"O’Connor could easily explore master-slave relations by presenting the Jefferson-Hemings “relationship” merely through the lens of attacker and victim. It would be the safer route for a novel whose primary narrator is a black female slave, particularly when it has been authored by a white male in the 21st century.
Instead, the Jefferson-Hemings “relationship” is much more nuanced.... O’Connor compels us to look at both the ugliness in Jefferson’s hypocrisies and the hopelessness in Hemings’s resistance.... Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings gives voice to a woman who was treated as an asterisk for too long. We must not let the next Sally Hemings wait two hundred years to be heard." -- Zakiya Harris
"...This is where at O’Connor’s imagination becomes particularly impressive, in identifying exactly how self-deception happens. “You are condemned, not merely by your most evil acts but by your finest words, those self-evident truths of yours that created a whole new world—a world that will never forgive you for your sins.” This is the underlying irony of the book, that the soon-to-be president of a nascent country that prides itself on individualism argues for slavery because he wonders whether “it is wise” to let slaves decide their own fates...." -- Jeremy Klemin
O'Connor (Orphan Trains) delves with great acuity and depth into the mind of Thomas Jefferson, who required sexual intimacy from Sally Hemings, an enslaved woman, for nearly 40 years. Interweaving contemporary documents, narrative, fable, and fantasy, O'Connor creates startlingly vivid portraits of his major characters as well as the many injustices of slavery. The weighty political events of the day barely surface in the background as the novel focuses almost claustrophobically on the fraught intimacy between Jefferson and Hemings, from their humiliating first encounters to the steady companionship that evolves as they age. O'Connor takes additional imaginative leaps to further illuminate their relationship, including Hemings's fictional autobiography, scenes in which Jefferson watches a movie about his life, and having the two meet on a subway in modern times. Hemings is depicted as a proud, strikingly beautiful woman possessed of intelligence and good sense, conflicted in her relationship with the master she grows to love, but O'Connor's real interest lies in understanding how a man so deeply committed to the ideals of democracy could be inherently racist, "both coward and hypocrite," and thus "abjectly human." The book meditates in turn on perception, justice, hatred, and evil, making visible—though never rationalizing—the profound contradictions between Jefferson's philosophical ideals and his private life. This is a challenging, illuminating, and entirely original work that's broad enough to encompass joy, penance, "complexity, ambiguity," and "our muddy human souls."
"...With its magically engineered collection of fiction, history and fantasy, and particularly with its own capacious spirit, “Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings” doesn’t just knock Jefferson off his pedestal, it blows us over, too, shatters the whole sinner-saint debate and clears out new room to reconsider these two impossibly different people who once gave birth to the United States. It’s heartbreaking. It’s cathartic. It’s utterly brilliant." -- Ron Charles.
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SELF-DECEIVER IN CHIEF
Hemings was not only Jefferson’s slave and lover, but also his sister-in-law.
By SAM SACKS, April 1, 2016 3:12 p.m. ET
"...In hundreds of brief, pointillist chapters, Mr. O’Connor reimagines their decades-long relationship, supplementing the patchy record with invented characters and events. Disturbing his narrative are passages from archival documents, chapters of historical summary and invented interviews with Hemings’s family members. Stranger still are the dream sequences that take the story out of time to portray Jefferson as a great ape, a giant bronze monument or a present-day New Yorker who comes across Hemings on the subway. The effect is prismatic and utterly arresting....
"...Hemings is the novel’s outstanding character, eloquent and capable, morally exacting and self-aware, now overflowing with tenderness, now seething with hatred. Jefferson cuts a far more ambivalent figure, unmatched in intelligence but often paralyzed by guilt and reduced to nervous stammering (he’s a far cry from the swaggering statesman played by Daveed Diggs in the musical 'Hamilton'). Most of all he’s capable of tremendous self-deception, which deepens as he grows old and attempts to bond with the children he has had with Hemings while at the same time refusing to recognize them publicly.
It’s only in the fantasias that he is forced to reckon with his actions. In one, Jefferson attends a Hollywood blockbuster about his life and is reminded of the deathless phrases he had composed: 'All men are created equal'; 'Commerce between master and slave is despotism.' But now, as he’s idealized on the big screen, he senses the gulf between what he wrote and how he lived. Hemings sums him up best: 'Thomas Jefferson is a dreamer who doesn’t know that he is dreaming.'”
