Thursday, April 7, 2011

As I Lay Dying

I find it a little hard to believe that I've come this far along and have yet to discuss William Faulkner.  I whole-heartedly include Faulkner in any list of brilliant authors, and he is often picked out as one of the best American authors of all time.  In fact, I had the opportunity to attend a short lecture series on American literature while I was in England, and the professor focused primarily on Faulkner.  And if you have a sense of my taste in literature so far, you will not be surprised to hear that I find his dark material irresistibly fascinating.

As I Lay Dying is the first Faulkner novel I ever read.  This was also my first exposure to stream of consciousness in writing, although I didn't know it by that term yet.  Each chapter is written from the perspective of a different character, and their myriad writing styles reflect the dramatic differences between them.  The story follows the eccentric and dysfunctional Bundren family as they carry their dead mother's body in a wagon pulled by mules across a number of towns in the south to bury her in Jefferson.  The story is bursting with dark humor and biting satire, as they experience a series of misadventures that hardly honor the dead.  Yet behind the quirkiness, Faulkner compels readers to reflect on the significance of death, the relativity of sanity, and the meaning of family.

Without question, my favorite thing about this novel is the diversity of characters.  I love the way he takes turns unveiling their perspectives, such as little Vardaman associating his mother's death with killing a fish.  There are fifteen different narrators in all, and even Addie, the dead mother, gets a chance to speak beyond the grave on a chapter.  The most frequent narrator is Darl, whom I find to be the most fascinating character.  For much of the novel, he appears to be the most sane and level-headed of the siblings.  It is easy to notice the father's faults, Cash's obstinateness, and Dewey's selfishness.  Darl, on the other hand, assumes a leadership position among his siblings.  At the same time, he demonstrates a level of sensitivity that the others seem to lack.  Moreover, because the rest of the family speaks with improper grammar and elementary descriptions, Darl's elegant prose and intellect convince readers of his superiority and reliability.  However, as the novel progresses, our perspective of Darl spirals out of control as we eventually realize that he may actually be the least sane of them all.

As I Lay Dying is stylistically innovative, insightfully astute, and generally entertaining.  Faulkner masterfully balances humor with social critique, making this both a fun and stimulating novel.  He also pioneers the stream of consciousness movement, inviting us into the radically diverse minds of fifteen different characters.  I highly recommend it to everyone and happily stick it in my "Classical Literature" shelf.


Becky (Page Turners) said...

Thanks for the recommendation. I have never read Faulkner but I will keep this one in mind.

I don't have a lot of experience reading stream of consciousness, but have to you read By Night in Chile by Roberto Bolano? I really recommend that if you want to read more stream of consciousnes

Amy said...

It's going on my list right now! Thanks! Be sure to check back with me if you read Faulkner and let me know what you think.

Ben said...

Amy, I have to say you're one of the most fearless book bloggers I know. You tackle those hard writers by the dozen and give it your hardest swing every time. I like Faulkner because he bridged the Joycian era with the post-war stuff really well. He brought the innovation of Joyce into more interesting stuff. As I Lay Dying being a good example.

Amy said...

Ben, I'm so flattered and happy to hear that you enjoy my posts. I like checking in on your blog as well, for you always seem to come up with intriguing titles I've never heard of. Thanks for the comment!