William Faulkner, Go Down, Moses

Go Down, MosesGo Down, Moses by William Faulkner

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Go Down, Moses (1942), though not always grouped with Faulkner’s indisputable masterpieces, is nevertheless one of his most significant and influential books.

On strictly formalist or literary-historical grounds, it is a beautiful example of the short story collection as novel, an idea that developed over the course of the 20th century until becoming a major fictional mode in its own right today, as explored by Ted Gioia in his essay on “The Rise of the Fragmented Novel.”

When Go Down, Moses was first published, its title was followed by “and Other Stories,” but Faulkner himself insisted that it should be regarded as a novel. Though it ranges among several plots and several characters and has no single protagonist or narrative, it does tell the story of the McCaslin-Beauchamp family and, through them, provides a miniature history of the American South from its settlement by whites to the eve of World War II. No doubt taking inspiration from James Joyce’s Dubliners, Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, and Jean Toomer’s Cane (all of which we know or suspect him to have read), Faulkner in this book pushes the modernist story cycle even closer to novelistic unity.

This novel is also a milestone in Faulkner’s literary project, often regarded by critics as marking the end of the great period that began in 1929 with The Sound and the Fury. Likewise, Go Down, Moses is also often cited as the culmination of Faulkner’s evolving political vision, even as his summa on the theme of race. Telling the tangled tale of the descendants, both white and black, of Lucius Quintus Carothers McCaslin, a fierce patriarch who tried to found a white dynasty even as he committed rape and incest among the black women he enslaved, Go Down, Moses is nearly impossible to read without consulting a family tree (luckily the copy of the novel I bought in a used bookstore came with one, pictured below, probably given as a handout in a literature course).

The novel begins with a story called “Was” that reads almost like a regional-fiction tall-tale in the vein of Mark Twain, a slightly confusing but high-spirited story about bumbling twins and a runaway slave the horror and significance of which will not become apparent until much later in the book, when we learn that the story’s black and white characters are in fact related, despite the latter’s holding the former as property.

Faulkner then switches perspective to Lucas Beauchamp, a proud and independent black descendant of the McCaslin line, and his tragicomic pursuit of buried fortune on the family farm at the expense of his wife; this long story’s titular motif of “The Fire and the Hearth” can be read as Faulkner’s celebration of basic civilized decency, as opposed to greed. A mysterious story called “Pantaloon in Black” follows: it narrates the surreal descent into madness of a grieving young black man on the McCaslin farm, whose travails are then recapitulated with flippant cruelty by a sheriff’s deputy. In each of these tales, Faulkner indicts racist reductionism by, as Toni Morrison once remarked, “[taking] black people seriously.”

In the book’s longest chapter, the classic freestanding novella “The Bear,” a young Isaac McCaslin, the closest thing the novel has to a hero, pores over the family ledgers in the farm’s commissary assembling through his forebears’ often sparse notations the appalling family history (“His own daughter His own daughter. No No Not even him“). The ledgers form “that chronicle which was a whole land in miniature, which multiplied and compounded was the entire South,” an obvious symbol, as Malcolm Cowley long ago pointed out in his introduction to The Portable Faulkner, of the author’s own literary aspiration.

The white Isaac is so disgusted by his ancestor’s crimes that he relinquishes his inheritance, makes many attempts to pay his black relatives their share of the patrimony, and becomes a simple carpenter in conscious imitation of “the Nazarene.” In a long argument with his cousin and surrogate father, Cass, he theorizes that God’s design necessitated not only the founding of America but also its violent purgation in the Civil War to purify botched humanity through suffering. As opposed to the racist sheriff’s deputy of “Pantaloon in Black,” who frankly declares his belief that black people “aint human,” Isaac judges thusly: “They are better than we are. Stronger than we are.” He recognizes his place in a universal brotherhood irrespective of race, claiming kinship with “not only the whites but the black one too, who were as much a part of his ancestry as his white progenitors.” To a northern black man who marries his cousin, he pleads:

‘Dont you see?’ he cried. ‘Dont you see? This whole land, the whole South, is cursed, and all of us who derive from it, whom it ever suckled, white and black both, lie under the curse? Granted that my people brought the curse onto the land: maybe for that reason, their descendants alone can—not resist it, not combat it—maybe just endure and outlast it until the curse is lifted. Then your peoples’ turn will come because we have forfeited ours. But not now. Not yet. Dont you see?’

Note the “not now.” Isaac, like Faulkner, is not a programmatic liberal or leftist. The “not now” theme is echoed in the penultimate story, “Delta Autumn,” where an elderly Isaac is confronted with the failed interracial relationship of another white McCaslin scion and thinks, “Maybe in a thousand or two thousand years in America, he thought. But not now! Not now!

Faulkner, like Melville, is one of the only white American writers to have come out of the critique of the canon looking better than he looked before, because his attempt to undo racist ideology from the inside using experimental literary techniques was made legible by late-20th-century literary theories that went beyond New Critical hopes for textual and social wholeness. Yet Faulkner, also like Melville, had no political program. Isaac’s anguished guilt is preferable to the Confederate nostalgia that haunts other characters in this book, but it is an equivalently mythic attitude, and undeniably patronizing toward the objects of its charitable gaze. White people are enjoined to behave like Christ and black people patiently to “endure,” a solution inadequate to the complexities of the 20th century, even if its Christo-Gothic mythos of curses and atonements may secretly structure much official anti-racist discourse even in the present.

If neither Faulkner nor his hero provides a political answer to the problems they so astutely perceive, what recompense do they offer for the injuries of history? Besides the sentimental trope of the hearth, Go Down, Moses, its modernist stream-of-consciounsess infused with latter-day Romanticism, suggests two familiar salvations from organized social violence: nature and art. These are also violent, Faulkner suggests, but at least they are animated by values higher than greed for land or gold.

In “The Bear,” Isaac is initiated into manhood by going on an annual hunt. His mentor, another surrogate father figure, is the aptly named Sam Fathers, a man of mixed Chickasaw and black heritage, who baptizes Isaac in the blood of the hunt after the boy kills his first buck. The theme of the novella is their quest to bring down Old Ben, a quasi-legendary bear, with one paw wounded from a trap, who has so far evaded capture. Young Isaac attains almost preternatural hunting skill in his quest for the titular bear, but his desire to kill Old Ben should not be taken as an Ahab-like hostility toward or rage against nature; it is rather a kind of communion with the massive eternity, outside of human time and greed and generation, that nature is:

Then he saw the bear. It did not emerge, appear: it was just there, immobile, fixed in the green and windless noon’s hot dappling, not as big as he had dreamed it but as big as he had expected, bigger, dimensionless against the dappled obscurity, looking at him.