“[W]hat’s striking about Stephen O’Connor’s first novel, ‘Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings,’ isn’t just that he persuasively invents a relationship almost entirely of whole cloth. It’s also a superb argument for why we do this imagining — in the novel’s wilder moments where O’Connor weaves Jefferson into the present day, he underscores how hard it is to untangle slavery from the American conversation….
“….In brief vignettes, he transports Jefferson into a variety of modern settings — a prisoner being attacked by an abusive jailer for his hypocrisy on slavery, an art student pining for Sally in a subway car, an ape in a cage.
"...Going beyond fleshing out the known skeletal details, O'Connor attains a continuum of psychological plausibility and historicity that is ceaselessly startling.... This vastly imagined novel is clearly more perfect than its dead white subject." -- Mark Dorrity
Cannonball Read IV
Sara Habein’s Review: Electric Literature No.2
Stephen O’Connor’s “Love” is a sad, yet mysterious tale of a relationship weaving together and then slowly unraveling...
"[T]his was an original and personal journey, and I’m thrilled to have been allowed to come along."
The range of O’Connor’s short stories is both impressive and fascinating, especially considering his success rate. Mastering any idiom he chooses, he can conjure terror, revel in the absurd, and tidily lay out a straightforward tale about fidelity and family, as if writers hadn’t spent decades trying to master what seems so easily in his grasp.
Highly praised and hotly anticipated, Here Comes Another Lesson is a deeply inventive collection of stories that examine the limitations of modern humanity and morality in bold, convincing strokes. Stephen O’Connor gives us a portrait of human life and all its harrowing peculiarities that’s equal parts funny, strange and poignant....
The puzzles set up in O’Connor’s stories rarely seem to contain all their pieces. In the opener, “Ziggurat,” a minotaur roams a sort of hellish realm where people are apparently sent for him to eat. He obliges, until he meets “the new girl,” who sets him off his game before disappearing. The minotaur then builds a ziggurat to what he thinks might be the highest limit of the realm but even then discovers the false ceiling of his world. The story could be about facing the ignominy of a life of rote tasks, the jarring insertion of love into a life, or the way we stop seeing the artificial constructs around our lives and the damage done by them. Or, it could be about none of them, which is to say that it dodges meaning in the best way....
-- Jonathan Messinger
HERE COMES ANOTHER LESSON chosen one of the 20 BEST BOOKS OF 2010
Stephen O’Connor’s Here Comes Another Lesson offers a rare virtue among short story collections: if one story isn’t what you’re looking for, chances are the next one will be. The sheer variety of narratives offered in this collection is virtuosic. O’Connor writes from such a multiplicity of voices and with such a wide spectrum of concerns, running the gamut from a Minotaur awakening to his own angst to an actor playing himself in a movie based on his life to a graduate student struggling to finish her thesis in a disturbingly isolated house, that considering the collection as a whole becomes a rather dizzying task....
The impossibility of balancing desire and its fulfillment lies at the center of many of these inventive stories. They range from fabulistic to realistic, and the best ones retain a vague fealty to reality, though the alternate worlds visited are sketched with a skewed, knowing hand, as with "Ziggurat," a droll, slightly disorienting account of the Minotaur in his labyrinth. The mythical monster displays only scorn for his victims until he develops a crush on his latest victim, who diverts him through flattery, cajolery, sharing beers, and teaching him to play pool. Elsewhere, Charles, "the professor of atheism," appears in six stories and skewers the outsized egos of academics even as his own is gratified in the most unlikely ways--before, that is, wry resolutions render each reward a less than ideal outcome. Charles's scholarship is adored; he vacations in Eden; and he eventually confirms his own worst, narcissistic fears. O'Connor (Rescue) is a wizard at engendering sympathy for his characters, who are often simply trying to make sense of situations less certain and comfortable than they might wish. (Aug.)
Everyday people are stalked by strangeness in this artfully bemusing story collection.
