in the customary kind of realism have been ignored, that there are strange skips and gaps which anyone trying to describe manners and customs would certainly not have left. Yet the characters have an inner coherence... Their fictional qualities lean away from typical social patterns, toward mystery and the unexpected."

Toward the grotesque.


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About the Author

Ron MacLean is author of the story collections We Might as Well Light Something On Fire and Why the Long Face? and the novels Headlong and Blue Winnetka Skies. MacLean’s fiction has appeared widely in magazines including GQ, Narrative, Fiction International, and elsewhere. He is a recipient of the Frederick Exley Award for Short Fiction and a multiple Pushcart Prize nominee. He holds a Doctor of Arts from the University at Albany, SUNY, and has been a proud member of team Grub since 2004.

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