But the “big woods” Old Ben used to roam have been sold off to a timber company by the end of “The Bear.” Walking in the forest, Isaac finds the company’s corner-markers, subjecting “dimensionless” nature to the same measurements that served avarice and cursed the south in his ancestors’ time; he judges the concrete beams “lifeless and shockingly alien in that place where dissolution itself was a seething turmoil of ejaculation tumescence conception and birth, and death did not even exist.” The theme of death’s not existing because nature is a roiling eternity ever in flux is picked up shortly after this passage, when Isaac mediates on the graves of his former friends of the hunt, and thinks of the hunt’s continuance even after death:

…he had not stopped, he had only paused, quitting the knoll which was no abode of the dead because there was no death, not Lion and not Sam: not held fast in earth but free in earth and not in earth but of earth, myriad yet undiffused of every myriad part, leaf and twig and particle, air and sun and rain and dew and night, acorn oak and leaf and acorn again, dark and dawn and dark and dawn again in their immutable progression and, being myriad, one: and Old Ben too, Old Ben too; they would give him back his paw even, certainly they would give him his paw back; then the long challenge and the long chase, no heart to be driven and outraged, no flesh to be mauled and bled—

Faulkner’s own famous literary style, a heedless onrush of indifferently punctuated and sometimes agrammatical rhetoric, its ornate and sometimes confusing diction (“myriad yet undiffused of every myriad part”) meant to defeat ordinary sense, its endless sentences (one in “The Bear” goes on for five pages) meant to triumph over time, here finds its justification: I am only, implies the author, imitating nature itself, which also runs on and contains everything. Nature and art are at one. They need to be because more and more of nature is being eaten up by the profit motive in the postbellum south, leaving art as the only repository of values that are everywhere being degraded by the curse laid on the south by the greed of its white inhabitants.

Faulkner’s art, in effect, takes the place of nature. Note the echo in the passage quoted above of Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” whose panting lover, pictured on the titular art object, is ever approaching his beloved but never will reach her, just as the bear, suspended after death in Faulkner’s narrative, always runs and never is caught. In the “cold pastoral” of art, cold because art freezes time, nature and its passions are preserved. Cass quotes Keats’s “Ode” to Isaac, making the point nearly explicit:

‘All right,’ he said. ‘Listen,’ and read again, but only one stanza this time and closed the book and laid it on the table. ‘She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,’ McCaslin said: ‘Forever wilt thou love, and she be fair.’

‘He’s talking about a girl,’ he said.

‘He had to talk about something,’ McCaslin said. Then he said, ‘He was talking about truth. Truth is one. It doesn’t change. It covers all things which touch the heart—honor and pride and pity and justice and courage and love.’

That is how such a complex aesthetic artifact as this novel-in-stories allies itself to raw and wild nature: both sustain “all the things which touch the heart” in a world more often characterized by the heartlessness of civilized exploitation and oppression.

If I have enumerated the literary and political significance of Go Down, Moses above, this Keatsian humanism gives it its more basic emotional moment, and may explain more than anything the novel’s continuing influence. In just the last 12 months, I have read three contemporary American novels that almost overtly borrow from it: Cormac McCarthy’s The Crossing, Toni Morrison’s Paradise, and Louise Erdrich’s The Plague of Doves. Any old novel with so diverse and distinguished a legacy as that demands to be read.

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William Faulkner, Sanctuary

SanctuarySanctuary by William Faulkner

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As everyone knows, Faulkner claimed he wrote this brutal 1931 novel as a potboiler. Superficially, this is plausible: a lurid and violent criminal melodrama free of the overt modernist experimentation of the author’s other works of the period, The Sound and the Fury (1929) and As I Lay Dying (1930), Sanctuary could well be nothing more than a serious writer’s sell-out book of American literature’s “hard-boiled” era. Moreover, the tactic worked: this novel won Faulkner more fame and money than he had yet received. Even the mitigating quality of the novel’s social seriousness as a thorough critique of southern mores could be explained as giving readers what they want, since the metropolitan readers who have always controlled American publishing are ever in want of gritty exposés from backward regions or submerged classes, all the better to allow them, or us, to enjoy with a clean conscience vicious spectacles of rape and murder, as if our attention were a form of charity.

The novel’s complex, braided plot begins with lawyer Horace Benbow fleeing his wife and moreover his stepdaughter, with whose budding sexuality he is obsessed. On the way to his sister’s house, he encounters a decaying plantation being run as a bootlegging site by Lee Goodwin. Goodwin lives with his long-suffering paramour, Ruby Lamar, and their baby, who sleeps in a box behind the stove, along with a mentally challenged man named Tommy. Finally, there is the menacing, mysterious, and almost inhuman Popeye, whom Benbow meets and with whom he has a two-hour staring contest at the novel’s opening:

He saw, facing him across the spring, a man of under size, his hands in his coat pockets, a cigarette slanted from his chin. His suit was black, with a tight, high-waisted coat. His trousers were rolled once and caked with mud above mud-caked shoes. His face had a queer, bloodless color, as though seen by electric light; against the sunny silence, in his slanted straw hat and his slightly akimbo arms, he had that vicious depthless quality of stamped tin.

As the novel develops, one of Benbow’s sister’s suitors, the alcoholic Gowan Stevens, takes Ole Miss coed and debutante Temple Drake to the plantation to get booze; Stevens promptly wrecks his car, and the couple is forced to stay among the bootleggers. Temple’s captivity takes up most of the novel’s first third, an eerie, slow-paced, ritual-like process of obsessiveness, as the predatory criminals circle the young woman and Ruby attempts to help her despite her class-based contempt for the haughty Temple. Finally, in the moment for which the novel has been notorious since its publication—even though the event is never actually described—Popeye shoots Tommy, who has been attempting to protect Temple, and then rapes her with a corncob. The remainder of the novel, which has not lingered in popular memory, is a double plot with two foci: Benbow’s attempt to exonerate Goodwin, who has been charged with Tommy’s murder; and Temple’s travails in the Memphis brothel where Popeye has imprisoned her.

