Complete Paperback Review Quotes, cover and interior. (See links to all reviews below.)
“Hemings and Jefferson come alive in this book, beautifully imagined, and so well rendered that they become achingly human.” —Jesmyn Ward, National Book Award–winning author of Salvage the Bone
“Dazzling . . . O’Connor’s deeply humane treatment of Sally . . . is the novel’s most haunting accomplishment.” —The Washington Post
“A brilliant, unsettling book about power and its abuse.” --The Seattle Times
“Prismatic and utterly arresting.” —The Wall Street Journal
“What a dazzling experience this book is. . .The most revolutionary reimagining of Jefferson’s life ever. . .Have we ever been drawn so close into the conflicted mind of our slaveholding philosopher-president?. . .O’Connor’s deeply human treatment of Sally, whose actual thoughts will never be known to us, is the novel’s most haunting accomplishment. Ultimately, this is a book in vigorous debate with itself, as strange and contradictory as the author of the Declaration of Independence. 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. . .It’s heartbreaking. It’s cathartic. It’s utterly brilliant.”
--Ron Charles, The Washington Post
“In hundreds of brief, pointillist chapters, Mr. O’Connor reimagines their decades-long relationship. . .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.”
--Sam Sacks, The Wall Street Journal
“A brilliant, huge-hearted act of the moral imagination. O'Connor has written a kind of quantum historical novel--simultaneously fiction and nonfiction, wave and particle. With dreamlike fluidity, the story moves from the real halls of Monticello to Jefferson's musings in the afterlife, from meditations on the phenomenology of color to what the theft of dignity means. This book creates new facts to live by; it's stranger and braver than I know how to describe. Open to any page and you will see what I mean."
—Karen Russell, author of Swamplandia!
“Everyone knows the story — or thinks they do — of Thomas Jefferson and his enslaved paramour, Sally Hemings. Stephen O'Connor gives us a vision of how that relationship began (yes, in sexual assault) and, given the obvious inequities in the relationship, grew into something approaching a meeting of minds. His Sally is sharply astute, and sees Jefferson more clearly than he sees himself. Makes you wonder what their relationship would have been like if they'd met today.”
—Karen Grigsby Bates, correspondent, Code Switch, NPR
“Ambitious doesn't begin to describe the scope of the project O'Connor undertook. And successful doesn't begin to describe the wildly imaginative techniques he used to realize his authorial goal, which is clearly to humanize — equalize, you might say — the two members of this passionate, conflicted couple . . . What justifies the risk is his insistence on using a full palette and tiny brushes to draw these characters, rejecting broad brush strokes in black and white. Rendered in all their complex, contradictory glory, Jefferson and Hemings seem to stand up on the page and demand of the reader, ‘If you found yourself in our situation, what would you have done?’"
—Meredith Maran, The Chicago Tribune
“By turns delicate and luminous, then searing and straightforward, Stephen O’Connor’s novel sings – it is an epic dream and an epic read. Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson come alive in this book, beautifully imagined, and so well-rendered that they become achingly human.”
--Jesmyn Ward, National Book Award-winning author of Salvage the Bones
“An extraordinary work of imagination. . .A brilliant, unsettling book about power and its abuse.”
--Mary Ann Gwinn, The Seattle Times
“O’Connor compels us to look at both the ugliness in Jefferson’s hypocrisies and the hopelessness in Hemings’s resistance. . . [her] experience is at the heart of this novel. . .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, The Rumpus
“A brave and wondrous dream of a novel. . .a fascinating, complex, and ultimately extremely addictive tale. . .[Hemings] is one of history’s numberless mystery women, but she comes thoroughly and thrillingly alive in O’Connor’s telling.”
--Jean Zimmerman, NPR.org
“What’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 . . . O’Connor writes about slavery and intimacy with equal grace. His vision of romance in a society defined by division is wrenching, and proof that dreaming can expose reality better than any hard truth.”
