Wednesday, July 15, 2015

As I Lay Dying

        As I Lay Dying* is a title all too fitting for its contents. It describes verbatim how I personally felt while reading it prostrate. This was my first Faulkner read and I desperately wanted to like him. A name like his appeals to my obnoxious side because it affirms that I’m reading “one of the greats”—a Nobel Prize and Pulitzer Prize winner no less! I was instantaneously disappointed. I dove in to his literary waters so sanguinely and emerged horrified, as if I’d been pushed into a crocodile-infested swamp. I kept thinking get me the hell out of here as I dejectedly trudged through all 267 pages.

        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.


  1. I had similar feelings after my first reading of As I Lay Dying. It was also my introduction to Faulkner, and it probably would have been my last interaction with his stories had I not studied English at school. I was forced to read some of his pieces for different classes, however, and I eventually developed a fondness for his work. If you have a second, I’d like to direct you to his Nobel Prize acceptance speech. It’s clear and concise, the cadence and content quite breathtaking, in my opinion. And don’t worry, the punctuation is more or less conventional. Here’s a link:

    What do you think? Despite its divergence from the narration of As I Lay Dying, the “truths” Faulkner alluded to, they are indeed embedded within the story. I had to read it three times to parse the characters and plot—once under the guidance of a published Faulkner scholar. I had some help, so maybe I can lend you a hand too.

    The text of As I Lay Dying, like most literature, is a discourse: a conversation between the speaker and the reader. Faulkner’s narrators, however, are less approachable than many others: they very rarely reveal his "verities" overtly and can even be unreliable at times. You must therefore engage the narrative actively to extricate what is unwritten but not unspoken. Analyzing that which is explicit will allow you to fill in the gaps and derive an interpretation of the text. We have a fancy word for this in the English department: exegesis.

    You seem to have stood at the precipice of intimate engagement with As I Lay Dying: “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,” you wrote (emphasis added). Yes, it is absurd that the Bundrens make such herculean efforts to escort the corpse to Jefferson! That frustration should have impelled you to ask the characters why why why why why why, thus beginning your exegesis; instead, I feel like you pulled the kill switch before you got going.

  2. I suggest you give As I Lay Dying a second chance, first impressions being what they are. On the second pass, I would encourage you to enjoy the images and delve more deeply into the characters. Search for the “human heart in conflict with itself”—figure out what’s at stake for each character, what he or she has to gain or lose during the journey to Jefferson. The characters’ relationships—to each other, to Addie—their words, and their actions reveal their motivations and beliefs. And they are not “simpletons.”

    Reality expands and contracts with one’s perception. The more you look, the more there is—all real characters are complex and nuanced. Characterizations thus reveal more about the observer than the observed. The Bundrens are far from one-dimensional; let the ambiguity of the text illuminate them. And resist the urge to equate Faulkner with the first person narrators. Then you can focus on narrative effect instead of guessing at authorial intention. Maybe then the characters will come to life for you as they did for me.

    If you’d rather not revisit As I Lay Dying, that’s fine too. Many find the inaccessibility of Faulkner’s work disenchanting. I felt the same way initially, and there are plenty of good authors out there. Unfortunately, impenetrability is often correlated with critical consecration. The inaccessibility that engenders critics’ acclaim—which in turn attracts readers—concurrently inhibits general consumption. That is less ironic than you might think. And that’s why I now appreciate being forced to confront Faulkner during school.

    On the bright side, I’m glad you didn’t start with The Sound and the Fury—that’s a nightmare on the first go, and it’s longer (not to mention, of course, the “reducto absurdum of all human experience”). I’ll leave you with a quote from Faulkner regarding that piece because I keep it in mind whenever I read his work: “I wrote this book and learned to read.”

    Hope you give Faulkner another chance! I enjoy reading the blog—keep it up and happy reading.

    P.S. Regarding the face-roll passage, I agree. But here’s another vantage point. Literature students, professors, and critics tend to spend a great deal of time discussing “form” and “content.” Whether Faulkner “was trying to muster up an image of chaos” is unanswerable; however, it is clear that the narrative’s “form” and “content” become intertwined and indistinguishable at that moment—the passage is chaos. That can indeed make the discourse “not enjoyable to read” at first. But imagine how it felt for Vardaman.

  3. Hey Andrew :). Sorry that I've taken forever to respond! With a laidback blog like this, it’s always a struggle for me to find the balance between thorough literary analysis and keeping readers interested/entertained. When I read a book, I annotate and keep a detailed list of notes on characters, narration, syntax, etc. When I write my review, I hold back a great deal of my thoughts in order to make it accessible and avoid having it read like an English paper. While I definitely think the novel requires multiple-reads to fully grapple with the characters, on a personal level, I want you to know that I analyzed the text more than my review implies. I agree that impenetrability does not necessarily imply greatness and that just because a work is enigmatic doesn’t mean that it offers anything of value. By the same token, challenging novels—in the sense that its complexities are deeply embedded and sometimes difficult to get at—absolutely deserve critical thinking. This novel feels like a brick wall that has to be carefully chiseled in order to reveal the Faulkner’s intricacies. At this point in time, I don’t feel like what is on the other side of the wall is worth the effort; but, I greatly respect your opinion and I’m willing to try him again in the future. I was originally put off by Dostoevsky, but have come to love him as an author. Admiration often derives from familiarity, which is what seems to have happened for you. After reading the speech you sent me, I’m already more fond of him and I think his perspective on the human condition and the writer’s role is enlightened.

    In my recommendation, I also try to be conscious of how the average reader would feel about the novel. In this case, you had the guidance of professors and classmates which ultimately led you to appreciate the book and its nuances much more than before. The vast majority of those who read my blog don’t have access to those resources, and the assumption behind my recommendation—or lack thereof—is that they would not enjoy As I Lay Dying without the assistance of an English department.