It’s been two decades since the publication of Rescue, O’Connor’s debut collection, but his affinity for quirky premises clearly remains undiminished. A recurring set of stories features a “professor of atheism” who’s presented with seeming evidence of the afterlife—a set of angel’s wings, a paradisial retreat, his resurrected father. In “Based on a True Story,” a man is asked to play himself in the movie of his life, and he wrestles with his feelings toward the woman who is playing his wife with unsettling accuracy. In “Disappearance And,” a man is told the precise time of his death by a bird and spends his final hours deciding how to end his life with dignity. O’Connor’s taste for unusual setups resembles that of George Saunders, but O’Connor is a more bleakly critical writer, and the bulk of his stories seem designed to reveal how ill-equipped we are to deal with mortal concerns. The beautifully turned “White Fire,” for instance, is narrated by a soldier newly arrived home from Iraq, and his casual, staccato language—dotted with many utterances of “like” and “so then”—belies just how much fear he carries with him. Similarly, the protagonist of “Love” heads to a cabin retreat to work on her dissertation (on child abuse, forebodingly enough), and her paranoia about her boyfriend’s fidelity transmogrifies into terror that she’s being stalked. The power in these stories emerges from O’Connor’s style, which can be as controlled and elegant as John Updike’s but which serves a very different purpose; instead of stressing the strangeness of the premise of “Ziggurat,” about the relationship between a minotaur and a video-game-obsessed girl, the author emphasizes its normalcy, making the story feel surprisingly realistic. And pure realism is easily within O’Connor’s grasp too: “Aunt Jules” is a simple but deeply affecting story about a woman’s relationship with her sister and brother-in-law, with whom she had a brief fling. The author places it at the end of the book, as if to suggest that normalcy is the strangest, toughest trick of all.
A beguiling collection that merges off-kilter concepts and classic style.
O’Connor’s rich collection of short stories is fantastical, realistic, mythical, and absurd, encompassing the afterlife, the imagined life, Eden, purgatory, and a kind of rethought reality. In the opening story, “Ziggurat,” the Minotaur develops a crush on a peanut-colored girl who has wandered into his section of the Labyrinth and is to be his next victim. In “Love,” a flighty young woman decamps to her father’s cabin with her recent boyfriend and becomes convinced that a stranger is stalking them in the woods. Charles, the “Professor of Atheism,” who appears in six stories, is befuddled by his transformation from a fringe academic to a lauded scholar and even more surprised when he vacations in Eden. O’Connor shrewdly allows his readers to walk the line between reality and fantasy, blurring the boundaries between two worlds.
— Heather Paulson
[T]he best collection of stories I’ve read so far this year... A story about a minotaur and a video-game-obsessed girl bumps against a story about an Iraq War vet’s first difficult day home, both of which are placed alongside a series of seriocomic tales about a “professor of atheism” arrived in (perhaps) heaven. O’Connor can be satirical, but not in the kind of consistently arch way that marks, say, a George Saunders collection. O’Connor is simply acrobatically capable of finding the style appropriate for each story—and his fanciest trick is the closing “Aunt Jules,” an expansive story about two sisters where the conflict and style are utterly familiar and conventional, but no less successful for that.
Stephen O'Connor's narrative techniques in "Here Comes Another Lesson" at times strike one as multiple personalities. He conjures up the voice of a recent veteran from Iraq; the boy with the big head - or the "man in the moon"; the Minotaur who falls in love; an invisible girl; and a young couple struggling with normal relationship difficulties. The characters O'Connor creates are powerful, but not even half as powerful as the words they speak. These words are honest and real, and they make these characters' stories vivid as they struggle with their inner demons that are always fighting to get loose: "A beast acts like a beast and a man acts like a beast," one character says. "What is the difference?"...
"The Professor of Atheism"
from Here Comes Another Lesson
"The Professor of Atheism" series in Stephen O'Connor's second collection recurs like a running gag in between the other stories. Each entry launches from a simple premise: Charles, a washed-up, mediocre atheist, finds himself in theological situations. He acquires a pair of angel wings and is born again in the Garden of Eden. O'Connor imagines the glory of religious miracles as something mundane and heaven as a world of heartbreak and lowered expectations. Charles is an existential Wile E. Coyote in a series of sublime metaphysical cartoons.
