Tuesday, November 1, 2011

#35 - William Faulkner's "As I Lay Dying"

My mother is a fish.

My roommate and I have a game that we play every now and then called “Appreciate, but Do Not Like”. It’s not really as much a game as it is a conversation starter and a way to pass the time. It’s totally self-explanatory; we just take turns saying things that we appreciate the usefulness of but do not enjoy, and why. Take vacuum cleaners. I appreciate the thing they do, and a clean carpet is always nice, but I really don’t like the noise they make. See what I mean? That appreciate-but-do-not-like feeling is exactly the feeling I have about William Faulkner.

#35 on our list is Faulkner’s 1930 novel As I Lay Dying. It is a story about a family in Mississippi told in fifteen difference voices over the course of fifty-nine chapters, about the death and burial of Addie Bundren. The story is told mostly from the perspectives of her husband Anse, who insensitivity is only matched by his ignorance, her sons Jewel (illegitimate, a product of her affair with a neighbor), Darl (the only remotely articulate one of the bunch, committed to a mental facility by the end), Cash (who builds his mother’s coffin outside her window while she watches), Vardaman (honestly, who came up with these names) and her daughter Dewey Dell, a teenaged girl who got herself in an unfortunate situation and spends most of the novel trying to get an abortion with the ten dollars her baby’s father gave her before sending her on her way.

This story is a symphony of voices. Faulkner captured the dialect beautifully, and wrote male and female characters, children and the elderly, all with equal dexterity. I cringed at Anse’s (the widower) totally self-involvement- his main motivation for going on the pilgrimage to Jefferson seems not to be because he wanted to fulfill a promise to his dying wife, but because he can get a new set of wooden teeth there. To make matters worse, he brings back a new wife along with the teeth. His portrayal of a child’s grieving process is moving- it is from there that we get the famous line “My mother is a fish.” (That line is in fact a chapter unto itself.) How Vardaman (whose age is never explicitly stated, but is often estimated to be about ten years old) copes with carrying his dead mother on procession to the town she wanted to be buried in, and how he keeps the secret of his sister’s pregnancy is so delicate and innocent you can’t help but feel for him:

“And so I am going to know where they stay to night soon. They come across the house, going across the yard in the moon, carrying her on their shoulders. They carry her down to the barn, the moon shining flat and quiet on her. Then they come back and go into the house again…And then I waited and I said Dewey Dell? And then I waited and then I went to find where they stay at night and then I saw something that Dewey Dell told me not to tell nobody.”

Stylistically, this is obviously a really well-done book. That being said, I couldn’t say I enjoyed it. Unless you’re really invested in the voices of impoverished farmspeople in the early twentieth century Deep South, this is not a book you’re going to want to slog through. The voices and motivations of the characters are so remote and difficult to access, it often seemed to me like they were motivated by nothing at all, and I can honestly say that there was only one character in the book with any self-awareness at all, which I found really frustrating.

Maybe you’ll find the regionalism charming- and the book does have some really well crafted moments of dark humor. I appreciated how well this book was written, but I didn't enjoy reading it- but you just might.



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