When the librarian handed over the copy of Mosquitoes he crinkled his forehead. “I don’t think I’ve heard of this one.” I knew it wasn’t Faulkner’s most famous book, but sheesh. Looking at my copy, I immediately noticed that it was old. The title page said it was printed in 1956. The pages were yellowed. On the back cover someone had jotted: “Condition note: Yellowing edges, 1/3/91.” The book itself seemed to be trying to tell me that not many people read this book.
Faulkner wrote twenty novels. Seventeen of those are set in Yoknapatawpha County. And of the Yoknawpathwa stories, many contain overlapping characters. After you’ve read a few Faulkner stories, you get to know the town and you get the feeling you know what you’re getting into. I had no idea what to expect from Mosquitos.
I once heard a story about poets. If you ask two young poets why they write, and one answers “because I have something I want to say to the world.” and the second answers “because I just like playing around with words.” It will be the second who is still writing into old age.
I’m not sure how well that illustration will hold up under close scrutiny, but I am confident most successful writers enjoy playing around with words.
And that is what draws me to Faulkner’s writing. For all the fuss that scholars and English majors make over the world he created or the views of race in the south that Faulkner dwelled upon, he obviously liked to play around with words. And this is very clear in Mosquitos. Mosquitos is a playful book.
If you absolutely must know what the book is about, okay here’s the synopsis: take about a dozen artists, rich people, young people and muses and put them on a boat. That’s the gist of the plot. The rest of the novel is a series of scenes in which they all talk to one another. Many conversations linger on the meaning of art, or life, or sex. And nearly all the characters enjoy sharing their opinion on whatever the subject at hand is.
”Our forefathers reduced the process of gaining money to proverbs. But we have beaten them; we have reduced the whole of existence to fetiches”
”To words of one syllable that look well in large red type,” the Semitic man corrected.
Even though there is a lot of high-minded talk of business and art, most of the men on the yacht are more interested in drinking. Basically the host, Mrs. Maurier, has set up four nights of games and festivities. Whenever one of her activities is to commence, the men sneak out to drink and talk about art (and who they want to have sex with). Over the course of four days this scene is repeated, along with the occasional eloping and midnight skinny dips.
However it would be disingenuous to say that Mosquitos is without deeper substance. The novel has a lot to say about the role of art in society and sexuality. Faulkner talks about sex a lot in this novel and seems earnest in attempting to talk frankly about gender roles. There are feminine men and masculine women. Patricia (“Pat”) has a youthful and androgynous body that both men and women are attracted to. Eva, a poet aboard the yacht, is a lesbian who isn’t shy about entering the male-dominated discussions of art. She dominates intellectually and it is clear that the men are uncomfortable with it.
But what grabbed me in this book was not the deeper themes, but the dialogue. Many of the conversations in the book were funny:
“Or entertainment,” the Semitic man amended. “But why American scene?”
“Because our doings are so much more comical. Other nations seem to be able to entertain the possibility that God may not be a Rotarian or an Elk or a Boy Scout after all. We don’t. And convictions are always alarming, unless you are looking at them from behind.”
The waiter approached with a box of cigars. The Semitic man took one. Mr. Talliaferro finished his dinner with decorous expedition. The Semitic man said:
“My people produced Jesus, your people Christianized him. And ever since you have been trying to get him out of your church. And now that you have practically succeeded, look at what is filling the vacuum of his departure. Do you think that your new ideal of willy-nilly Service without request or recourse is better than your old ideal of humility? No, no”—as the other would have spoken—“I don’t mean as far as results go. The only ones who ever gain by the spiritual machinations of mankind are the small minority who gain emotional or mental or physical exercise from the activity itself, never the passive majority for whom the crusade is set afoot.”
“Catharsis by peristalsis,” murmured the blond young man, who was nurturing a reputation for cleverness. Fairchild said:
“Are you opposed to religion, then—in the general sense, I mean?”
“Certainly not,” the Semitic man answered. “The only sense in which religion is general is when it benefits the greatest number in the same way. And the universal benefit of religion is that it gets the children out of the house on Sunday morning.”
“But education gets them out of the house five days a week,” Fairchild pointed out.
“That’s true, too. But I am not at home myself on those days: education has already got me out of the house six days a week.”
Mosquitos is nothing like any Faulkner book I’ve read. You can certainly see a young writer fiddling around with words and having a fun time doing it. Had Faulkner been like the first poet in my illustration, I doubt that anyone would be thinking much about William Faulkner these days.