Sanctuary has a reputation for misogyny that I think is unearned. It is a ruthless, unsparing description of a society organized around the rigorous control, at every level from the criminal underworld to the judiciary and by every agency from male judges to female bawds, of young women’s sexuality. The novel’s elliptical narrative method, about which more below, means that it is never titillating or exploitative in its descriptions of sexual violence. Its portrayal of Temple herself and of what is implied to be her complicity in her own exploitation is understandably disturbing, and critics point to the animal imagery that surrounds Temple—including her masculinized animal surname—as evidence of Faulkner’s conviction of female sexual corruption and natural evil. On the other hand, Temple is also described over and over again as a child or child-like, while her father’s reclamation of her at the novel’s conclusion evokes her kidnapping by Popeye. Even the novel’s ostensible hero, Benbow, is inspired to help Temple because of his own sexual obsession with his stepdaughter, whom he imagines as Temple in a vision of violating sexual congress accompanied by an ambiguous organic response of his own, either ejaculation or vomiting, with the confusion between the two signifying less Faulkner’s misogynistic disgust than his attempt to analyze that very malady in the person of his protagonist.

If Temple’s and Benbow’s behavior are at least partially explained by their social conditioning, so too is Popeye’s, when a concluding chapter flashes back to his troubled childhood. While his actions are not excused, the suggestion is that he, like Temple, had very little chance to become anything other than what he became. While Popeye is an ancestor of the inexplicably malignant murderer who will reappear in the works of Faulkner’s literary legatees—e.g., O’Connor’s Misfit, McCarthy’s Chigurh—as well as being replicated by any number of movie psychos, Faulkner furnishes social and psychological testimony in his vicious antagonists’ favor. Evil for Faulkner may be metaphysical, but it is articulated socially, not as an essential property of the individual. The social order is fate: hence André Malraux’s famous claim that Sanctuary introduces Greek tragedy into detective fiction.

All the same, let me not oversell Sanctuary as a reformist tract. If fate is fate, then there may be no reform possible. Faulkner borrows a caricatural energy from the sentimental reformer Dickens—particularly in the brothel scenes, where the obscenely vital madame Miss Reba and her dogs steal the show—but the novel’s master is the amoral and apolitical realist-aesthete Flaubert:

[Popeye] smells black, Benbow thought; he smells like that black stuff that ran out of Bovary’s mouth and down upon her bridal veil when they raised her head.

The whole novel is contained in this small allusion. The blackness signifying sexual abjection is moved by Faulkner from the interior of the female body to the person of a male rapist, certifying the novel as a critique of its society’s gender politics. But the reader has to work to unravel this meaning, which remains immanent to its dramatization and which may even have been beneath the author’s own conscious notice; there is no Harriet Beecher Stowe jeremiad summoning us to redemption, and in fact Christian moralism is contemptuously satirized in the novel.

The whole novel functions in this dramatic rather than didactic way: chapters begin in media res with scenes the relevance of which to what has gone before it is up to us to decipher. The tone, too, is wildly various, from the nightmare-slowness of the early chapters focused on Temple’s captivity to the venerable bawdy comedy of misapprehension, a tradition stretching from Greek pastoral to Beavis and Butt-Head, of the two bumpkins lodged in Miss Reba’s brothel, which they take for a hotel. Much crucial action occurs off-stage or is reported in vague dialogue. The reader becomes, like Benbow, a searcher for truth, and like Temple, a baffled navigator in a corrupt, complicated world.

Sanctuary certainly lacks the hortatory sanctimony of Victorian realism, which many readers also enjoy today; it proceeds rather by defamiliarization or estrangement, as theorized almost contemporaneously by the Russian Formalist critics, themselves inspired by Tolstoy’s strategy of criticizing his society by literarily refusing to use its own customary names for its forms and objects but instead describing them as if seen for the first time. There is no guarantee in this strategy: it provokes the reader to think without telling the reader what to think. On the other hand, in giving the reader an object to contemplate—i.e., the novel—that aspires to the complexity of life itself, it may make readers much more supple and subtle thinkers than we would have been had we remained the proverbial choir addressed by the preachers of sentimentalism.

In this way, Sanctuary, a novel that envisions and offers no sanctuary whatever, is what Faulkner hoped it would turn out to be aside from a money-maker, as he wrote in a 1932 preface to the novel: “something which would not shame The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying too much.”

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Is David Mitchell the William Faulkner of the Twenty-First Century?

Clickbait title, I know, but please bear with me. I think I’m onto something; call it—

An Essay on Fiction and Reality, Eternity and Time

In the mid-1970s, Hugh Kenner wrote an essay on William Faulkner entitled “The Last Novelist” (you can find it both in Kenner’s book on American modernism, A Homemade World, where it forms the last chapter, or anthologized in the Harold-Bloom-edited Chelsea House collection of critical essays on Faulkner, which is ubiquitous in libraries).

Kenner was a master exegete of modernism, and his Faulkner essay is among other things a skeptical or hostile response to postmodernism, using the Southern modernist as counterexample. He notes that Faulkner, like other American writers of the 1920s (Fitzgerald especially), were under the influence of French and British fin-de-siècle Symbolism and Aestheticism, their works ringing with echoes of Verlaine, Mallarmé, Wilde, and The Yellow Book and conjuring before readers’ eyes the pictures of Moreau and Beardsley:

Faulkner’s miscalled Mississippi Gothic is more nearly a Mississippi aestheticism. The savageries his blood-saturated rustics ritualize are of frozen Art Nouveau sumptuousness.

(In a little note on Absalom, Absalom! from a couple years back, I observed the Wilde/Beardsley connection and suggested some of its thematic consequences.)

But Symbolism, with its drive to compress meaning into endlessly interpretable images, and Aestheticism, with its demand for the autonomous and self-sufficient objet d’art, were not aligned with Faulkner’s true genius, Kenner argues, no matter how many staggeringly gorgeous sentences we can find in The Sound and the Fury (he quotes Quentin’s monologue: “I ran down the hill in that vacuum of crickets like breath travelling across a mirror…”).

Instead, Faulkner’s gift, as revealed in his later work, but also even in the repetitive structure of The Sound and the Fury itself, which tells the same story four times, and then tells it a fifth time in the indispensable appendix (oxymoron intended) that Faulkner provided for it in 1945, was not for compression but expansion. His most genuine voice was not that of the Symbolist poet, with his cryptic quatrains, but that of the garrulous village storyteller elaborating on the lives of the community. For this reason, Kenner calls Faulkner “the last novelist”—the last novelist to assume, that is, what the novelist had assumed since the beginning of the nineteenth century: that the business of the writer was to bring news of the world.

Was Faulkner, perhaps, the Last Novelist? His was our last mutation, anyhow, of the procedures that dominated the novel for many decades. They stemmed from the ninetrenth century’s confident positivism, from the belief that what was so was the writer’s province, that he was the supreme generalist, to be trusted by the literate for the reports they needed. Though only writers seem to have held that belief in their own social utility, still it was the belief from which they wrote. (“To forge,” wrote Stephen Dedalus, “in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”) The serious artist, Ezra Pound used to argue (recapitulating arguments he had heard from [Ford Madox] Ford), has the obligation faithfully to mirror our folkways (Moeurs de Province, Flaubert subtitled Madame Bovary) since otherwise we shall not know what they are. Our health depends on his reports, as much as on a hospital technician’s. And Ulysses, Pound thought, was the lancing of a boil. Such polemics derive from Flaubert’s reported remark that if “they” had read L’Éducation Sentimentale the war of 1870 would not have happened. We can no longer think so. Then what are words for anyway?