--Mark Athitakis, The Minneapolis Star Tribune
“Its chapters are short, dense with observation, and precisely aimed at the interior life of the titular characters. Each one reads like a prose poem—elegantly shaped, brimming with indelible images—bearing plentiful revelations about race, colonial life, power, and sexuality. Insights are rendered with abundant craft and arrive – via the author’s counter-intuitive deployment of the present tense – with bracing immediacy.”
--Albert Mobilio, Bomb Magazine
“Expansive, riveting, and startlingly original, Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings seamlessly interweaves fact and fiction to make one of the most mysterious and politically charged relationships in all of American history heartbreakingly vivid and real. A richly imagined meditation on the human capacity for self-deception and on that troubling zone between exploitation and love.”
--Christina Baker Kline, author of Orphan Train
“…[A] jarring exploration of big themes rooted in the contrary behaviors of ordinary people, presented as a kaleidoscope show juxtaposing straightforward narration with fictionalized memoir, fabulist outpourings, bald listings of historical fact, reflections on the poetry of colors, all moving from past to present and back again. In energetic prose, O’Connor probes how a person’s hold over another pollutes them both and examines the inherent conflict in relationships among people involved in an institution as morally repugnant as slavery.”
--David Keymer, Library Journal (starred)
“This is an extraordinary book, and I can’t remember reading anything like it. It imagines the most intimate aspects of slavery in the way only fiction can—everything is freshly shocking and freshly human. And its wildly original use of dreamscape, fabulism, and philosophy gives us the layers these characters deserve, as it re-invents the historical novel.”
– Joan Silber, author of Fools: Stories
“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.’"
“An extraordinary achievement, six hundred and one pages that fly past – vivid and arresting and expansive and troubling and moving and sad and profound and deeply, deeply complicated, indeed like an unforgettable dream. I admire the novel’s wild spirit, the wild spirits it captures, the way it seeks to humanize the demons – and demonize the humans – who populate the terrible era of slavery in America.”
--Carrie Brown, author of The Stargazer’s Sister
“Its format is impressively inventive and accessible, and it suits its subject. Using traditional narrative, dream sequences, reimaginings, and excerpts from memoirs and Jefferson’s writings, it moves beyond historical fiction to demonstrate the bitter, long-lasting aftereffects of Jefferson’s moral hypocrisy. . . .this mind-expanding epic offers much to discuss.”
--ALA Booklist (starred)
“This novel is a history of oppression; it's a story of a complex connection; it’s an American epic of Homeric proportions. Stephen O’Connor brings to this work a wild imagination, a commitment to social and political concerns, and elegant, at times elegiac, prose. A tour de force.”
--Mary Morris, author of The Jazz Palace
“[F]ully acknowledging the tragedy of slavery, O’Connor produces a tale that is overflowing with the range of human emotion; in its depiction of feeling, the novel is often brilliant, dense in poetry and light on unearned sentimentality.”
REVIEWS: THOMAS JEFFERSON DREAMS OF SALLY HEMINGS
"...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, The Washington Post
“Ambitious doesn't begin to describe the scope of the project O'Connor undertook. And successful doesn't begin to describe the wildly imaginative techniques he used to realize his authorial goal, which is clearly to humanize — equalize, you might say — the two members of this passionate, conflicted couple . . . What makes these literary gymnastics work is, in a word, talent . . . What justifies the risk is his insistence on using a full palette and tiny brushes to draw these characters, rejecting broad brush strokes in black and white. Rendered in all their complex, contradictory glory, Jefferson and Hemings seem to stand up on the page and demand of the reader, ‘If you found yourself in our situation, what would you have done?’"—Meredith Maran, The Chicago Tribune
"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
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.'”
