The mystery of description: Flannery O’Connor and characterization

So it was just Good Friday, the Christian holy day of contemplation on the crucifixion of Jesus, and it was also Flannery O’Connor’s birthday, all on the same day. That’s portentous.

O’Connor is among my favorite 20th century authors, something which is in part related to her insightful eye for the chaotic nature of human nature, but it’s also simply her command of language. Much like how a film needs to be visual to truly earn my adoration, writing has to be written well, and O’Connor wrote like few others. In particular, her descriptions always stick in my head. Like O’Connor’s writing as a whole, her descriptions are more abstract and ethereal, sometimes difficult to grasp but always laden with meaning. O’Connor was not interested in the material, even in her characterizations, instead focusing on the intangible nature of humanity.

Because her training was religious in nature, O’Connor was more than comfortable speaking in metaphor. The result is much more engaging characterization than some authors ever achieve. Where did O’Connor’s inspiration for literary construction come from? C. S. Lewis said that Christian training is a complete education in itself, so one could argue it was her Catholicism. However, to be fair to the secular world, O’Connor did attend the State University of Iowa, where she initially studied journalism, so she could not be accused of being uneducated. Still, I went to journalism school, and I did not learn to write like O’Connor. Perhaps it is safest to say that she had what the ancients called “genius,” the spirit of the divinity channeling through her, that which the moderns call “talent.”

In her short story “A Temple of the Holy Ghost,” O’Connor introduces two teenage girls–students at a Catholic high school, of course–with initially direct descriptions, but they grow gradually more abstract over the course of paragraph, culminating in this gem: “Neither one of them could say an intelligent thing and all their sentences began, ‘You know this boy I know well one time he…'”

I’ve known people like that. Here, O’Connor refines the rudeness of human language into abstract thought. A human identity can be reduced to language, the method by which we border ourselves as separate but similar to the people around us.

In another favorite, “Parker’s Back,” the titular gentleman, a former sailor turned farmhand husband with a tattoo habit taken to carnivalesque extremes, is initially described as being as “ordinary as a loaf of bread,” and elsewhere, he “seemed a natural part of the gray mechanical ship.” Here, O’Connor robs us of a direct description and focuses on the language of poetry. The first metaphor in particular is a delicious description; I am sure you have a loaf of bread sitting somewhere around your house, and you need no further elaboration to conjure up an image of Parker than those words.

In fact, “Parker’s Back” is particularly interesting because Parker’s body–he the central character of the story, it the vehicle of his tattoos–is not described in any more specific terms than being very large in body (presumably to fit all the tattoos onto). His wife is given more description, but, similarly to Parker, she is mostly fleshed out through her actions, which are unexplained by the narrator (it is worth noting that O’Connor never wrote in first-person in her fiction–at least not that I have encountered). The slight outer description of Parker’s wife is, like a medieval writer’s tactic, used to illustrate her inner character.

O’Connor’s descriptions are not easy, but neither are her characters. Yet despite their grotesque natures, divinity is always buried within. Whether that divinity emerges is up to the character, and whether we can recognize it is up to the reader. In an age of increasing convenience, O’Connor remains a complex and thoughtful breath of fresh air.

Kill LA: A critical review of “Wicked City” (2015)

What is it that’s so darn attractive about Los Angeles these days? The city of my birth is seeing a lot of mayhem on the small screen these days; the stylish re-hash of the O. J. Simpson trial on FX’s “American Crime Story” and Fox’s devil-may-care cop drama “Lucifer” are two that spring to mind, not to mention Lifetime’s attempt at the Manson killings with “Manson’s Lost Girls.” But I first noticed this phenomenon last year, when a fresh crop of Angeleno thrillers sprung up.

ABC’s “Wicked City” underwent a remarkable transformation partway through its first season, by which I mean, “Wicked City” was canceled partway through its first season. I was confused at the time. I had seen a few episodes and the show was fine–certainly no worse than a dozen other dramatic procedural cops shows running around. So when I saw that all episodes of the series were available posthumously on demand, I was determined to finish the series.

Ah for those naive days.

“Wicked City” tells the imaginary-yet-plausible tale of a serial killer (Ed Westwick) striking the Sunset Strip in the 1980s. Among the wannabe actresses he’s carving up, our killer finds a female friend (Erika Christensen) to be his galpal/murder partner. Worry not, for the gruesome twosome is being pursued by a pair of LAPD’s finest with personal problems (Jeremy Sisto and Gabriel Luna as the uneasy partners, Karolina Wydra as the comely undercover cop).

Visually, “City” is nothing to write home about, so it’s nice that the script leaves something to be desired. These are definitely character types you have seen before: the cop who’s drinking too much, the serial killer with mommy issues, the, uh, naughty nurse. The show could be campy, except it seems to be taking itself seriously; if that is the case, “City” did not have a feel for its own format.

“City” is trying to say something about the city of Los Angeles by way of fame: the killer wants to achieve notoriety, and he kills women who try to achieve notoriety. The reporter (Tamara Farmiga, “American Horror Story”) wants to become famous as a journalist, and must consider the destructive nature of achieving notoriety. Even the cop’s daughter wants to become famous as a musician (apparently, although this never really comes up…but we’ll get to the show’s failing to exploit its themes later). One could argue that on the flipside, Wydra’s undercover cop wants to avoid notoriety–to lose an identity to her work. She is linked romantically to a Sisto’s policeman, who is similarly trying to avoid the identity of a married man and lose himself in an affair. However, these themes are not explored in any meaningful way.

Case in point: In one episode, a drug dealer recognizes Luna as a former dirty vice cop–again, an identity being kept under wraps. The two men quietly threaten each other back and forth until Sisto steps onto the screen and Luna clams up. It is one of the most genuinely tense moments in the series, and its revelation feels surprisingly organic. So, naturally, having found a brilliant niche to mine…the show never brings it up again.

Therein lies the problem. From murders and motives that range from unlikely to increasingly done for the sake of shock, to music and fashion that are blissfully unaware of the era (dig that wildly un-80s cover of “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” in the last episode), “Wicked City” is one big lost cause–45 minutes of broadcast television desperately trying to be edgy. Despite a decent start, the writing becomes increasingly contrived as the series winds on. Despite a decent cast, the characters never reach for anything. Simply put, “City” began with too few advantages and slowly carved each one away until there was nothing left but the gangly skeleton of a familiar stretch of Los Angeles highway.