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In 1982 Louis D. Rubin published A Gallery of Southerners, which included his essay "Carson McCullers: The Aesthetic of Pain." Rubin claimed that Georgia novelist Carson McCullers "is in certain important ways a writer for young readers, and one has to be young to receive what she offers. She speaks not to the intelligence so much as to the untutored emotions . . . and if you like the experience of fiction to be intricate and subtle, she is probably not for you" (140). I have sometimes wondered: could Rubin and I have read and thought about the same writer? By the early 1980s Rubin was widely viewed as the Dean of southern studies, and his assessment of McCullers as a gifted but limited writer whose "pain became itself the objective" was not seriously contested in the years that followed. Although she never references his essay, independent scholar Sara Gleeson-White exposes the critical myopia of Rubin's summation. Each page of Strange Bodies: Gender and Identity in the Novels of Carson McCullers demonstrates that there is no shortage of subtlety or intricacy in the art of Carson McCullers.
Gleeson-White's book is impressive on a number of fronts. It calls attention to the limitations of earlier critics not in a scolding manner, but to show that readers have not always been attuned to the more complex questions of identity in McCullers's fictional creations. Gleeson-White understands that McCullers may have been her own critical enemy by too often stressing her theme of spiritual isolation to the exclusion of other obsessions. Crucial to her approach is Gleeson-White's insistence that "McCullers's freaks are not exclusively symbolic of the alienating (and sexually indifferent) human condition. Rather, they intimately engage issues of subjectivity in the material realms of gender and sexuality" (3).
Gleeson-White moves seamlessly through critical material ranging from Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan to Marjorie Garber and Judith Butler, but her major lens is Mikhail Bakhtin, whose theories of the grotesque affirm both body and gender transgressions. In a number of works, but most centrally in Rabelais and His World, Bakhtin defines the grotesque body with all its excess as a necessary and explicit response to the "strictly completed, finished product" of the classic body (qtd. in Glesson-White 6). In four illuminating chapters—one each on female adolescence, male homosexuality, cross-dressing, and androgyny—Gleeson-White uses Bakhtin to explore the ways in which McCullers's characters subvert expected norms and thereby prompt readers to question the very notion of a stable normality that hinges on fixed identities. [End Page 676]
In her discussion of Mick Kelly and Frankie Addams, Gleeson-White draws attention to their mutability, noting that "the tropes of the threshold and the unfinished provide ways of thinking about McCullers's freak-adolescents other than in terms of some individual malfunction or of their struggle to achieve 'normal' adulthood" (27). For Gleeson-White, such tropes, along with that of flight, are suggestive of Bakhtin's theory of the grotesque, which dwells on the body not in fixation but in its perpetual state of becoming. Gleeson-White is right to stress the image of flight in McCullers's works. Her analysis is underscored by a remark (not cited in Strange Bodies) that McCullers made regarding her intuitive approach to writing fiction. "The ingenuities of aesthetics have never been my problems," McCullers noted in her essay "The Vision Shared": "Flight, in itself, interests me and I am indifferent to salting the bird's tail" (The Mortgaged Heart 262).
Gleeson-White's discussion of McCullers's "queer grotesques," specifically John Singer and Captain Weldon Penderton, may be the most rewarding discussion of McCullers and homosexuality to date. Linking these characters to Bakhtin's presentation of carnival—a deliberate disruption of the "normal"—Gleeson-White demonstrates that "there is no natural, fêted sexual position in McCullers's fictional worlds" (41). A searing critique of military institutionalism, McCullers's second novel, Reflections in a Golden Eye, decodes the army as...