Saturday, July 11, 2015
As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner: a Review
Okay, I admit to being a card-carrying English major (although it's really a state of mind, no card required). So I recognize William Faulkner as a 20th-century GAW: Great American Writer of the twentieth century. Not only is he a "great," I think that at his best he's one of the very greatest modernists, like John Dos Passos and Eugene O'Neill (drama). And far superior to Fitzgerald and Hemingway. So I'm inclined to respect one of his books whether or not I "like it" for one reason or another. Long ago I read many, if not most, of Faulkner's novels and I chose this title for my book club to read without remembering it particularly from undergraduate days.
Then I got only a couple pages into the book and panicked. It seemed almost unreadable: abstract, dense, dialect, idioms. When someone in our book club does not like a book, it is often interesting to discuss the different perspectives. But I couldn't imagine the meeting with eleven hard-eyed women looking at me and saying, "What were you thinking?"
It begins with a monolog by "Darl," who is walking on a hard dirt path through a hot cottonfield in the sun. Darl and "Jewel" are walking single file and wordlessly. Darl does not explain the purpose or the cause. Are they men or women? They are in the south, obviously, with "cotton field." Are they children? Are they white or black, or one of each? One cannot be a servant or subordinate to the other because the one who leads changes at a shortcut where Jewel walks through an empty cotton hut instead of around: Jewel steps through the window, so I guess it's a "he" and at least nearly adult. But in what period? The dialect makes me think of the "local color" movement in American literature, so I would guess it's the 20s or 30s in the rural south, anytime from 1910 to 1935.
But how the heck can I read this if I have to be continually trying to guess or deduce what's going on. In a page or two, another character has a monolog: who, what, where, why, when…all unknown. Faulkner seems to go to some trouble to avoid anything journalistic. And then another character speaks. And another. Each narrator has a unique style and perspective and inflection, but with no exposition, nothing so handy as an objective outside narrator to tell us in what mood we should receive these monologs. I plowed on for a few pages and then laid the book aside. Despite my obligations as the monthly club "leader." Despite my expectations for a Faulkner book. It was grueling reading and the content was grim and getting grimmer. The dialects were so idiosyncratic it made hash of the prose in some places, and yet with vivid descriptions of rain, mud, mules, floods, fires, deaths, poverty. How dense it all was. I imagined all the club members cursing me under their (genteel) breaths.
But the next time I opened the book--thinking of my obligations to lead a discussion--I could hardly put it down. The story-telling became transparent, it disappeared, and the story was a dream I was having. I was hardly aware of "reading," I was just "being" this gruesome story. As in a dream I didn't have explanations for all that happened. Things just kept getting worse. Gradually the characters' monologs accumulate, until you begin to understand, almost by intuition, it seems, the complex set of characters and events. You are drawn into a series of glimpses through one person's eyes and then another's. Different perspectives convey information about who is perceptive, who is deluded, who is blind. And now there come memories and disclosures that fill in the background, especially comments from a neighbor here or there, a gathering at the general store, critical comments of a doctor, a merchant, and others along the grueling path.
The "I" who is dying is Addie. Addie Bundren, mother of four sons and a daughter. The Darl and Jewel of the opening passage are the second (Darl) and third (Jewel) sons. The first son, a perfectionist carpenter, is Cash. Fourth is Dewey Dell, seventeen and secretly pregnant, and finally a boy who is possibly eight or nine, Vardaman. As Addie is dying, Cash is making her coffin outside her window while Dewey Dell fans her in the heat. A few neighbor women sit in the hot room with her. And she dies quietly, stoical. The trek across the hot field which began the book is a microcosm for everything that follows Addie's death: Addie is transported, without anyone "to do for her" (embalming), in a wooden coffin in an open mule-drawn wagon to be buried with her own kin at "Jefferson." They start three days late waiting for Darl and Jewel to return from a job they wanted to get done. Then the first two bridges are out because of flood. She is nine days dead by the time she is buried, with borrowed spades.
I say I was hardly aware of reading, but on the other hand I had a dual self who noticed and appreciated details of the composition. Descriptions were vivid and many of the metaphors reflected firsthand experience with rural living. A man is stunned like a steer with its head down to drink when the river disappears. Or startled like a horse jumping sideways. A child (Vardaman) who sees a man's bare legs in moonlight says "his legs got fuzzy." Faulkner knowledgeably describes attempts to get panicked livestock out of a burning barn. The mules and horses have to have their heads covered with shirts or whatever's available to become docile enough to lead. The cow, on the other hand, charges Jewel and Darl as they break the barn wall open, and disappears through the hole into the night, her tail upright and rigid. The two mules in harness who are drowned in a flood and roll in tandem "with rigid legs." Descriptions of buzzards circling, of freshly sanded boards being hand-beveled with great care for the coffin, of scrimping to get enough eggs "laid by" to make cakes. A young man's passionate attachment to a particularly stubborn and cantankerous--or, spirited--horse: Jewel fighting to hold the horse near "in a flurry of hooves." A river at full flood with trees and logs coming down, ponderous and explosive, in the surging current. The dimpled surface of the flood deceptively calm, and the cold force of stepping into the water. Cash struggling to keep the wagon on the path of a fording place with one hand, while, with the other, he tries to keep the coffin from floating free. A boy chasing vultures away from the coffin, furious and grieved. A country doctor coming out "in a cyclone" and faced with climbing up to a cabin on a steep bluff. A naïve country girl stubbornly trying to purchase something in a drugstore to end her secret pregnancy.
And lyrical passages, dense philosophy clothed in the plain language of these characters. We are well past the death in the plot when Faulkner inserts the real "stuff" Addie was thinking "as she lay dying." She reflects on how inadequate language is to express experience, describing her intimacy with an evangelical minister who came to her "clothed in desire." Her hatred of teaching school, how she married Anse Bundren to get away from it, how she hated his "love" and how her third child, Jewel, the son of the preacher, restored her to wholeness and virginity from the violations of what her husband called "love."
And ultimately of the inextricable tangles of love and hate, generosity and selfishness, deprivation and a kind of stunned acquiescence with which characters meet fates as different as the sexual victimization of Dewey Dell, the fateful "capture" of Darl, Cash's debilitating accident, Vardaman's weary confusion, Jewel's grieved devotion. And, above all, the victory of the ultimate conman, Addie's husband.
At our club discussion, almost no one had liked the book, but they were almost all glad they struggled through it. A discussion arose that kept us around the table until way past our end-time. Why do artists write about, or otherwise try to portray, the suffering of the poor and destitute? What do we "get" from receiving it? Ultimately, we concluded, the goal is to "give voice" to the voiceless, to "hear them." Which is sometimes all we can do. When women as diverse as our group don't "like" a book but then cannot stop discussing it, and to good purpose, since we talked about our various ways of trying to help students, teens at risk, poor children, abused women. And why we get discouraged, but why we don't stop. When that happens, it's a good book.
(I read the book eagerly twice after I almost quit on it.)