Faulkner wrote As I Lay Dying in six weeks while working nights at a power plant. It was his seventh novel, published in 1930 when he was 33 (he died in 1962, and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949). It was recently filmed by James Franco.
Set in his usual mythical Yoknapatawpha County, based on his own Mississippi habitat, it’s a novel that Faulkner himself described immodestly but justifiably as a “tour de force”. It tells the story of the Bundren family’s difficult quest to carry the body of matriarch Addie to her people’s home cemetery at Jefferson, some 30 miles north of the Bundren farm. Neighbours think this is a crazy scheme, but ‘Pa’ Anse insists he’d promised his wife that her dying wish would be fulfilled.
The coffin, made by Addie’s eldest son Cash, is carried on a wagon drawn by mules, but the journey is beset by disasters: the mules drown when the family attempt to cross the swollen river, Cash breaks the leg he’d broken once before, and other mishaps keep occurring.
The plot has numerous twists and revelations, such as the illegitimacy of the third son, Jewel, and his biological father’s slightly hypocritical tussle with ‘Satan’ in trying to salve his conscience when he hears Addie is dying; the behaviour of the second son, Darl, who narrates many of the novel’s opening sections, becomes increasingly erratic, and after a particularly destructive act he’s callously committed to an asylum by the rest of the family.
The other major storyline involves the fact that Dewey Dell, at 17 the second-youngest of the Bundren children, has fallen pregnant; in naively trying to get an abortion from a pharmacy she’s tricked by the assistant there into having sex with him. Her selfish father takes the money her lover had given her and uses it to buy some false teeth.
Once arrived at Jefferson, with the corpse of Addie by this time smelling so bad the people they pass are repelled and horrified, and ominous buzzards circle overhead, Anse buries Addie and disappears overnight, presenting to his children next day his new wife: the woman from whom he’d borrowed a shovel to dig the grave.
In summary the novel perhaps sounds unpromising. It’s the style, structure and refracted, dreamlike narrative voices that make it so compelling. In 59 short sections – some only a few words long (‘My mother is a fish’: Vardaman) – 15 different narrators relate their thoughts and perceptions in stream-of-consciousness interior monologues. By narrating the same events from different perspectives, Faulkner is able to show how human minds work and intimate thoughts and emotions reveal themselves. The quest structure invites all kinds of interpretation: is it an allegory, a sort of Southern Gothic Pilgrim’s Progress? Why do buzzards, fish, fire and floods feature so prominently?
The rich deep-South patois of the characters takes some getting used to (‘It was nigh to midnight and it had set in to rain when he woke us. It had been a misdoubtful night, with the storm making’, begins one of Tull’s chapters). So does the looping, oblique narrative: often the significance of a chapter only becomes apparent pages later – but this is part of the fabric of the novel, and central to its appeal. It’s strangely humorous, despite the dark themes. Each narrator’s voice is deeply idiosyncratic and presented as ultra-free indirect thought; for example here’s the fractured childish syntax and elliptical voice of Vardaman, the youngest Bundren boy, aged about eight:
‘Bananas are gone, eaten. Gone. When it runs on the track shines again…I said God made me. I did not said to God to made me in the country. If He can make the train, why can’t He make them all in the town because flour and sugar and coffee.’
Vardaman is obsessed with trains (as well as fish). Older characters’ voices seem to blend in with Faulkner’s own erudite style, possibly revealing the influence of James Joyce and other modernists; here’s Darl:
‘How do our lives ravel out into the no-wind, no-sound, the weary gestures wearily recapitulant; echoes of old compulsions with no-hand on no-strings: in sunset we fall into furious attitudes, dead gestures of dolls. Cash broke his leg and now the sawdust is running out. He is bleeding to death is Cash.’
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