Review

Apparently (and I did not know this until now) I don’t always appreciate great literature. I read several of Faulkner’s novels years ago (Absalom, Absalom, Light in August, The Reivers, and one or two others) and found them challenging and confusing, but because I was young and really wanted to like critically favored literature, I overlooked the confusion and convinced myself that those were Great Literature and therefore Good. Enjoyable, even.

But, being no longer young, and having a better idea of what I like and don’t, I can admit it: I did not enjoy reading As I Lay Dying. It might as well have been entitled As I Lay Sleeping, because that is exactly what happened every 30 pages as I wended my way through this book.

The story is actually interesting enough, in a horrifying sort of way. The mother of a family dies (and while she is dying her eldest son, a carpenter, is building her coffin right outside her window, as she watches, and approves each board before it is cut and fitted). The father is a lazy, stubborn, useless, ignorant man who, when she has died, decides that he absolutely must bury her 40 miles away (this is Mississippi in 1920 - mud roads, and mule drawn wagons), following a storm that has washed out the only bridge to the place where he wants to bring her. Long story short: various tragedies ensue, mostly caused directly by the old man’s pigheaded refusal to take stock of reality and do what everyone has advised him: to bury her in the cemetery near his farm.

There are ways to have told this exact story that would have been entertaining and maybe even enlightening. But Faulkner chose (as he almost always did) to go all stream of consciousness and arty. Which wouldn’t be so bad - Joyce’s Ulysses, written just a couple years earlier, went that route and it was a genuine masterpiece (I think so, anyway - it’s another novel I read when I was quite young). But here the stream of consciousness just doesn’t work. Faulkner has the characters thinking and speaking in ways that no redneck, uneducated, backwoods Mississippians could ever possibly have thought or spoken. Even with a reasonable education, I had trouble parsing some of the lyrically flowing sentences that were supposedly the stream of consciousness of people who (as far as I can tell) never made it past the third grade. Whose voice, exactly, was Faulkner trying to depict? Why didn’t he simply use an omnipotent narrator telling the story alternately from the point of view of the various characters rather than have them tell the story themselves? It was ridiculous to see sentences careen from “sho enough” to things like the following:

Only her eyes seem to move. It’s like they touch us, not with sight or sense, but like the stream from a hose touches you, the stream at the instant of impact as dissociated from the nozzle as though it had never been there.

Really? Dissociated? Spiffy simile, though: eyes that “touch” like a “stream”. One thing about stream of consciousness: it would be really good if it is something that somebody, somewhere, might actually think in the spur of the moment, and not, as here, something that, though beautiful, is clearly a carefully constructed trope.

And the whole novel is like that. It’s that dissonance between who the characters are and how they (are made to) express themselves that I found most annoying.

But, maybe you are young. If so, please don’t let this curmudgeon keep you from some Great Literature.

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