Kenner concludes that, after Faulkner, the novelists followed the poets in creating fictions that were wholly autonomous and self-bounded inventions, chambers in which language spoke only with itself. He scorns Barth and Pynchon and is baffled by the critical acclaim for Nabokov: he insists that

Pale Fire is a mirthless hoax and so is its successor, Ada, or Ardor: ingenious ships-in-bottles riding plastic seas to the awe of teaching assistants.

Nowadays, when Nabokov is something of a popular classic usually discovered in adolescence, his work regarded as immensely moving not despite but because of its vast effort at indirection, we may find this judgment eccentric and erroneous. But Kenner’s larger point—that Nabokov makes no attempt to report on the social world—stands. Postmodernism in fiction was for the most part Romanticism’s conquest of the novel—aren’t most supposedly “postmodern” techniques captured by Schlegel’s concept of “Romantic irony”? As The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains,

The task of a literary work with respect to irony is, while presenting an inherently limited perspective, nonetheless to open up the possibility of the infinity of other perspectives: “Irony is, as it were, the demonstration [epideixis] of infinity, of universality, of the feeling for the universe” (KA 18.128); irony is the “clear consciousness of eternal agility, of an infinitely teeming chaos” (Ideas 69). A literary work can do this, much as Schlegel’s Lucinde had, by presenting within its scope a range of possible alternate plots or by mimicking the parabasis in which the comic playwright interposed himself within the drama itself or the role of the Italian buffo or clown (Lyceumfragment 42) who disrupts the spectator’s narrative illusion.

And was anyone more aware of this than Nabokov himself, translator of the reflexive Romantic poem Eugene Onegin?

For the Romantic, the mind makes the world; for the realist, the mind only discovers it.

Here our contemporary, David Mitchell, becomes relevant. Mitchell began as a seeming postmodernist, a good Nabokovian. His early masterwork, Cloud Atlas, was a Pale Fire-like concatenation of self-undermining and ever-reflexive textuality. It told exciting stories, certainly not “realistic” in Flaubert’s sense, even as it persistently reminded the reader that the text was an art object, not a faithful mimetic transcript of reality. So Mitchell, like Faulkner, started out as an aesthete, influenced by the anti-mimetic avant-garde of the previous generation (not only Nabokov but also Calvino and Murakami) as Faulkner was by that of the generation that preceded his own (again, Verlaine, Mallarmé, Wilde).

But, like Faulkner before him, Mitchell is aging into a loquacious storyteller relatively unconcerned with formal and textual questions. As Faulkner turned from the Symbolist art object to the expansive and socially realist chronicle of Yoknapatawpha County, so Mitchell, in such novels as The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet and The Bone Clocks, has largely abandoned formalism in favor of a more straightforward recitation of life on his version of our interconnected globe. Faulkner took up the voices of oral storytellers in the South to recite the tales of the tribe; Mitchell, on a larger canvas, does no less. Parke Muth, who wrote my favorite laudatory review of The Bone Clocks, a novel I strongly disliked, defends Mitchell’s recent fiction precisely as a mimed oral testimony about the real world:

I hear voices. They speak to me from all over the globe. They write to me or post things on my pages. They tell me things I did not know, the stories of their lives. They share disasters—losing a plastic sheet, the only protection they had, in a refugee camp in Nepal, while others share triumphs—beating the English Royals on a polo field outside London. They talk about growing up with a single mother working multiple jobs to keep the children fed and educated and they speak to me of being selected by a government to come to the US to get an education and take a place of leadership in a business. They talk of being the only female learning from a Master in the oldest monastery in China and of being the only the only undergraduate picked for a job with Julian Robertson and his hedge fund in New York. These stories are true. I talk to many people from around the world each day and so it may be that I respond the way I do to Mitchell because his voices speak truly to me, even if only in fiction.

There is one obvious difference between Faulkner’s development and Mitchell’s: while Faulkner became more and more a realist, Mitchell becomes more and more a fantasist. Whereas Faulkner left behind Verlaine and Wilde for Balzac and Dickens, Mitchell leaves behind Calvino and Nabokov for Le Guin and Delany. But I would argue that this is a smaller difference than it appears. As realism after Faulkner retreated more and more to a concern with the mores of a narrowly elite class stratum (or else naturalist exposés of the lower class), the science fiction writer in the twentieth century arguably assumed the nineteenth century realist’s vocation of explaining the whole of society to itself, through extrapolation as well as by unashamedly deploying the exposition banished from the realist novel after Flaubert. Philip Roth, in an oft-quoted 1960 statement, asserted that American reality had outrun the (realist) novelist, while J. G. Ballard’s preface to Crash claimed that the (science fiction) novelist must resist the fictionalization of reality under the reign of postmodernism:

In addition, I feel that the balance between fiction and reality has changed significantly in the past decades. Increasingly their roles are reversed. We live in a world ruled by fictions of every kind—mass-merchandizing, advertising, politics conducted as a branch of advertising, the pre-empting of any original response to experience by the television screen. We live inside an enormous novel. It is now less and less necessary for the writer to invent the fictional content of his novel. The fiction is already there. The writer’s task is to invent the reality.

Mitchell’s abandonment of the twentieth-century avant-garde corresponds to Faulkner’s abandonment of the nineteenth-century avant-garde, just as Faulkner’s adoption of nineteenth-century popular realism corresponds to Mitchell’s adoption of twentieth-century popular science fiction: both modes allow the writer access to straightforward storytelling and earnest social purpose.

And this brings me to my final point: both authors undergo a liberalization of attitude as they turn away from the avant-garde autonomy of art to the realist/science fictional description of society. In Faulkner, the brooding sense of immutable fate that hangs over The Sound and the Fury gives way to the more robust social critique of Light in August (and later works I must admit I have not yet read). In Mitchell, the transformation is similar. While Cloud Atlas concludes with Adam Ewing’s liberal sermon on the necessity of individual moral action to reform society (“Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?”), the closed circle of the novel’s chiasmus structure tends rather to confirm the quietist conclusion of its penultimate chapter, in which the suicidal composer Frobisher reflects on Nietzschean eternal recurrence:

Strip back the beliefs pasted on by governesses, schools, and states, you find indelible truths at one’s core. Rome’ll decline and fall again, Cortés’ll lay Tenochtitlán to waste again, and later, Ewing will sail again, Adrian’ll be blown to pieces again, you and I’ll sleep under the Corsican stars again, I’ll come to Bruges again, fall in and out of love with Eva again, you’ll read this letter again, the sun’ll grow cold again. Nietzsche’s gramophone record. When it ends, the Old One plays it again, for an eternity of eternities.