"For readers, Sally Hemings lives in the pages of this novel as a fully realized human being, just as she was in real life. But to men like Jeff Randolph and even Thomas Jefferson who may well have believed himself in love with her, she is first and foremost a black woman (despite her nearly-white skin) and thus a piece of property. No evaluation of Jefferson or the times in which he lived is honest if it does not squarely confront this fact, and O’Connor keeps it always before our eyes, as it must have been for Sally Hemings." --Trudy Morgan-Cole
"In TJDoSH, Stephen O’Connor has made a man who can live in both history and dreams. Jefferson can be the historical president whose name children memorize at school, and then in his dreams, Jefferson can break free from his day job following historical identity... A list of dreams from TJDoSH: Jefferson sitting between James and Dolly Madison in a movie theater and watching a movie about himself; a dream of Hemings’s where she clothes a bear in frock and cap to the jeers of a menacing crowd; a visit to the museum of miscegenation; Jefferson as an ape; Jefferson as a blimp; Jefferson as a shunned lonely hologram; short essays on power; Jefferson as an art student anxiously riding the subway, who spots Hemings standing down the car, reading a book..."
“[F]ully acknowledging the tragedy of slavery, O'Connor produces a tale that is overflowing with the range of human emotion; in its depiction of feeling, the novel is often brilliant, dense in poetry and light on unearned sentimentality…. O'Connor proceeds by experiment, sometimes cloaking the narrative in the language of the period, sometimes seemingly channeling James Joyce…”—Kirkus Reviews
[Starred Review] "O’Connor (writing, Sarah Lawrence; two collections of short fiction) began writing the story while concurrently conducting historical research. The novel, which centers on the complicated and conflicted relationship of apostle of liberty Thomas Jefferson and his enslaved mistress Sally Hemings, emerged in fragments—the author wrote across genres and about parts of his subjects’ real or imagined lives. The result is a jarring exploration of big themes rooted in the contrary behaviors of ordinary people, presented as a kaleidoscope show juxtaposing straightforward narration with fictionalized memoir, fabulist outpourings, bald listings of historical fact, reflections on the poetry of colors, all moving from past to present and back again. In energetic prose, O’Connor probes how a person’s hold over another pollutes them both and examines the inherent conflict in relationships among people involved in an institution as morally repugnant as slavery. VERDICT The sweep of narrative, quality of writing, intensity of feeling, and boldness of thought make this debut novel a strong candidate for major awards." --David Keymer
BOMB Magazine's Spring Books Preview
"Stephen O’Connor’s historical-fantastical novel Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings may be very long but its chapters are short, dense with observation, and precisely aimed at the interior life of the titular characters. Each one reads like a prose poem—elegantly shaped, brimming with indelible images—bearing plentiful revelations about race, colonial life, power, and sexuality. Insights are rendered with abundant craft and arrive—via the author’s counter-intuitive deployment of the present tense—with bracing immediacy. This is speculative history designed to implicate the reader, as we are never far from the here and now: 'It turns out that Thomas Jefferson is neither dirigible nor cloud nor breeze, but a bronze monument hundreds of feet high, and all of us are trapped inside him, though some of us claim to have come here voluntarily.'”
