Tuesday, May 1, 2012

"As I Lay Dying" by William Faulkner:

“Some people say they can't
understand your writing,
even after they read it
two or three times.
What approach would you
suggest for them?”

Faulkner: “Read it four times”.

"My mother is a fish"

What does a sentence like that mean? And what do you make of a book that has a chapter containing nothing but this weird single sentence?

It has all to do with representation I guess; with Mimesis, as the Greeks used to call it, the perception and the rendering of reality through fiction. Of reality I should say, a truth, for does the truth really exist and can we reproduce it in our narratives?

After the dead end reached by the Realists and the Naturalists in depicting the “real” world around them, Artists of the late 19th and early 20th century had to try alternative ways to get even closer to that elusive “experience of reality”. Painters were switching to impressionism and later to expressionism and writers were looking at new ways to tell their stories. Not only did they find new techniques, but in the process they uncovered a plethora of philosophical issues, which today still occupy our greatest minds.

The American writer William Faulkner (1897 – 1962) is one of the masters of these experimental writings. Through the genius of his craft, he earned himself a Nobel Prize and a permanent seat in the Canon of World literature.

It is therefore fitting, when appraising “As I lay dying” to look at the “Art” first, to study the way Faulkner tells his story before we look at the narrative that emerges from the pages of this brilliant book.

Questioned about how he started to work on his novel, Faulkner said:  “I simply imagined a group of people and subjected them to the simple universal natural catastrophes, which are flood and fire, with a simple natural motive to give direction to their progress”.

That simple group of people is the Bundren family: father Anse and the four children, the grown-up boys Cash, Darl and Jewel, the seventeen year old daughter Dewey Dell and Vardaman the youngest.

The reason they “move” is to indulge their deceased Mother’s last wish to be buried with her “kin” in Jefferson, the fictional county capital, 40 miles away from where they live.
Place? Somewhere in Faulkner’s fictional Southern county of Yoknapatawpha.
Time? Probably in the same year as when Faulkner wrote his book, 1929.

The Art

The most noticeable feature of “As I lay dying” is that Faulkner uses multiple narratives to tell his story. Fifteen characters to be more precise, all witnesses of the Brundren’s odyssey, with 15 different viewpoints, who in turn relate a part of the story as it develops.

No one tells the whole story but all of them get their say. Each time Faulkner switches the viewpoint, he uses a new chapter, (part is a better word), and uses the name of the narrator as a title. Faulkner switches the narrator 59 times and the book is thus chopped up in 59 short (some very short) chapters. But rather than being cumbersome this is a big aid to the attentive reader.

Who speaks and at what moment is important.

The voice of Darl, for example is used when things are straightforward but in period of crisis, when all is chaos and mayhem, when the mother dies for instance or when an accident happens, we look at the events through the naïve eyes and thoughts of young Vardaman, which enhances the confusion.

Darl, the second oldest boy takes the word nineteen times and his kid brother 10 times. Together they account thus for half of the voices of the book.

Faulkner is aware that the numerous viewpoint technique is demanding for the reader and he takes the necessary precautions, when we need a summary of the situation, to insert a “reliable”, rational view outside the Bundren family group. This is the role of the “neighbours” who offer, often un-demanded their opinions and views on what is happening to the Brundrens. So there are Mr and Mrs Cora Tull, their immediate and nosy neighbours ( together they account for 10 chapters ) and the different “hosts” along the route ( 3 chapters ). The remaining chapters are divided between the other Brundrens ( Pa, Dewey Dell and Cash ), the doctor who twice assesses the physical damage and two voices from men who give ill advice and take advantage of Dewey.

The most surprising of viewpoints, is the dead Mother, who bloated and stinking in her coffin has her opinion too.

When I say that the fifteen characters “relate” the story, it is not entirely correct. Faulkner uses even more techniques. We are in the head of these fifteen characters, each with their own interests and biases, and the chapters are not only relations of what they see and what they hear but also their interior monologues, stream of consciousness, thoughts. It is as if thoughts are being read as the characters are thinking them. They are also not per se reliable, for the characters recall occurrences that they didn’t witness, there are their thoughts, sometimes misbegotten, fantasies, dreams, lies…

Finally, to complete the realistic appearance of his book, Faulkner renders huge chunks of what the characters say in a phonetic rendition of their simple country folk vernacular, in their “hilly-billy language”. This is an additional difficulty for the reader and one has to get accustomed to it.

Now does the use of these techniques work ?

Yes they do, and very much so. Faulkner’s technique is incredibly effective. It made reading “As I lay dying”, at least for me, into some corporeal experience, visceral and at moments literally gut-wrenching.

The reason for that is that Faulkner effectively bypasses the third – person omniscient narrator. The only omniscient one in fact, is the reader himself who, if he takes the pains to read closely and fill the gaps empathically, pieces all the voices together into a tapestry showing his version of the “true circumstances” of the story. Together with the omniscient narrator, the author steps aside and pushes the reader as it were to the front row of the spectacle. Because of this, we get a more limited but intimate perspective.
There is no one left to soften the emotional blows between what happens to the characters and how it is experienced by the reader.

Early in 1956, Jean Stein, the very young editor of the “Paris Review” interviewed William Faulkner. Through his answers, Faulkner sounds a bit annoyed, cocky, arrogant even and we cannot know if he means what he says about his writing or if he is showing off in front of that nice woman. Fact is that what he says in the interview and what I have experienced while reading “As I lay dying” doesn’t really match.

