The story centers on a Mississippian family of seven which quickly becomes six when the matron, Addie Bundren, passes. To fulfill her dying wish that she be buried in Jefferson—a city far from their own—the children accompany their father in a wagon journey beset by physical and emotional obstacles. Just as Addie confronts the Great Unknown, her family faces unfamiliar territory while they get her earthly arrangements in order.
One redeeming quality of this novel is its range of narration. Each chapter is told from the viewpoint of a different character. For instance, “Darl” is told by Darl, “Cash” is told by Cash, “Vardaman” is told by Vardaman, “Anse” is told by Anse, etc. Most of the time, the characters get more than one chance to express their POV. I think we can all agree that Southern names in the early 1930s are ridiculous and that the diction is generally bleh. Then again, nowadays there are children named Apple. Nevertheless, depicting the same scene from a multitude of angles unlocks a deluge of juicy family secrets. As the novel progresses, a back story develops and certain suspicions piece together nicely. The chapter expressed from Addie’s own perspective after her death was by far the most articulate and entertaining.
This potential face-saving structure is rapidly overthrown when you find out that the majority of the characters suck. They are simpletons with an unwavering trust in God and a completely impractical self-righteous sense of duty. Their stubbornness annoyed me to no end and the fact that everyone was putting themselves at risk of dying just to bury someone who was already dead was something that I couldn’t get behind. Somebody get this lady in the ground STAT.
Of course, although their actions bothered me, they were tied to some heart-tugging themes. There was a recurrent emphasis on self sufficiency and superfluous struggle—a mentality of not being beholden to others. I would have swallowed my pride hella fast if it meant I could sleep in a bed rather than a barn—I’m not Jesus in the manger last time I checked. An extension of this belief is that a hard life filled with diligent, patient work is divinely rewarded. But overall, “the reason for living was to get ready to stay dead for a long time” (Faulkner, 169). That sure makes me want to go to work every day!
Without giving too much away-- because the faint, sporadic surprises are really all this book has going for it—there is also a concern with loyalty, both in death and in life. When someone dies with guilt and lies, do those untruths linger and haunt or do they disappear with the body? There is a delicate balance between both sides of existence and impermanence is not easily accepted. Faulkner embodies this notion concretely in events and more subtly when he plays with words like “is” and “was” to experimentally toy with states of being. It is worth noting that the book contains some profound insights into human nature. The conception that people are “built” just like things is driven home by the wood motif. Additionally, eyes are a repeatedly stressed symbol. His character descriptions revolve around eye movements and optical imagery. As windows into the soul and gatekeepers of secrets, they both divulge and witness incidents that they should not.
To be fair, there are moments of dazzling eloquence in this work. Here are two examples:
· “It is as though upon a face carved by a savage caricaturist a monstrous burlesque of all bereavement flows” (Faulkner, 78)
· “We go on, with a motion so soporific, so dreamlike as to be uninferant of progress, as though time and not space were decreasing between us and it” (Faulkner, 107)
I enjoyed reading that. That was nice. But it’s fluff. You can’t just have a shitty story with a few beautiful sentences littered throughout and expect me to walk away focusing on the bright side. His words have a Joseph Conrad flair, and sure enough, the back of the book likens Faulkner to his Polish contemporary. My reservations with As I Lay Dying and Heart of Darkness are striking similar. Consider this passage instead:
· “Cash tried but she fell off and Darl jumped going under he went under and Cash hollering to catch her and I hollering running and hollering and Dewey Dell hollering at me Vardaman you vardaman you vardaman and Vernon passed me because he was seeing her come up and she jumped into the water again and Darl hadn’t caught her yet He came up to see and I hollering catch her Darl catch her and he didn’t come back because she was too heavy he had to go on catching at her and I hollering catch her darl catch her darl because in the water she could go faster than a man and Darl had to grabble for her so I knew he could catch her because he is the best grabbler even with the mules in the way again they dived up rolling their feet stiff rolling down again and their backs up now and Darl had to again because in the water she could go faster than a man or a woman and I passed Vernon and he wouldn’t get in the water and help Darl he wouldn’t grabble for her with Darl he knew but he wouldn’t help…” (Faulkner, 150).
No, I didn’t fall asleep with my head smashed on the keyboard… that’s how the novel was actually written. I get that Faulkner was trying to muster up an image of chaos through his speech pattern, but that is not enjoyable to read. He takes stream of consciousness too far—beyond the realm of tolerability. Moreover, his unusual use of punctuation—especially with dialogue—struck me as bewildering rather than inventive. And that’s precisely how I’d sum it all up: terribly confusing in a feeble attempt to be early-20th-century-edgy. There are so many amazing books out there with fabulous writing that are simultaneously sensical. Read those!
Clearly, I’m not crazy about this overly revered garbage. I don’t appreciate having to brain-strain to get through bulky, uninhabitable sentences just to reach the stunningly beautiful ones. Please convey your story to me in a less brutal way. I always rate with the act of recommendation in mind. If I graciously bestow a book 3 humps or more, that means I would recommend it. If it’s a 3, it might not be for everybody; if it’s a 5, I think that everyone should read it at some point. As I Lay Dying gets 1 out of 5 camel humps. Truthfully, I would not suggest reading this to my worst enemy. I’m more intrigued by the metal band named after the book, pictured below.
*Faulkner, William. As I Lay Dying. New York: Vintage Books, 1930. Print.