Tuesday, January 03, 2006

As I Lay Dying

I avoided reading Faulkner for many years. I'm not sure why, just that I had a sense that his writing was difficult to read. But reading books that I might not otherwise read is one reason I enjoy my book club so much.

This month's book is As I Lay Dying. I read it almost in one sitting. It was compelling. Compelling like watching a train wreck.

His style is not difficult to read. In fact, he writes beautifully. Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre--now that was some difficult reading.

Architect Louis Henri Sullivan said, "Form ever follows function." This doesn't mean that function is more important than form, but as Frank Lloyd Wright said (although he didn't practice it), "form and function should be one, joined in a spiritual union." Applying that to As I Lay Dying, the form (writing) is beautiful but the function (plot and characters) is repulsive.

When I finished the book, I was desolate. I don't need happy endings in a book, but I do need a sense of hope.

The woman (PhD in English) who is leading the discussion of this book has asked me twice about the humor in the book. I just didn't see any humor as I read the book nor as I think about it. She suggested that setting Cash's leg in cement was both tragic and humorous. I thought it was only tragic. It was stupid and harmful. This is a crippled family and all of Faulkner's beautiful words did not change that underlying sense of hopelessness I felt. And I can't think of anything I "learned" because of reading this book. I already know that there are crippled people in this world; I am not tempted to set legs in concrete; I know to bury a dead body before the vultures track it; you don't cross a raging flooded river; a father doesn't steal (horses and money) from his children; you don't beat children so you can feel; and a promise to a dying loved one should be tempered by the reality of those who live.

About the only "example of language that you think is particularly poignant, or beautiful, or philosophically perspicacious," as we've been asked to note, is Cash's thoughts about Darl:
"Sometimes I aint so sho who's got ere a right to say when a man is crazy and when he aint. Sometimes I think it aint none of us pure crazy and aint none of us pure sane until the balance of us talks him that-a-way. It's like it ain't so much what a fellow does, but it's the way the majority of folks is looking at him when he does it."
Oh, and Darl's drinking stars out of the gourd at night created an especially beautiful word picture.

So am I missing the boat on this book? Should I try another Faulkner book? Are all his books desolate and repulsive?

UPDATE: Here is review of the book. I'm not sure I agree with the reasoning, although it gives me some things to ponder, such as the implied relativism of the form of the narrative. However, perhaps the conclusion, that it is not only bad but evil, would explain my sense of desolation after I finished the story.


Lucy said...

"Faulkner's" writings seem to mirror his/her own personal hopelessness. Their autobiograpy reads as depressing as their works of fiction. All the beautiful words (whether they actually were his or his wife's) can't disguise the inherent bitternesss of the writer.

Yep, all his books are like this. Some even worse. At least this one was well-written.

jennifer said...

Okay, so maybe I lied about ALL of Faulkner's books having at least a grace note of redemption in them. You're right that this one doesn't.

A particularly eloquent reviewer of the book describes it as "the center of Faulkner's achievement, a slowburning pyre of savage eloquence...Faulkner, for all his elliptic poetry and stirring folkways, does not throw the buoy out to our drowning readerly hearts."

I too didn't find much humor in the hijinks of this tragically ignorant, stupid, depraved and/or insane family. Sadly, it's not an unrealistic depiction of a profoundly distasteful family....here, uniquely Southern and back-hills, but there are plenty of wealthy families who can be just as sad and repulsive.

Take the Lears, for example. If you demand "hope" at the end of your tragedies, don't read Shakespeare. King Lear tells the story of a [royal] family that is just as depraved as the Bundrens. The only satisfaction you get is that all the "bad guys" are killed off at the end...not much of a consolation when Lear carries his dead daughter out of the prison cell, screaming with grief. What a sordid epiphany...a scorched-earth policy of the heart. You are cleansed only by the tears you cry over the depravities of the play.

At least in Faulkner no one gets raped and their tongue cut out, as in Ovid or Shakespeare.