In The Bone Clocks, the characters most like Frobisher in role or sensibility are either cast more overtly as villains (Hugo Lamb) or must learn the errors of their ways to become humane (Crispin Hershey). The later novel’s heroes are the reporter Dave Brubeck (a reporter is the ultimate realist) and his partner Holly Sykes, who lives a resolutely ordinary life in the midst of grand events and who is given the novel’s heroically artless final sentence, humbly affirming progress rather than regress: “For one voyage to begin, another voyage must come to an end, sort of.” Not amor fati, then, but the journey ever onward. The novel’s structure itself redacts Cloud Atlas: while both novels are in six interconnected parts, the latter’s are progressive rather than recursive and narrated by their character’s “authentic” voices rather than by their mediated texts.

Granted, I don’t know what these curious resemblances tells us about literature (perhaps that the narrative and mimetic impulses are ineradicable despite the formalists’ best efforts and most cogent theories?) or about culture more broadly (perhaps that modernity or postmodernity or late modernity or techno-modernity or whatever you want to call it cannot really alter or extirpate certain primal human drives [or culturally-constructed prejudices]?).

Maybe this correspondence between the twentieth- and twenty-first century authors tells us nothing more than that history repeats itself, with a difference—a message the authors of The Sound and the Fury and Cloud Atlas would no doubt appreciate. In that case, narrative is just a ruse of form, progress a moment in a cycle, time the flesh of eternity. And literature—no matter how mimetic it seems—has never strayed from the Symbol, cannot be parted from Art.

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William Faulkner, Light in August

Light in AugustLight in August by William Faulkner

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Light in August, published in 1932, is Faulkner’s seventh novel and generally considered one of the major works of his best period—roughly the 1930s—alongside The Sound and the Fury (1929), As I Lay Dying (1930), and Absalom, Absalom! (1936). Light in August is longer and looser than these, and more conventionally told (via third-person omniscient narration). Often said to be a good place to start with Faulkner, it is less committed than the other novels I named to the modernist techniques of stream-of-consciousness narration and fragmentary structure.* If Joyce and Conrad preside over the others, the master-spirit of Light in August is probably Dickens.

The flashback-driven narrative is not conveyed linearly, however; events are mentioned, and then explained a hundred pages later. Each individual page is more linear than a page of, say, Quentin’s monologue in The Sound and the Fury, but the narrative overall is elliptical and recursive. The thought of summarizing its three intricately-braided stories intimidates me, but here is my best attempt:

Lena Grove, a pregnant young woman from Alabama, arrives in Jefferson, MS, looking for Lucas Burch, the father of her unborn child. There she finds not Burch but Byron Bunch, a lonely man in his 30s who works in a planing mill alongside two bootleggers named Joe Brown and Joe Christmas. Bunch falls in love with Lena at first sight and resolves to help her find Burch, whom he quickly realizes is actually his co-worker, Brown.

Bunch discusses these sudden complications in his life with his friend, the former Reverend Gail Hightower, a minister disgraced and ostracized due to his wife’s adultery and eventual suicide. Hightower is furthermore disablingly obsessed with the exploits, heroic and anti-heroic, of his Confederate grandfather.

On the day Lena Grove arrives in Jefferson, a woman named Joanna Burden is murdered and her house burned down. It transpires that her killer is Bunch’s other co-worker, Joe Christmas, who had been having a tortured affair with Joanna. Christmas, a foundling (so named because he was dropped at an orphanage on Christmas Eve), believes that he is half black, though he can pass for white and though he was raised by a white family headed by a religiously fanatical and sadistic father. Joanna, for her part, is the descendant of Northern abolitionists who came to Mississippi to uplift is black population during Reconstruction, for which her grandfather and brother were both assassinated; despite this, she remained a resident in the town, albeit near its black district, and from her “dark house” (the novel’s first title) she writes to and maintains a network of colleges and other organizations for African-Americans.

Her affair with Christmas, then, is a fatal entanglement complicated by Joanna’s racial fetishization and paternalism (due to her high-handed and Puritanical “sympathy for the Negro” as well as her attraction to the racially and sexually forbidden) and by Christmas’s masochism and misogyny (based on his racial self-hatred and his perceived emasculation by white women’s charity throughout his foundling’s life). Once Joanna decides to stop sleeping with Christmas and start “saving” him, he murders her (though there is a hint that it may partially have been in self-defense as she has brandished a gun at him before) and goes on the run.

How these three narratives conjoin, I will leave the reader to discover, except to say that Christmas—as his Christ-imitating and Christ-parodying name clearly foreshadows—is eventually lynched by the community, led by the proto-fascist paramilitary racist Percy Grimm, who not only shoots Christmas but also castrates him.

As full of characters and incidents as a nineteenth-century realist novel (though much more violent and sexually frank), Light in August is often said to be incoherent or disunified, with its strong modernist central narrative of Joe Christmas’s racial crisis weakened by its being conjoined to the country comedy of Lena and Byron and the Confederate nostalgia of Reverend Hightower’s verbose reveries. But the novel does cohere, I believe: the stories of Hightower, Christmas, and Burden together form a devastatingly critical portrayal of American Protestant Christianity, in both its Northern and Southern variants, as an oppressive, pain-worshipping, race-obsessed, and inherently violent creed that creates and destroys humans as outcasts; to this, the story of Lena and Byron serve as a comic-pastoral contrast, showing the gentle persistence of natural human desire that Christianity distorts or denies.

Hightower’s reflections center on this theme as he comes to realize that his own Rebel-inflected Christian vision was destructive and responsible for the death of his wife (and, indirectly, the death of Christmas). Close to the novel’s conclusion, he reflects:

…that which is destroying the Church is not the outward groping of those within it nor the inward groping of those without, but the professionals who control it and who have removed the bells from its steeples. He seems to see them, endless, without order, empty, symbolical, bleak, skypointed not with ecstasy or passion but in adjuration, threat, and doom. He seems to see the churches of the world like a rampart, like one of those barricades of the middleages planted with dead and sharpened stakes, against truth and against that peace in which to sin and be forgiven which is the life of man.