"“Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings,” by Stephen O’Connor, is a monumental 610-page tour-de-force that uses short, surreal juxtapositions in vivid hallucinatory scenes (Jefferson in a movie theater watching his own biopic, accompanied by James and Dolley Madison) against the brutal realities of 18th-century life and slavery. The language varies between ornate descriptions to stripped-down details. The narrative is broken up in years and styles, pivoting between deep-researched historical and marvelous fantastical. O’Connor wondered how Hemings, Jefferson’s later-life lover and more than 30 years his junior, contended with her predicament, “on a scale between love and Stockholm Syndrome,” he recently said. Jefferson here is part diabolical genius, part wooly-minded art student, and unable to live up to his own lofty rhetoric. O’Connor gives Hemings voice, too, writing a memoir following his death, using Jefferson’s quill and his spectacles — items she inherited from his estate. (Hardcover, Viking, $37)." --Harry Kollatz
"[O'Connor] braids together dozens of minor parallel storylines propelled by pleasantly odd conceits. In one, hikers are lost in woods inside of Jefferson, trying to find the place “where things are real”; in another, an eighteenth-century Jefferson watches his own biopic, annoyed with the actors and fascinated with the technology of film.... One of the two most important cords is Jefferson’s recurring dreams of a mute Sally building a deafening machine that threatens to consume the world. The sentence structure of Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings contains the novel’s basic mechanics: its subject is Jefferson, dreaming about its object, Sally. The novel ultimately and ironically follows Sally’s lead in suspending the question of her own subjecthood in the limbo of her (auto?)biography. We cannot speak for her, only dream....[T]he novel’s final line, is Jefferson’s dream, one in which he has no idea what Sally will do or say because, quite simply, she is free." —Kenyon Gradert
"O’Connor (Orphan Trains, 2001) is a brave writer. For his debut novel, he takes on an incredibly complicated, sensitive, and still-debated topic: the decades-long relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, an enslaved woman. Its format is impressively inventive and accessible, and it suits its subject. Using traditional narrative, dream sequences, reimaginings, and excerpts from memoirs and Jefferson’s writings, it moves beyond historical fiction to demonstrate the bitter, long-lasting aftereffects of Jefferson’s moral hypocrisy. The main story line proceeds chronologically, from before their liaison’s beginnings, in 1789 Paris, through their later years at Monticello, where she bears his children and ponders her unusual situation. She and other Monticello slaves may be treated differently, but they still aren’t free. “Yes, we were lucky,” she writes in her memoir (perhaps O’Connor’s most daring fictional creation), “but such luck is a mere drop in an ocean of misfortune.” Both individuals have rich interior lives and complex motivations. Jefferson publicly expresses the American ideal of liberty while awkwardly pursuing his attraction to the much-younger Sally Hemings, his late wife’s half sister. Courageous and intellectually curious, she is initially repulsed by the physical attentions of this smart, important man and feels ashamed of her ultimate acquiescence. Whimsical in places, brutally damning in others, this mind-expanding epic offers much to discuss."
— Sarah Johnson
"A brilliant, inventive debut novel, Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings presents these two historical figures in intimate detail well beyond the historical record, and in ways sure to scandalize Jefferson worshippers. In his Author’s Note, O’Connor reminds us how little we actually know of Sally Hemings or of Jefferson’s true relationship with her. But because the author so seamlessly weaves the known historical record into this fully and believably imagined relationship, readers may be tempted to accept its story as an historical account."
"This brilliant, unsettling book is unrelenting in its portrayal of a relationship where all the cards were stacked against Hemings, though like all great literature, there are no absolute heroes or villains. Said my counterpart, Ron Charles of The Washington Post: 'it’s heartbreaking. It’s cathartic. It’s utterly brilliant.'” —Mary Ann Gwinn, The Seattle Times
"...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."
“[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.
"A brave and wondrous dream of a novel. . .a fascinating, complex, and ultimately extremely addictive tale. . .[Hemings] is one of history’s numberless mystery women, but she comes thoroughly and thrillingly alive in O’Connor’s telling... Stephen O'Connor's comprehensive research provides a scrupulous underpinning for the world of 'Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings'. But more importantly, he succeeds in dramatizing a 'joy of such terrific intensity that it is barely distinguishable from sorrow [...] out of the simultaneity of two contradictory impressions.'"
"...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
HERE COMES ANOTHER LESSON and other works
Stephen O’Connor’s “Love” is a sad, yet mysterious tale of a relationship weaving together and then slowly unraveling...
"Another Nice Mess" -- One Story #162
"[T]his was an original and personal journey, and I’m thrilled to have been allowed to come along."
HERE COMES ANOTHER LESSON, one of 10 Best Books for 2010
Here Comes Another Lesson
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....
ADVANCED PRAISE FOR HERE COMES ANOTHER LESSON
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
REVIEWS OF PREVIOUS BOOKS
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