“As I Lay Dying”… to read Faulkner

Before composing my second blog post on Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, I found myself searching out some inspiration. One of the challenging aspects of writing these posts is not the time they take nor the time it takes to read the book, but trying to make sure that they’re not just summary, that they’re also creative. I was looking at Mr. Schenck’s blog, to find out how to balance the two, when I happened to stumble on this post about William Faulkner. I don’t know what did me in, between the moving introductory anecdote or the talk of Faulkner being very verbose, I had a feeling that Faulkner would be right up my alley.

I searched endlessly, following reading that blog post, to try to find any of his writing but he evaded all viable means of capture. Oddly enough, following my Faulkner-related mission, a copy of As I Lay Dying magically appeared in my life. I shall not dive into the circumstances revolving around the title’s sudden appearance, but let’s just say I had an unexpected visitor during sixth period who went out of their way to ensure I wouldn’t miss out on what Faulkner had to offer — you just had to be there. While it’s not the prettiest books I own, it might be the most treasured.

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Following Heart of Darkness, I’m less satiated by ‘easy’ reads than I used to be. They’re too cookie cutter. Faulkner was adequately challenging. In As I Lay Dying the book alternates narrators, focusing on the Bundren Family. While at first, this aspect of the text was especially disorienting and challenging, looking back, in using this technique he provided an added layer of meaning to the text.

For a book with death in the title, you wouldn’t expect it to be particularly funny, but there’s some dark humor peppered throughout the book. When I wasn’t laughing, I was shouting at the characters–mostly regarding Anse’s antics–because of the all the crazy stuff they got up to. The plot of the text follows the Bundren Family after the death of Addie Bundren, who is mother of Cash, Darl, Jewel, Dewey Dell, and Vardaman and wife to Anse. The Bundren’s aren’t exactly The Brady Bunch. Jewel is Addie’s favorite, but he also happens to be an ‘illegitimate’ child. Addie was quite the rebel rouser in her day and lucky for her the apple(s) don’t fall from the tree, with Dewey Dell pregnant and Jewel moonlighting to buy a horse.

As I was warned, Faulkner is “turgid“. Instead of trying to sum up the text, like I have in my previous posts, with the Bundren’s journey and their quest to bury Addie in Jefferson,  I figured I’d dissect a few of my favorite passages. There’s something about his writing that makes me think of poetry. It’s pleasing to read and thought-provoking.

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This quote illustrates what I like most about Faulkner’s writing. It’s obscure and unnecessary in the best possible way. Faulkner’s books are the Sundance films of their day, in the sense that they’re both filled with inexplicable passion that can only be felt through experiencing it first hand (my summary would do it no justice, so I’ll let you bask in the genius of the man himself). This passage is a puzzle wrapped in an enigma. This quote pleases me greatly because of the way he plays with language. Wow I’m such an English geek. On to the next quote:

“That’s what he was trying to say. When something is new and hard and bright, there ought to be something a little better for it than just being safe, since the safe things are just the things that folks have been doing so long they have worn the edges off and there’s nothing to the doing of them that leaves a man to say, That was not done before and it cannot be done again,” (125)

This quote I was drawn to because, honestly, I’m just a sucker for some good life advice. While advice from books doesn’t even kinda compare to the real, in-person, sort of advice; this conjecture made by Darl is worth thinking about. The syntax of this quote isn’t as interesting as the one proceeding it. However, something about it that I thought was intriguing was the sequence of three adjectives “new and hard and bright”. I think it’s particularly interesting that instead of Faulkner writing ‘new, hard, and bright’ he splits them with using two coordinating conjunctions. This makes the adjective hold more weight. I can myself using this same structuring in my future writing conquests. Upon second inspections (and after delving into the dark depths of Salinger), I’ve realized how hopeful this quote is. It’s saturated with some sort of inherent goodness that something new and different is better, just for the sake of it being new and different. In a dim book, this hopefulness is reassuring.

There’s two more oddities in the text that I want to discuss, so I’m going to apologize in not-quite-so advance for the length of this post. The first of these topics is Faulkner’s use of symbol integrated into the text of the book. I mean look at that coffin, isn’t that interesting? It just adds to th3eeec949fc363f31e9601fd77b8b4cf6e unconventionality of As I Lay Dying. Last, but certainly not least (I know, I know, 800 words later), there’s a strange interplay of animals in the book. Vardaman declares, “My mother is a fish”. Later in the text, there’s a remarkably strange scene where Darl says that Jewel’s mother is a horse. While I’m sure that Faulkner was making a conjecture about the fact that there’s something different about Jewel’s lineage than Darl’s, the way the idea is presented couldn’t be further from obvious. I love it.

For all of you faint of heart, there’s a movie version  of Faulkner’s masterpiece with James Franco as Darl. From the trailer, I can tell it translates the poeticism and obscure quality of his writing, that I loved so much when I was reading As I Lay Dying, relatively well. In dealing with some of the plot, however, the movie is a tad more obvious. It’s much more difficult to convey what happens between the lines of a book , in a movie format. Faulkner’s lean towards being abstruse may turn some readers off, but it’s what I loved about the book. If I’ve said anything worth taking to heart in the last 900 and some odd words, it’s that dense writing is often worth reading. And while I may be partial to Faulkner because of my inherited passion for him, I think he’s worth a read.

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