I would have to quibble with Lucy's comment. Faulkner's canon is so widely varied. One story where he successfully pulls off the macabre humor touted by your PhD friend is "A Rose for Emily," which is well-wrought and quite darkly humorous (think of Dicken's Miss Havisham as a Steel Magnolia); overall a positive story about feminie pride and strength. And a Faulkner novel that focuses on strength and redemptionin the face of war is "The Unvanquished," which is about the noble Sartoris family in the Civil War.

I also think it's a mistake to conflate an author's literary corpus with his literal corpus; although Faulkner had his struggles (notably with alcoholism) he was deeply passionate about the South and, as Sherwood Anderson recommended, wrote about what he knew. His stories are, at heart, about the fallen, depraved South and its need for redemption. At the same time, Faulkner's plot and characters are REAL, if compressed. My uncle, a police detective, could match him character for character...there are a lot of evil, stupid people that would make the "Dying" gang look like lightweights. In fact, if you just used the police blotter from the month of December, you could write a darn good Faulknerian story of your own here in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

Earth Girl said...

I was talking to Aunt Katharine during her last visit and she said she stopped reading books she didn't enjoy. I thought that was an interesting aspect of reaching 88 years and decided my life is too short to read about depravity without redemption or suffering without hope. (So forget King Lear.) And no matter what has happened to me, I still have hope. "More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us." (Romans 5:3-5) Faulkner's characters suffered and endured. But for most of them that did not produce character and hope, perhaps because we did not see God's love poured into their hearts.

And please, Jennifer, don't write a book about December in Indiana. Make it a book about spring. Listening to your uncle during the pickle party, I had to give him a little squeeze and bless him for what he does, because I sure couldn't do it. It reminds me to cover our law enforcement people in prayer.

tgs said...

This is the second time I have written this response, but I don't think I published it. If you it shows up twice, read the best written version.

I have come to appreciate Faulkner as a master wordsmith and as a writer who provides insight into what he calls "the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself." I prefer his short stories to his novels as a rule; however, I do like "Light in August" and "The Sound and The Fury." I did not like "As I Lay Dying" when I encountered it for the first time in college. I could barely stand to read it. I did not like the way the story was told - I had no appreciation then for multiple points of view - and I did not like the characters.

It is still not one of my favorite books; however, I have come to see it in new ways. I find little humor in the story, but some of my AP students who choose Faulkner for their laureate do find humorous moments. The one they most frequently point out is "My mother is a fish." There is a certain humor there until you realize the meaning that engenders it - the boy's understanding of death. Still humor is based on just such aspects of life. Humor is founded in suffering and tragedy. And yet, I never think of Faulkner as remotely connected to humor.

I agree with Jennifer's assessment of Faulkner and his focus on the fallen South and his depiction of real people. Such people produce some of the children who walk into my classroom every day. They are certainly not all depraved or stupid, but I find that some of them are when I get to know their stories. For me Faulkner's people are reminders that everyone does not live as I do, nor have the same values or intellect or knowledge. And these people will probably not change and not be redeemed - just as many of Faulkner's characters do not. That is the tragedy.

I am reminded of Toni Morrison's novels here. In "The Bluest Eye" Pecula is driven into madness by the physical abuse she suffers at the hands of her father and the psychological abuse she suffers from her family and community. She is demeaned for the darkness of her skin and her ugliness by a society whose standard of beauty is having white features. Morrison shows the long term effects of slavery, racism and discrimination have on the community and the individual -effects that none of them recognize but which are destructive to their self-esteem and their humanity. The tragedy is that they do not understand that which destroys. The power and artistry of Morrison's work does make us understand, and so she achieves what Faulkner says a writer must.

Faulkner insists that this is what a writer must do - write about "the old verities and truths of the heart...love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice." None of the characters in As I Lay Dying reflect the positive side of these qualities. But in showing us what they are, Faulkner does not celebrate them or suggest that they are a reflection of what modern man has become. In showing what they are, he also reveals what they lack, calling on us to recognize what is missing, what is wrong, what is depraved. We can do that only because we know the value of a life lived differently. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Faulkner says, "I believe that man will not merely endure; he will prevail. He is immortal not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet's, the writer's, duty is to write about these things." It seems to me that Faulkner does write about these things in "As I Lay Dying" through the characters who shows us that the heart in conflict with itself belongs not to the characters in the novel but to us.