Friday, December 12, 2008

Books: As I Lay Dying, by William Faulkner

Though this book had a few magical passages, I’m still waiting for the Faulkner bug to bite. Nothing in his oeuvre, thus far, has compared to the sensation of reading his novella The Bear, which I did in high school; since then, I’ve started but not finished The Sound and the Fury, fought through Light in August and Sanctuary, and now finished As I Lay Dying without holding onto anything more than a tone, a dusty hopelessness, a repressed sorrow.

Here, we have a poor Southern family, whose matriarch has died. Her husband is intent on bringing her body back to her family’s home to bury it there, perhaps because he had promised to do it, perhaps because he doesn’t want to pay for the plot to do it locally. There are five children—the pragmatic Cash, a carpenter who builds her coffin himself, outside her window while she’s dying, the child Vardaman, who continually insists “my mother is a fish,” the hot-headed Jewel, who works nights to earn enough money to buy himself a horse and consequently can’t stay awake days to work his own family’s farm, the “curious” Darl, who eventually ends up in a home for the insane, though he seems the most sane of them all, and the girl, Dewey Dell, who finds herself with a pregnancy to be rid of. The five of them, with their father Anse, take to the road with their mother Addie in her coffin on a wagon, traveling day after day toward her hometown. A storm has ruined all the bridges, and the body begins to stink, bringing vultures. Still, Anse refuses to bury her anywhere but her home. All the townspeople they encounter shake their heads, try to talk sense into Anse, but he won’t listen, nor will he eat, nor will he sleep. The family refuses to “be beholden” to anyone, and refuse any greater hospitality than a barn to sleep in.

It’s while sleeping in a barn, when Addie’s been dead eight days, that Darl tries to burn the barn down, to end the mad journey. Instead, Jewel saves the coffin from the flames, and the family presses on—after sending Darl to the asylum. They do eventually reach their destination, and bury the body. Anse immediately finds another woman, and introduces her to his four remaining children; the novel ends there.

I think it’s fair to say that Faulkner is generally esteemed more for his style than his content, but his various narrators and mysticism-infused stream-of-consciousness tends to obfuscate his content, so that tone is the only thing that lasts—a haziness, an uncertainty, a rumor of disgrace. I’ve yet to decide whether this is an achievement or failure. Fame aside, I've yet to decide whether I like it.

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