And even earlier than this, before the lynching of Joe Christmas, he concludes that the white church crucifies itself as it projects its flaws onto the African-Americans it abjects and oppresses:

Yet even then the music has a still quality stern and implacable, deliberate, without passion so much as immolation, pleading, asking, for not love, not life, forbidding it to others, demanding in sonorous tones death as though death were the boon, like all Protestant music. […] Pleasure, ecstasy, they cannot seem to bear: their escape from it is in violence, in drinking and fighting and praying; catastrophe too, the violence identical and apparently inescapable         And so why should not their religion drive them to crucifixion of themselves and one another? he thinks. It seems to him that he can hear within the music the declaration and dedication of that which they know that on the morrow they will have to do [i.e., lynch Christmas].

But Faulkner does not leave it at that. In perhaps his most startling passage, Joanna explains to Christmas her New England Puritan forebears’ theology and theory of race, through which Faulkner shows that the Calvinist-descended progressive anti-racism of the Northern white is no less patronizing and dehumanizing than overt Southern racism. In the following passage, Joanna’s father has just told her that the white race is cursed by God for having enslaved the black race, which is cursed in turn to be the scourge of the white race’s inexpiable sin; there is much contemporary relevance, difficult to discuss, in this portrayal of the white supremacism and paternalism and, above all, Calvinist self-flagellation that persists beneath so many secular expressions and manifestations of what has been called “white guilt.” Joanna tells Christmas:

“I had seen and known negroes since I could remember. I just looked at them as I did at rain, or furniture, or food or sleep. But after that [i.e., her father’s speech] I seemed to see them for the first time not as people, but as a thing, a shadow in which I lived, we lived, all white people, all other people. I thought of all the children coming forever and ever into the world, white, with the black shadow falling upon them before they drew breath. And I seemed to see the black shadow in the shape of a cross. And it seemed like the white babies were struggling, even before they drew breath, to escape from the shadow that was not only upon them but was beneath them too, flung out like their arms were flung out, as if they were nailed to the cross.”

Joe Christmas, anticipating Richard Wright’s Bigger Thomas of Native Son, attempts to achieve existential freedom by killing the well-intentioned white woman who bears this constrictive racial ideology, but, like Thomas, he only imprisons himself further in the racist script he wishes to evade by casting himself as killer (and this is not to mention the misogyny on which Faulkner’s and Wright’s narratives rest, of which neither author seems quite sufficiently aware). Light in August, though, is more humanistic than Faulkner’s previous novels, grim as it is; a handful of references to “white blood” and “black blood” aside, it blames its tragic anti-hero’s fate almost entirely on his society, and not on any natural forces—which are themselves represented (problematically from a feminist perspective) in the figure of Lena as female fecundity, and therefore as positive and life-affirming.

Faulkner’s style in this novel is, as he might say, a myriad thing. Anticipating later trends in fictional prose, he narrates in the present tense; he also, though inconsistently, uses typographical devices—double quotation marks for dialogue, single quotation marks for conscious thought, italics for subconscious thought. There are passages of humorous vernacular dialogue, passages of Hemingway-clear linear narrative with sentences as transparent as this:

It is just dawn, daylight. He rises and descends to the spring and takes from his pocket the razor, the brush, the soap.

And then there are sentences like these, a torrent of language more sonorous than sensible, and wittingly or unwittingly defiant of traditional grammar, describing the grim orphanage in which Christmas grew up:

Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders. Knows remembers believes a corridor in a big long garbled [sic—gabled?] cold echoing building of dark red brick sootbleakened by more chimneys than its own, set in a grassless cinderstrewnpacked compound surrounded by smoking factory purlieus and enclosed by a ten-foot steel-and-wire fence like a penitentiary or zoo, where in random erratic surges, with sparrowlike childtrebling, orphans in identical and uniform blue denim in and out of remembering but in knowing constant as the bleak walls, the bleak windows where in rain soot from the yearly adjacenting chimneys streaked like black tears.

This novel’s narrator, or, better, its language, is a character in itself, a viscous medium that thins and thickens at will, a haze of autumnal heaviness, a mood weary (and somewhat erotically sickened) with the violence it knows but also curiously hopeful. A modern editor or MFA workshop leader would find something to blue-pencil or red-pen or MSWord “comment” on every page, but for Faulkner, as for Blake, the path of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.

Most criticisms of this novel implicitly wish it to be something other than it is and are therefore unpersuasive. My one major criticism is that too much in Joanna’s relationship with Christmas is sketchily summed up rather than dramatized, and Joanna herself is perhaps more of an idea than a character. Discussions of “writing the other” so often center around obvious racial divides, but I find that Faulkner’s black characters are more credible (or at least more substantial) than this slightly shadowy Puritan Yankee.

I won’t say Light in August never exasperated or even bored me, but it is a novel of undiminished relevance written in a style of intriguing yet symphonic strangeness, the strangeness of the strangers the novel evokes and elegizes. Highly recommended.
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* I don’t agree with this advice, by the way. To start with Faulkner, drop yourself straight into the deep end with The Sound and the Fury, which contains pretty much everything Faulkner can do in one book, from the tour-de-force of the first chapter, narrated through the prismatic consciousness of a so-called “idiot,” to the Ulysses-derived and delirious interior monologue of the disintegrating young intellectual in the second chapter, to the third chapter’s vernacular clarity and bigotry and the final chapter’s stately third-person rhetoric, both of which lead on to Light in August‘s somewhat more traditionally realist aspirations.

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Chris Ware, Jimmy Corrigan

Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on EarthJimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

In lieu of an essay, some notes (with spoilers):

1. I both intellectually acknowledge the brilliance of this book and viscerally dislike it.

2. I bought it and began reading it in late 2000; I set it aside after about 100 pages and only took it up again—a library copy; I have no idea where mine is—two days ago. Back in 2000, when I was all of 18, I remember being immensely moved by some of those first 100 pages; Jimmy’s fantasy of being murdered by Superman, in particular, overwhelmed me. But the quality of pastiche—the design and visual storytelling echo early twentieth century comics and commercial art, from Winsor McCay to art deco—put me off, as I myself had no investment in those earlier aesthetics.

3. (Nor did I share Ware’s generational relation to Superman. The Superman of my youth was a sensitive, vulnerable, and humane citizen, a man of impeccable liberal sentiment in a romance of equals with a professional, feminist woman—he was not a punitive patriarch. But this is hardly Chris Ware’s fault; we were simply born in different years and grew up reading different iterations of the Superman character.)

4. Jimmy Corrigan, I thought, was a highly intellectualized exercise in self-pity, its ironic sneer at the past masking its wounded longing. My gut reaction has not changed in 15 years; I hope I have a language for it now.

