And so the quest to consider myself well-read continues.
This was my first foray into Faulkner territory, and after crossing the threshold, I actually wish I’d had the opportunity to read this book in high school, with some good old-fashioned AP English over-analysis ready and waiting. (Come to think of it, I believe I did have the opportunity in that class. We had to pick a book from a list and write a paper on it. I chose Hemingway.) Anyway, despite the superficial “simplicity” of each of the characters, their stories and emotions are profoundly complex. I got lost a lot. The timeline felt disjointed, with so many perspectives at play. And speaking of perspectives at play, ’twas nigh impossible to find one steady enough to trust. It wasn’t until Samson, a farmer who takes the family in overnight, appeared about halfway through the book that I started to gain some true perspective on Addie and the people at her beck and call.
I’ll back up a second. For the uninitiated, As I Lay Dying isn’t so much a story as it is a fictional talking-heads documentary. Shows like Parks and Recreation would not exist without this book, which switches chapters and narrators every few pages. It follows the dying days of Addie Bundren, the demands she makes on her family, the toll her death takes on her family, and the extreme measures her family takes to bury her properly. I was under the impression that the book would be kind of like The Grapes of Wrath, a long journey of sorts; in reality, the majority of the action took place in the build-up to the journey, the construction of the coffin, the planning of the trip, the passive-aggression between siblings and family members. The book takes a very long time to arrive at the start of the journey, and by the time it does, most evidence points to everyone slowly going insane. The entire family seems to know from the start that their matriarch is dying, and yet they all seem lost and wholly devastated when it happens. Their coping mechanisms are almost childish. It’s heartbreaking to witness a group of helpless people continue to be helpless, and be able to do nothing about it, even if they’re fictional. As Cora, the Bundren’s neighbor, says on p. 7, “Those rich town ladies can change their minds. Poor folks cant.” The Bundrens are stuck fulfilling Addie’s wishes and upholding societal norms, and the saddest part is, it doesn’t really matter anyway. No one outside of their small town knows them, but they take decorum so seriously that it controls their lives. A unique, slow-burning kind of tragedy.
With a title like As I Lay Dying, it probably comes as no surprise that the book is morbid. The characters often talk about death, wax poetic about it, justify why things happen the way they do. Despite their dire circumstances and limited education, they uncover some deep truths about the great unknown. Whatever Faulkner’s own thoughts about death were, he made them even more powerful by speaking through his characters, and puts death right up on the mantlepiece for everyone to deal with.
- “I can remember how when I was young I believe death to be a phenomenon of the body; now I know it to be merely a function of the mind—and that of the minds of the ones who suffer the bereavement.” (Peabody, p. 42)
- “My father said that the reason for living is getting ready to stay dead.” (Addie, p. 167)
- “Life wasn’t made to be easy on folks: they wouldn’t ever have any reason to be good and die.” (Moseley, p. 192)
Darl says something similar, with some added imagery, on p. 217: “Life was created in the valleys. It blew up onto the hills on the old terrors, the old lusts, the old despairs. That’s why you must walk up the hills so you can ride down.” Oh, Darl. I think it was your fault that I got so confused. See, Darl gets eloquent sometimes, like in that above quote, or like on p. 139: “It is as though time, no longer running straight before us in a diminishing line, now runs parallel between us like a looping string, the distance being the doubling accretion of the thread and not the interval between.” An incredible thought, and an incredible piece of writing by Faulkner. But even with that eloquence, Darl didn’t earn my trust because he also speaks nonsensically and ungrammatically for long periods of time. I’d quote an example here, but these passages go on for paragraphs without an entry point. If you have a copy, turn to p. 76 and you’ll see what I mean. He’s blurty and inconsistent, and this behaviour runs in the family, because his little brother, Vardaman, does the same thing. Throughout the book, Vardaman is fixated on the idea of his mother being a fish. I completely missed that metaphor, and I know I could read up on it, but the fact that I couldn’t grasp this imagery was incredibly frustrating. Maybe it’s just that the Bundrens operate on a completely different logical plane than the rest of the world, and maybe that’s why they’re doomed. Anse, the patriarch, says on p. 35, “When He aims for something to be always a-moving, He makes it longways, like a road or a horse or a wagon, but when He aims for something to stay put, He makes it up-and-down ways, like a tree or a man. And so he never aimed for folks to live on a road, because which gets there first, I says, the road or the house?” Hard to argue with that logic, because there’s really nowhere to start the argument.
Even though Addie was the only one who died, she brought down her whole family with her. By the time I finished As I Lay Dying, I was ready for a change, not so much in subject matter but in character ties. Watching a family unravel—and reading about it in the disjointed form Faulkner intended—is very discouraging. I’m so glad I read it, and I intend to keep the book to read it again in many years, if only to serve as a reminder that familial unity can get you through the direst circumstances. Cheesy, but true.