...In “Love,” a story about a woman who retreats to an upstate cabin to write a dissertation, the author relays outdoor patters and hisses with methodical precision. His tree branches respond to the woman’s moods like vibrating tuning forks. Nearly every paragraph of the 40-page story gives mention of the shifting that is occurring above her in the leaves and sky. O’Connor brings this descriptive motif to a climax with a palette of glints and grays that are never dull and even mildly shocking. To give imagery an arc displays a rare ability, a poet’s gift. The woman becomes obsessed with ill-perceived threats. She wonders if it is a rural stalker or a bear that she hears. She ponders whether her Williamsburg boyfriend can be trusted. A sleepless night in bed with her father’s hunting knife at her side ends like this: “Only when the ashen light of approaching dawn turned the leaves outside her window the color of cooked liver did she fall briefly into restorative oblivion.” It is not just the striking correctness of color but also the comic morbidity of a plate of liver causing eyelids to drop that makes this small payoff so bracing...
“Here Comes Another Lesson” holds so much variety that if one part of the collection falls flat, another part is sure to strike a nerve or inspire a new thought. This book isn’t for the reader who likes packaged stories, neatly presented, and tied with a bow. The short stories in this collection sometimes feel a bit more like “Here Comes Another…Huh?” However, it’s the lack of a clear lesson that becomes the lesson itself. Life has no easy answers, and neither does a piece of good art.
Here Comes Another Lesson by Stephen O’Conner is a diverse collection of nineteen short stories which inspect the human condition through numerous perspectives and genres. The worlds contained inside this book range from realistic to fantastical to dreamscapes. A lonely big headed boy struggles to live in a little headed world, a soldier returning from the war in Iraq transitions to civilian life, the professor of atheism pulls angel wings from the clotheslines, and Robbie Radkin stars as himself in “The Robbie Radkin Story”, only to discover his co-star has become more like his wife, Beth, than Beth herself. Through each of these tales O’Conner examines the idiosyncrasies of familial and romantic love....
While reading Here Comes Another Lesson, I found myself charmed by O'Connor's imagination and insight, and therefore driven to keep reading to see what he would come with next to cast his strange eye on. My favorites - and when I say "favorites" in this context I mean they made my soul cry - were "White Fire," "Love," and "Aunt Julie." But I hesitate to even call out favorites, it must be admitted, because as I flip through the book to remind myself about each story I keep thinking, Oh, Yeah, That was a good one. Or, That was clever....
The first thing I thought of when I finished reading this collection of short stories was: Twilight Zone. These short vignettes could easily be some of the greatest thirty minutes on television today. The first story is a shining example and probably my favorite in the whole book. A minotaur (yes, the Greek mythological one), finds true love in what is supposed to be his next meal....
The main lesson of this book is that there are still fiction writers out there brave enough to take serious risks. For O'Connor, the risks pay off lavishly. Here is a collection of great feeling, range and power.
—Sam Lipsyte, author of The Ask
When an accounting is done of our bravest and most inventive writers of the short story, Stephen O’Connor’s name must certainly be on the list.
—Ben Marcus, author of Notable American Women
Each story in O'Connor's brilliant collection is a sunrise--a radiant apparition from beyond the outermost limits of ordinary language. Some stories are gritty, realist and spare, others feel lightning-charged with an otherworldly intensity, shockingly inventive but also frighteningly familiar, surprising and true.
—Karen Russell, author of St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves
These are amazing, fearless stories—wild dreamscapes that take place in our very own world, with its murderous brutality, impenetrable mystery, and tender beauty. Whether he’s working in the fantastic or the familiar, O’Connor is an artist of the unpredictable, a supreme talent.
—Joan Silber, author of The Size of the World
In these odd, funny, touching stories Stephen O'Connor plants himself in a great tradition of surrealist writers. He's not afraid to take whacky risks with his material and move us at the same time. I don't say this lightly but there's a through line from Gogol to Kafka to O'Connor - writers who find that the seemingly ordinary and everyday can be the strangest thing of all.