5. Jimmy is approaching middle age, but looks at once like a baby and like an old man. The book he is caught in is, in its intricate straight-line grids, both puzzle and cage. It is with Jimmy Corrigan as with the other big generational statements by the men of that moment—PTA’s Magnolia, DFW’s Infinite Jest: the elderchild blubbering in the labyrinth of the text.

6. What is Jimmy Corrigan about? It’s about 400 pages. Aside from that, let more impartial observers tell you, in this comprehensive summary that opens an essay by Juda Bennett and Cassandra Jackson that I will quote again later:

Jimmy Corrigan traces the history of the titular character from a childhood characterized by an absent father and overbearing mother to his life as a middle-age white man whose isolation is represented by the cubicle in which he works. He is the novel’s Everyman. Contacted by the father he has never met, Jimmy travels from Chicago to a small town in Michigan. In Waukosha he meets Amy, his father’s adopted African-American daughter and – unbeknownst to them – a distant relation to Jimmy. Though the figure of the Everyman never completely understands himself in the context of a racialized America, the audience is aware of this complicated genealogy.

The narrative is interrupted periodically by the story of Jimmy’s great-grandfather and grandfather, which is set in 1893, and this narration focuses on the great-grandfather’s abusive relationship with his young son, whom he beats and eventually abandons at the top of one of the largest buildings in “The White City” at the Chicago World’s Fair. This narrative section also reveals that Amy is not only the adopted daughter of Jimmy’s father but a blood relation descended from Jimmy’s great-grandfather’s relationship with his African-American maid. Reduced to its barest bones, the narrative is built upon Jimmy searching for himself through the lost father and finding a much more (racially) complicated family. At the same time, the reader learns of a more complicated backstory to that diverse family (blood, and not just adoption, link Amy to her half brother). Given that the protagonist never discovers this history that the reader is privy to, the novel refuses a simple conclusion in which the protagonist finds or even fully knows himself.

7. I cannot now find it, but I recall that a critic at the time compared Jimmy Corrigan, with its complicated racial genealogy and its aesthetic formalism, to Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!. Absalom, Absalom!, yes, but as adapted by Wes Anderson. Or E. L. Doctorow. Most of my criticism of Jimmy Corrigan would, with allowances for the specificities of graphic storytelling vis-à-vis prose narrative, echo my criticism of Ragtime. Both Doctorow and Ware formally appropriate a past style or ideology, in implied quotation marks; Ware’s use of 1890s advertising and comics iconography is the graphic equivalent of Doctorow’s “There were no Negroes. There were no immigrants.” It is a premature and adolescent disavowal of the past rather than an honest struggle with it. “That’s not me!” you say by way of mocking imitation, like an insult comic. You want to say, “The past is dead. It is even past.” Braver to go forth as the heir to your tradition that you in fact are. Your father’s sins will be visited upon you, yes, but petulant denial in the guise of formal mastery cannot in any case prevent that. Faulkner was not performing a pastiche of Shakespeare or Melville; he was writing as best he could in their tradition about his time and place.

8. Upon their father’s death, Amy violently rejects Jimmy; she literally pushes him over when he reaches out to her. This is less a Faulknerian gesture than this graphic novel’s Forsterian “not yet,” as at the conclusion of A Passage to India. Not yet, but when? I recently saw the statement, not made by a cishet white man, that “the voices of cishet white men are not necessary.” Well and good, but have cishet white men sent any other message than that very one in their major fictions of the past century? Since Forster ended his final novel with “not yet?” Since Faulkner raveled out Sutpen’s genealogy? Since Joyce, with whatever irony, founded the New Bloomusalem?

[Edited, practically half a day later, to add this: Forster was not het; and Joyce, born and reared a colonial subject, was not really white in the contemporary American sense of that word. Why did it take half a day for this to occur to me, even though of course I “knew” it when I wrote the above? For the same reason that some may be suspicious of generalizations such as “cishet white male” in the first place: because they often seem not to refer literally to what they refer to ostensibly. Rather, they are synonymous with power.]

9. (Ware, I observe, is a Joycean, as am I. Though we are different kinds of Joycean. I think I am a Proteus or a Hades to his Wandering Rocks or Oxen of the Sun. Sorry to be cryptic, but other Joyceans will catch my drift.)

10. Nobody means a self-canceling statement, though. Nobody who denies their will-to-power should be believed, as their denial is a mere ruse of their will. (I am a Nietzschean as well as a Joycean, you see.) Bennett and Jackson, praising Ware’s formalism from the perspective of critical race theory:

…Ware sets up a reading practice that challenges the ability to read and interpret race through simple chronologies. As the reader attempts to follow both Jimmy and his sister Amy’s stories, no simple narratives of racial origins emerge. Instead, the reader is left to actively piece together the narrative, making errors and corrections along the way. Ware reminds us of this reading practice at every step in the novel. For example, the novel withholds page numbers, deemphasizing a traditional narrative sequence and encouraging a reading practice that may move freely backwards and forwards and across the page in numerous directions. As if to complicate this practice even more, Ware’s hardback and paperback editions of the novel participate in this notion of errors and corrections in that the latter adds visual material not included in the former edition.

I understand, intellectually, the focus on error, but all the same: Ware tells, the readers learn, the characters never find out. They err, we err—but does Ware ever err? Are not even his corrections obsessive evasions of errancy? (Apologies, like claims to injury, can be assertions of authority.) Who’s in charge here again? To say “error” is to imply that the right way is known. Who is it that knows if Ware flattens time into space to draw us a map?

11. Ware errs, of course. Jimmy Corrigan, by the way, has a little idyll in which Jimmy’s grandfather leaves his loveless household to sojourn with an Italian immigrant family in a house full of warm cooking smells presided over by a gentle, loving, old-world craftsman father. This is silly and mawkish, if I may say as a child of the class and the ethnos specified.

12. Ware’s depiction of black characters does not sink quite so far, though the 1890s maid character is awfully close to an uninterrogated stereotype, i.e., mammy, as I read it. Amy is more complex, which perhaps shows what a crutch—a metaphor the book invites—it can be for the artist to dwell in an aestheticized and flattened-out past rather than dealing with the irreducibly complicated present. Still, Bennett and Jackson observe that, even with Amy, “Ware falls into myths of blackness as a present and secure signifier and whiteness, in contrast, as unstable”—or, to put it with a bit less jargon, he gives us something like the “strong black woman” of well-meaning cliche.

