Faulkner is like wine, jazz or comic books. If you’ve ever been in a room with wine-snobs you know what I mean. Wine enthusiasts can throw out phrases like “a corpulent wine with a finish of currants and raisons.” I’ve heard jazz cats wax poetic about time signatures and argue about the merits of bebop versus modal. I’ve yet to understand the comic book geeks.
Don’t get me wrong, I love every minute of these discussions. And I recognize the fact that in order to talk about things, you must have words for things. Jargon is bound to arise. I secretly wish I could rise to these heights of jazz and wine appreciation. However, the culture of high-level appreciation—and the ten-dollar words associated with it—can unintentionally cause the subject to become intimidating to a new-comer. We get too fixated on finding the right bouquet in a wine and forget that we’re simply supposed to be enjoying how it tastes.
The literary world can be a bit highfalutin as well. Southern gothic literature may not take up a lot of space on the shelf, but it’s a sub-genre that weighs a lot for its size, and William Faulkner casts a long shadow on southern literature. His writing is famously difficult. He experimented with Stream of consciousness writing. He spoke about race-relations in a time of rapidly changing culture.
We can get fixated on these literary aspects—you could even argue that these aspects are the meat of what makes Faulkner cast his long shadow—but we run the risk of missing out on the fact that Faulkner can just be fun to read. As I Lay Dying is a great example. Southern country accents are spelled out so precisely you can practically hear them. The relationships between the “country folk” and the “city folk” is played out in vivid detail. But let’s not talk about that here. Let’s talk about the fact that As I Lay Dying is a fun—and downright comical—book to read.
The Sound and the Fury had four sections, each told from a different point of view. As I Lay Dying takes the concept a bit further. It has 59 chapters, each told by one of 15 characters. None of which can be considered a reliable narrator. Indeed, the fun part of reading the book is simply sussing out who to believe.
I feel obligated in these posts to explain the story of the book. However, with As I Lay Dying this seems disingenuous. To me, the story is not the important part. It’s the characters, and the way the story is revealed that makes the book fun. Also, to tell the story would be to give the impression that the book is dark, heavy and tragic. It is dark and tragic, but it’s also very funny.
The story concerns the death of Addie Bundren and her family’s quest to bury her in Jefferson, a few miles away. The story is told from the point of view of each of the family members and by the neighbors and the townspeople who encounter the Bundrens along the way.
Almost all of the Bundrens have ulterior motives for the trip. One son is using it as an excuse to drop his tools off at a church—so he can stop and do some carpentry work on the way back—and to buy a record player while in town. Another son hopes to buy a toy train and eat some bananas (bananas being unavailable in the country). The father, Anse, himself is hoping to get “some new teeth” so that he can “eat god’s victuals as He intended.” I won’t reveal what the lone daughter is seeking, as that may spoil a bit of the story as it unfolds.
Darl (Addie’s second oldest son) narrates more chapters than anyone else. Much of the story involves a sibling rivalry he has with his younger, illegitimate brother, Jewel. Darl and Jewel are the only members of the family who are going purely to bury their mother.
To say the family encounters troubles along the way would be an understatement. Much bad luck befalls them. But a lot of the bad luck is brought upon themselves due to Anse’s stupidity and laziness.
That is the story, but reciting the story misses the point. The real joy in reading this book is learning the motivations of characters who may be hiding them.
After finishing As I Lay Dying, I read the section in the back called Editor’s Notes. Reading the editor’s notes of a Faulkner book is always a treat. They usually just explain why they, for example, chose to use two consecutive em dashes to represent the passages where Faulkner seemingly just hammered away at the hyphen key. Editing Faulkner must have been a nightmare. Correcting previously published text to accurately reflect Faulkner’s intention must be pretty tedious as well.
The editor’s notes opens:
This volume reproduces the text of As I Lay Dying that has been established by Noel Polk. The copy-text for this novel is William Faulkner’s own ribbon typescript setting copy…
Typical academic stuff. Deeper into the notes, however, was a little nugget I had not realized:
203.24 Yoknapatawpha county] The first appearance of the name of what Faulkner would call “my apocryphal county.”
There, on line 24 of page 203 was the first mention of Yoknapatwpha county. This was the third book set in the county. But this was the first mention of the county by name. I’m not quite sure how I hadn’t noticed that before.
I can only image that things only get richer from here.