I am feeling totally inadequate to the task of reviewing this book. It's only the second Faulkner I've read, and while I enjoyed Absalom, Absalom
, it didn't quite utterly astound me the way this one did.
I was expecting the run-on sentences and outright rejection of periods that I found in the first book. Instead, I found short little chapters, and voices that spoke in terse sentences that only hinted at what lay beneath.
This is the story of Addie Bundren, and what happens to her body after she dies, requesting that her husband, sons and daughter take her to buried in her hometown. It is the story of her husband, shiftless, possessive, prideful, self-reliant and stubborn. Of her oldest son, Cash, practical, handy, straight-forward. Of her second son, Darl, the one everyone in the neighbourhood worries about - except the overly pious next-door neighbour, who is convinced he is the one son who really loves his mother.
About her third and favourite son, Jewel, who loves his mother, even if he doesn't show it in ways acceptable to that next-door neighbour. Who will take nothing from his father's hand, and finds the only things he does care about bartered without his knowledge. About her daughter, Dewey Dell, in all kinds of female trouble, and with few to help. About her youngest son, Vardaman, who is so traumatized by his mother's death that he becomes convinced she is a fish.
As I Lay Dying is frequently funny. It often made me care about the characters, and then, on a dime, made me so exasperated I could have strangled them. The point-of-view chapters pile one on top of the other, and each new one lays some new meaning on top of what I already understood - how someone had misunderstood someone else, or what one cryptic reference had meant, or a different reason why the misadventures of the Bundren clan were what they were.
Everyone in this book is fucked up. This is revealed, more and more. And Faulkner is both merciless and compassionate as he airs this dirt-poor Southern family's peccadilloes. I have no idea how he manages to achieve both at the same time, but he does.
The chapters frequently have devastating juxtapositions, but my favourite was the one chapter from the dead mother's point of view, about the uselessness of words and the stupidity of those who think that they can explain everything or make everything right with the next chapter, when a man is riding to her homestead, intent on using his words to explain everything. I won't tell more than that, but coming hard on the heels of Addie's chapter, it tore down everything he said while he said it.
As I Lay Dying is a remarkable achievement. Everyone should read it.
Crossposted to Smorgasbook