13. But there are the errors the author commits unwittingly—the repetition of cliche is their hallmark, as with Ware’s down-to-earth Italians and his strong black woman—and the errors the author allows himself out of self-trust—of which awkward or embarrassing but undeniable revelations are the sign. Is Jimmy Corrigan not a book suffocatingly without error of the latter kind? Compare Watchmen, which I will be thought a philistine for preferring, though I do prefer it. Watchmen is a similar exercise of the obsessive will to form, a similar conversion of time to space, a similar critique of the Superman archetype. Even a book similarly about race in America, though more subtly, and at the margin. Let us accept for a moment the perhaps dubious psychoanalytic postulate that when men such as Moore and Ware pursue the kind of rigid formal closure that Watchmen and Jimmy Corrigan achieve, a fear of the feminine, construed in the masculine imagination as flesh and disorder, is operating. Jimmy Corrigan is fairly overt about the fear of the feminine, in that sad-sack post-Crumb alternacomics fashion that I have always disliked. Watchmen, by contrast, touchingly seems to understand itself as a feminist statement. And yet Watchmen puts its fears viscerally and and violently and vitally onto the page; it stains its phallocratic grid, so twists its crystalline narrative that Zack Snyder, otherwise immobilized by literalism, had to straighten the thing out for Hollywood. There it is, for all to see, chapter twelve, page six: the vagina dentata that ate New York City. A sublime vision (the sublime, as an aesthetic mode, always expresses the fear that mother [nature] doesn’t love us combined with the confidence that we have something she lacks with which we can best her). Ware, wanting to annul himself, trusts himself too little to give us such a vision. But he doesn’t annul himself in consequence, after all. Here he is, acclaimed a master; here I am, writing about him, wishing I liked his book more.

14. The artist cannot simultaneously annul himself and make and publicize the artwork. No matter how unnecessary you or others find you for whatever local and contingent sociohistorical reason, your compulsion to create and share the creation is a fundamental human drive. So you might as well own up to it and get on with it.

15. But can any narrative this intelligent, this emotional, really be disparaged or dismissed, even if the intelligence and the emotion seem to be in the wrong proportion, the wrong relation? Maybe that is Ware’s error, of the text if not in it. Maybe I will be writing about again in 15 years. Maybe they will be writing about in 100 years. Neither would surprise me at all.

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William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying

As I Lay DyingAs I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

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.

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Sublimity Listed: Bloom’s 12 American Writers

Harold Bloom has a new book coming out—rather like my grandmother, he’s been falsely prophesying his imminent demise for almost my entire lifetime. Since the end will come for us all eventually, I’m always glad to see old Bloom fighting the good fight.* Now he lists his 12 authors who best exemplify “the American Sublime” (see the link for explanations):

Emerson

Dickinson

Hawthorne

Melville

Whitman

James

Twain

Frost

Stevens

Eliot

Faulkner

Crane

Where to begin the parlor game of contesting and correcting? From an identity politics perspective, we have one woman and no people of color (reactionary), though the list is also somewhere between 25% and 45% queer (progressive).

Bloom, castigating identity politics in every other creed and ethnos, does not practice it in favor of his own: there are no Jewish writers on the list. No Catholics either, unless Eliot counts. I suppose those are defensible choices, given Bloom’s selection criteria: “the American Sublime,” a dialectic of allegory and antinomianism more or less invented by Emerson**, is an agon with the Puritan inheritance, thus largely an affair of renegade Protestants (which Eliot also was, whatever else he was).

But even with those cultural strictures in place, Flannery O’Connor and Philip Roth should surely make the cut—O’Connor for the way her Catholic sense of order frames, ironizes, and redeems the ecstatic American religion; and Roth for his ferocious embrace of the antinomianism in our spiritual life, along with his realistic and rueful sense, informed by immigrant experience and Jewish tradition, of all the obligations that make antinomianism an impossible legacy, if a necessary irritant.

It seems to me that the list, terminating as it does with modernism, would come to a far more natural climax with Ralph Ellison: he was the one who put it all together, synthesizing the Emersonian creed and its Melvillean critique in the jazz-inflected mythic-method idiom of high modernism, as well as opening the American Sublime tradition to hitherto-excluded groups. Ellison assured for at least another two or three generations the continuity of the American novel, that allegorical and romantic odd national variant that is so at odds with its European counterpart.

Bloom hates Poe, to a comical degree, so of course he would not put him on such a list, regarding him no doubt as a French author anyway. But Bloom also dislikes Eliot, and Eliot courted the French tradition in ways Poe never did or could: here I think placing Eliot on the list rather than excluding him is Bloom’s aggressive act. He gathers the poet to a tradition he would not have wanted to join: The Waste Land, against all odds, is a great American poem. Eliot would make my list as well.

Hart Crane is Bloom’s sentimental favorite but means nothing to me. LikeBloom’s protege and fellow controversialist Camille Paglia, I find Mark Twain a minor author (in the old-fashioned, not the Deleuzean, sense) and his schtick obnoxious. I could be persuaded that Robert Frost is a more complex and troubling figure than we learned about in middle school, but he still does not speak to me in any great way. Is he not a verse Thoreau? And was Thoreau not a superior poet even in prose?

Note the eclipse of Hemingway and Fitzgerald: “Hemingway/Fitzgerald/Faulkner” was once a unit, but Faulkner has clearly outpaced his rivals, extending an influence in space and time, all the way to contemporary China, that the other two can’t match. I agree with their exclusion. The first six authors on the list would be hard to quarrel with. So, were I to make my own “canon of the American Sublime” according to Bloom’s criteria, it would look like this:

Emerson

Dickinson

Hawthorne

Melville

Whitman

James

Stevens

Eliot

Faulkner

Ellison

O’Connor

Roth

One could imagine still more writers to include: Jean Toomer, William Carlos Williams, Eudora Welty, Toni Morrison, Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, Cormac McCarthy. Maybe even that old fascist, Pound. On the other hand, there are many fine American writers who fit very uneasily into this American Sublime category: Charles Brockden Brown, Washington Irving, Frederick Douglass, Theodore Dreiser, Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Richard Wright, Elizabeth Bishop, Saul Bellow, Guy Davenport, etc. These are the perils of a national canon. But I believe Bloom has identified a genuine and perhaps dominant strain in American writing, even if there are others equally valuable.

I always enjoy the provocation of a good list; it focuses the mind on the identification of values, and that is always needed—needed all the more, in fact, if we are good postmodernists and agree that values are highly contingent and permanently up for discussion.

*Speaking of “the good fight,” by which I mean that against precursors and against time, I highly recommend Daniel Green’s lucid explication and contextual endorsement of the literary theory that made Bloom’s name.

**The phrase comes, I believe, from the title of a poem by Wallace Stevens about how to reconcile visionary intensity with quotidian experience (if I am reading the rather cryptic poem correctly).