—Mary Morris, author of Revenge
The world as conjured by Stephen O’Connor--with its apocalyptic skies, its extravagant dispensations of feeling, its beautiful bestiaries full of minotaurs, untenured professors, and other lonely big-headed creatures—may feel like some wondrous dream, a funhouse mirror for our most primal yearnings and fears. But it’s neither more nor less strange than our own. For all their riotous warps and woofs, these stories achieve an aching reality, a full-throated human-ness rare in American fiction. Like all the best art they can’t be summarized, only experienced. So what are you waiting for?
—Robert Cohen, author of Amateur Barbarians
“Love,” my favorite in this book of wonderful stories, says it all about the author, who exhibits throughout this collection a true mastery of the form; along the way, Mr. O'Connor, in his passion for language and story telling, not only forms a bond between the reader and himself, but leaves one with a feeling of gratitude—and yes, perhaps, even an affection—for his gifts.
—Oscar Hijuelos, author of Beautiful Maria of My Soul
In "The Afterlife of Lytton Swain," one of several striking stories in this first collection by Stephen O'Connor, the Rev. Lytton Swain gradually adapts to a nether world where he can order a cup of coffee in a diner, casually pocket a severed finger found on the ground, and exchange pleasantries with Mr. and Mrs. Alexander Graham Bell. The terrain is familiar, yet filled with discomfiting "inconsistencies," causing him "to suspect that it was not his mind, but reality itself that was wandering." A sense of wandering reality pervades most of these startlingly inventive stories...
--The New York Times Book Review
Stephen O'Connor is one of several promising young artists...who are using surrealism not to bypass our dulling consciousness in search of a deeper truth, but to avoid the limitations of traditional story-telling...
--The Los Angeles Times
This is a variety show of 14 very different stories by a new New York author who switches styles and voices with the ease of a quick-change artist...
--The Seattle Times
WILL MY NAME BE SHOUTED OUT?
How many issues are more important than the failure of our schools to produce new generations of Americans who can perform the basic tasks of postindustrial society? Alarms need to be sounded regularly, and Mr. O'Connor performs that service in a clear, straightforward voice... To Mr. O'Connor, the crisis in American education is not "a simple matter of inadequate standards and a Kafkaesque bureaucracy." Ask any teacher to name the No. 1 problem, he says, and it would be the "relentless intrusion into the classroom of the social problems that the students suffer both out on the streets and in their own homes."...
--The New York Times Book Review
In this thoughtful and ambitious account... teacher Stephen O'Connor details his efforts to do in New York City what every conscientious English teacher hopes to do: "make writing matter in the real world, generate student writing that has political and social importance, writing that makes the world we live in a wiser, kinder, and better place."... [E]ven though the plays that came from O'Connor's classes were triumphantly crafted and staged, one can't come away from reading his book without feeling that we are barely holding on in our urban schools, and that inner-city schools in particular are barely surviving the most traumatic social, political, racial and financial pressures placed on them in this century. It's also painfully obvious that there are not enough teacher-heroes of O'Connor stature to prop up the system much longer."
--The Minneapolis Star Tribune
ORPHAN TRAINS: The Story of Charles Loring Brace and the Children He Saved and Failed
For some 80 years the orphan trains described in Stephen O'Connor's book took stray and destitute children from New York's grim slums to the countryside, where they were chose by farmers, artisans and merchants fro employment or adoption. The scenes Mr. O'Connor evokes seem strange by today's standards: hundreds of newly transported children, most of them boys, being picked by strangers for what was intended to be redemptive labor, a new life-saving chance. And yet, as Mr. O'Connor points out in "Orphan Trains," his insightful and fascinating piece of social history, that practice, which lasted until about 1930, was the immediate predecessor of today's foster care system...
--The New York Times (daily)
...O'Connor's immensely readable book vividly portrays Brace and the world in which he operated. "Orphan Trains" not only offers us a trip to the past but provides historical context crucial to understanding and evaluating present-day attitudes and policies about poverty, families and children.
--The Los Angeles Times
...The most charismatic of these [19th century social reformers and] thinkers was Charles Loring Brace, enthrallingly portrayed in Mr. O'Connor's "Orphan Trains"..."
--The Wall Street Journal