My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The formal idea animating As I Lay Dying is more audacious than it may at first appear. It’s not just that the viewpoint alternates among the characters, who narrate in stream-of-consciousness prose derived from Joyce’s experiments in that mode. Joyce, at least in Ulysses, was a social realist in his modernism: the language representing the viewpoints of his characters is appropriate to their age, class, education, sensibility—no one would mistake Molly Bloom for Stephen Dedalus on the page. Faulkner was faithful to the Joycean method in The Sound and the Fury, but this is a weirder, bolder novel; its narrative voices do not sound like what its impoverished and uneducated characters would sound like. Rather, their essences speak, essences inflected with class and regional markers but generally granted a poetic grandeur heightened well beyond verisimilitude. For example, here is Vardaman, a five-year-old boy, encountering a horse in a barn:
It is dark. I can hear wood, silence: I know them. But not living sounds, not even him. It is as though the dark were resolving him out of his integrity, into an unrelated smattering of components—snuffings and stampings; smells of cooling flesh and ammoniac hair; an illusion of a coordinated whole of splotched hide and strong bones within which, detached and secret and familiar, an is different from my is.
Faulkner combines this highly original form with a grotesquely comic Gothic story of a poor-white Mississippi family, the Bundrens, who try to fulfill their matriarch’s last wish to be buried in her distant hometown, a mandate that has them braving flood and fire with the coffin bouncing around slapstick-style and the corpse beginning to reek.
The Bundrens are economically evoked (this would be a much longer novel if told more conventionally), not only through their own monologues, but through the perspectives of more normal outsiders. Faulkner effectively reverses Shakespearean tragedy, wherein servants provide ground-level views of the royal disaster; here, it is the more elite characters, including doctors and priests and urban pharmacists, who offer readers the stabilizing perspective on the too-big-to-judge calamity of the Bundren’s journey. On the whole, though, the novel’s mordant nihilism and decadent lyricism are more Webster than Shakespeare. Faulkner consistently risks tastelessness, as when the boy Vardaman, convinced his mother is alive in the coffin, drills holes into it—and into her face—so that she can breathe. Faulkner is the most influential of twentieth-century American writers, but if you borrow the style and the concept (choral narration, disastrous family, impoverished setting) without the strangeness and the risk-taking, you will just get kitsch.
(That this novel is meant to be funny cannot be overstated: the last sentence is a punchline. There are also many hilarious lines along the way; my favorite of which belongs to Vardaman as he reflects on his brother Darl’s being taken to an asylum in Jackson: “My brother he went crazy and he went to Jackson too. Jackson is further away than crazy.“)
The central character is Darl, the visionary son, unloved by his mother, who eventually goes mad (or is said to) and is granted a startling epiphany as they take him on the train to the madhouse:
One of them [i.e., his guards] had to ride backward because the state’s money has a face to each backside and a backside to each face, and they are riding on the state’s money which is incest. A nickel has a woman on one side and a buffalo on the other; two faces and no back. I dont know what that is. Darl has a little spy-glass he got in France at the war. In it it had a woman and a pig with two backs and no face. I know what that is.
Which is to say (if I understand these mysterious sentences) that the state is sterile, communing only with itself, but that the sex act produces monsters, turns us into monsters. Incest and bestiality are the only choices in the novel’s world, where religion is a lie and family a curse, or burden. Also, unless I missed an earlier reference, I believe this is the only time we are told in the novel that Darl was in the Great War. Perhaps the fact should be given some interpretive weight. Darl is a Septimus without a Clarissa to redeem his despair, to make it over into art. (Is As I Lay Dying a lesser novel than Mrs. Dalloway because less emotionally complete, or a greater one because more uncompromising?)
Darl’s character type—the despairing young poet who has seen through everything—was done better by Joyce and by Faulkner himself in Quentin Compson. Darl’s uncanny percpetiveness makes him a good primary narrator, but he moves me less than his mother does. Addie Bundren delivers a stunning monologue from beyond the grave, the best thing in the novel, probably the best thing in modern American literature:
…I would think how words go straight up in a thin line, quick and harmless, and how terribly doing goes along the earth, clinging to it, so that after a while the two lines are too far apart for the same person to straddle from one to the other; and that sin and love and fear are just sounds that people who never sinned nor loved nor feared have for what they never had and cannot have until they forget the words.
I first read As I Lay Dying at age 16 or so; I approached this re-reading with some trepidation, afraid it could not be so impressive to me now. And some passages do not work: I don’t go in for ad hominem literary criticism, but I was at times reminded of Faulkner’s admission to a translator that he occasionally wrote drunk and did not know later what he meant to communicate. But the novel’s internally-consistent vision, its entirely original adaptation of Jacobean tragedy and modernist prose to a story about a poor family told entirely without condescending liberal pity or sociological knowingness, is extraordinary, unprecedented and unrepeatable.