Take for instance what he says about the writing of As I Lay Dying : ". . . I wrote it in six weeks, without changing a word." Faulkner endorsed herewith the myth he had initiated in the introduction of the 1932 Modern Library publication of Sanctuary where he implied that he had the whole book in his head and that he banged it crisp and clear out of his typewriter in a handful of evenings (Faulkner had a twelve-hour-a-day manual job during the day). This bold statement captivated the imagination of the reading public and back-cover blurbs and admiring blogs have since then consistently emphasized this “tour de force”.

Such remarks make Faulkner appear as some kind of literary freak, an autistic savant who masterminded the whole complexity of his brilliant book within his head. Even if it were true, As I lay dying does not need the myth of an “immaculate conception” to be lauded as a tremendous, baffling piece of literature. Even if it took a lot of work, reshuffling the 59 chapters, checking them for the correct voice and consistency and even if Faulkner worked with index cards, like Alain Robbe – Grillet explained when he wrote his “Gommes”, there is no need to present Faulkner as a freak to be impressed by the book he wrote.

When Jean Stein asked him afterwards if there was a formula to follow to be a good novelist, Faulkner confessed:  “. . . ninety-nine percent discipline . . . ninety-nine percent work” and then he added “…Ninety-nine percent talent…”. When questioned about inspiration, he answered “I don't know anything about inspiration because I don't know what inspiration is—I've heard about it, but I never saw it”.

But later he took away all confusion and said: “Sometimes technique charges in and takes command of the dream before the writer himself can get his hands on it. That is tour de force and the finished work is simply a matter of fitting bricks neatly together, since the writer knows probably every single word right to the end before he puts the first one down. This happened with As I Lay Dying. It was not easy. No honest work is. It was simple that all the material was already at hand.

The Story

The story that emerges form the pages of “As I lay dying” is the story of the Brundren family. Addie Bundren, a mother of five, has died and her husband decides to cart her coffin to the town of Jefferson to bury her with her kin as she requested on her deathbed. The whole family embarks on a delayed macabre funeral journey. Beside father Anse, there are the young adult sons Cash, Darl and Jewel, the seventeen year old daughter Dewey Dell and the boy Vardaman.

It is summer time. The hot days are cooled by regular torrential rains that swell the river. The flood, accidents along the road and personal matters slow down the family and turns their voyage in a dark odyssey. The corpse of the mother starts decomposing and the stench soon attracts scavenger birds.

Anse Bundren is adamant about burying his wife in Jefferson and his children undergo the terrible conditions of their trip. All of them seem to have their own agendas as they travel toward the burial. But Anse, in his monomaniacal obsession to execute his wife last wish, is no Ahab. In the terrible conclusion of the book we understand that even Anse’s folly is not even genuine.

Despite the simple plot and Faulkner diminishing his story, I found that the odyssey of the Bundren family had the allures of a Christian allegory, the strength of a dark parable, a metaphor of life. But is also a ghastly comedy, it is a Southern Gothic after all.

Cash, the carpenter son, just like Jesus, is taking all the physical suffering. The family sin  he suffers most from is their ignorance but all other mortal sins are present in one way or another. Anse Brundren, who has never seen sweating, is a personification of Sloth. The extremely fat doctor Peabody, who has to be hauled up the hill with mules, is Gluttony. There is the pride of Jewel, the rebel. Lust is present too: Dead mother Addie confesses it in her oblong box. Lust is also the cause of Dewey Dell’s misfortune and constant treat. There is the greed of the horse trader, the Wrath of Darl and even the envy to have a toy train.

Unexpectedly, feminist themes strongly appear. Addie Bundren’s monologue from beyond the grave touches some sobering issues like Addie's scathing denunciation of her marriage, which is depicted as no more than a random occurrence. There is also her ambivalent motherhood as she appears to be as possessive of her children, as she is repulsed by them. A steady flow of babies who arrive without rhyme or reason has turned her into a slave of her condition. 

And what to say about Dewey Dell’s ordeal? The poor girl is pregnant, her boyfriend nowhere in sight although he has paid her off to get an abortion. The men she sees in order to help her are useless and even dangerous. Moseley the pharmacist refuses to help her for he fears his reputation and Mc Gowan, a phoney doctor, tricks her in having sex with him in exchange of abortion pills, pills which the reader knows will not work anyway.

But the main theme of Faulkner’s book, to come back to what I stated in the opening of this review is: Does objective truth really exist and can we reproduce it in our narratives?

While Faulkner has indeed created a certain intimacy between the reader and the occurrences that develop through the pages, all the information the reader gets is subjective. The wide variety of narrators, the stream of consciousness technique, the structure of the monologues, the disconnected speakers, the different point of views and the many linguistic devices have all obscured whatever single truth or reality makes up the story. Who is the real victim of this drama? The dead mother? The father who goes to the utmost to indulge his wife last wish? The children who suffer the monomaniac desire of the father? Again, what is the relation between Addie Brundren and her children? How religious are these people? We do not know for sure. Even after several re-readings we can only advance careful suppositions. The facts, the truth is hidden by the many representations and our poor understanding is just another, rather than explicative is nothing more than just one additional opinion.

So we get stuck with a number of open questions, different understandings, and tentative explanations. But paradoxically, this body of uncertainties gives the reader a truer image of what happens to the Brundren family. There in lies the whole genius of this unusual narrative approach and of Faulkner’s art.

The reality, which then emerges, is that we are all disconnected individuals, even if we live and grow up in the tight nucleus of a family. For while the Brundren’s go through hell to burry their mother, they all have their own reasons to sit on that coffin out of which the decomposing stench of their mother’s body oozes. Once she is buried and the true personal agenda’s are uncovered we have lost whatever hope we still had for this family. By the time we understand the father’s true reason of travelling to the capital, we have not only lost our hope but also all our illusions.