Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

Seeing or not seeing.

"The light of the body is the eye..." Luke 11:34

"...watch out in case (you) fail to see the light..." N.T. Wright

Isaac, almost blind and unable to discern which of his two sons deserved to receive the blessing, blesses his younger son.

"Watch that your eye doesn't become darkened."

I'm guilty of too often not seeing or only seeing the veneer, of being in a hurry and accepting a stereotype rather than looking beyond or beneath the outer garment. How easy it is to see things with a one-dimensional view.

It takes time to move beyond the cursory glance to a place where you see the other—really see them.

In Muriel Barbery's book The Elegance of the Hedgehog people choose not to see. They cannot move away from their stereotypes.

Renee Michel, a concierge— a working-class woman, performs her tasks and is invisible as a person to the tenants in the building— who suffer from a serious bout of class-consciousness. Renee hides her intelligence—taking on the mantle of what the people expect from a concierge. She dresses and talks in a manner that fits their expectations.

Two people do see beneath the facade—one a young girl who is a lonely intellectual who sees the world as meaningless. The other person is a Japanese gentleman, Mr. Ozo, who helps unmask Renee.

Seeing involves introspection and contemplation.

To really see another requires time and a willingness to listen and ask questions. But there's also the willingness of the other to be seen.

It's hard to engage beneath the veneer.

Renee's past experiences made her leery of letting the tenants see her as an intellectual autodidact —especially because she knew that they pigeonholed her through the prism of their own biases.

To see —one needs to release, to let go, of preconceived ideas.

To be seen—one needs to release, to let go, of the tough outer garments we wear for protection.

Monday, February 11, 2013

The Caller by Karen Fossum

I'm an eclectic reader mixing heavy tomes with mysteries, or poetry, or death defying exploits of intrepid souls determined to push the boundary of exploration, or religious writings—be it the Bible or theologians delving into the meaning of scripture or writing about figures within scripture or inspirational writing.

I often curl up with a book about writing, or a book of letters written by literary luminaries, or a book about sports.

I can't read a review without thinking —do I want to read this book? Reviews of books on arcane subjects often captivate my imagination. Those writers often exhibit a passion for a subject and they capture that affection in their books.

Upon reading a review I often request the book from our library consortium. On rare occasions no library owns the book.

I've been known to stand in the aisle of a bookstore and peruse a book for several chapters prior to a purchase That's getting more difficult with the demise of so many independent bookstores.

Karen Fossum's recent book The Caller reminded me of why it's difficult to categorize books. This is a mystery, but when I finished reading it I wondered on what shelf I'd shelve this book. Obviously it's a mystery. After all the two detectives, Konrad Sejer and Jacob Skarre, want to catch the perpetrator of callous pranks.

A child in a pram is covered with blood, but not her blood—she's fine. Another person is presumed dead and two men from a funeral parlor show up at the family home.

The young man responsible for the pranks—or that's what he calls them— comes from a home devoid of any emotional ties. His mother, an alcoholic, spends most of her time in a stupor. The perpetrator of these hoaxes does have one stable emotional connection—an aging grandfather who needs home health care. In that relationship the reader sees a young man who has the capacity to love.

Fossum creates a protagonist who lacks a moral ballast because he can't perceive of the consequences of each act. This inability to understand cause and effect eventually result in a horrific incident. And only then does he see cause and effect.

The ending is open to interpretation. Someone once asked Eudora Welty how one of her short stories ended because it, too, had several possibilities. She responded, "I don't know."

How easy it is to say or do something that sets off a chain reaction way beyond what we imagined. How simple it is to forget about cause and effect.

Fossum's story releases a metaphor for thinking of the consequences of actions.Some people find the story too brutal.

I'm in agreement with Flannery O'Connor who often created bizarre characters and outrageous incidents because she thought people were so accustomed to seeing so many things as natural that only by exaggerating the grotesque could she hold a mirror up for them to see reality.