• Current Reads

      Life after Life Jill McCorkle
      This Is Your Captain Speaking Jon Methven
      The Starboard Sea Amber Dermont
      Snark David Denby
      Bring Up the Bodies Hilary Mantel
  • Popular Tags

  • Recent Reflections

  • Categories

  • Moleskine’s All-Time Favorites

  • Echoes

    The HKIA brings Hong… on [788] Island and Peninsula 島與半…
    Adamos on The Master and Margarita:…
    sumithra MAE on D.H. Lawrence’s Why the…
    To Kill a Mockingbir… on [35] To Kill A Mockingbird…
    Deanna Friel on [841] The Price of Salt (Carol…
    Minnie on [367] The Rouge of the North 怨…
  • Reminiscences

  • Blog Stats

    • 1,081,336 hits
  • Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

    Join 1,710 other followers

[423] The Sound and the Fury – William Faulkner

” Caddy smelled like trees. “ (I, 42 – Benjy)

The Sound and the Fury epitomizes Faulkner’s inexhaustible invention and powerful imagination. The book is apparently difficult reading since he deliberately chooses a style that involves salient obscurity. The reading is more than arduous; but upon completion I am rewarded with more than just satisfaction. Told in four parts of rough equal length, the novel captures the decadence of the Compson family in the 1920s through three brothers’ memories of their sister Caddy and the family cook’s reflections.

I could hear the clock, and I could hear Caddy standing behind me, and I could hear the roof. It’s still raining, Caddy said. I hate rain. I hate everything. And then her head came into my lap and she was crying, holding me, and I began to cry. (I, 55 – Benjy)

The first part is told by a congenital imbecile, Benjy, a man of 33 whose development has not advanced beyond childhood. He has no sense of time and portrays all the events in the present. His entire mentality revolves around Caddy, for whom he harbors fond memories and passionate devotion. Benjy’s narrative, at a first glance, is completely unreadable, owing to his associative thought-process. The whole of his 33 years are present to him in one uninterrupted and streamless flood. Different memories of Caddy subtly mark the time shifts across almost twenty events spanning 30 years. Benjy’s rigmarole actually gives a general picture of the intense passionate family relationships. One will be surprised at the completeness of his account despite its warped nature.

‘Did you ever have a sister? did you?’ and when he said No, you hit him. I noticed you kept on looking at him, but you didn’t seem to be paying any attention to what anybody was saying until you jumped up and asked him if he had any sisters. (II, 165 – Quentin)

Quentin is just as vague. His narrative dates back 18 years, in 1910, when he commits suicide at Harvard. A sensitive bundle of neuroses, he harnesses memories of Caddy after she became pregnant with the child of Dalton Ames, whom he confronted but lost disgracefully in a fight. It’s through Quentin and his turmoil that readers see the family’s estrangement from Caddy. He remembers Benjy and it pains him that his family has sold Benjy’s share of the land in order to send him to Harvard. He grieves over his failure to protect his sister from the paws of a scoundrel. As he mindfully prepares for his suicide, his narrative fades away to confusion due to severe depression and deteriorating state of mind.

Once a bitch always a bitch, what I say. I says you’re lucky if her playing out to be down there in that kitchen right now, instead of up there in her room, gobbing paint on her face and waiting for six niggers that can’t even stand up out of a chair unless they’ve got a panful of bread and meat to balance them, to fix breakfast for her. (III, 179 – Jason)

Jason’s narrative returns to the present and it is here the fogs lifts and the story quickens its pace. The mean kid spurned by his siblings is now the economic support of the family. Under his roof also is Miss Quentin, Caddy’s daughter who is constantly in pursuit of mischief. This is where readers finally see the dynamics of the Compsons. Knowing that the name Quentin covers two people, I pause and go back to re-read Benjy’s tale a second (and later a third) time to understand the big picture. Together with the third-person narrative that focuses on Dilsey, the family cook, the second half of the novel puts Benjy tale into a clear and kaleidoscopic perspective, as if the whole story suddenly becomes actual to one at a single moment. The effect that the obscurity produces is unparalleled and it mandates readers to re-read in order to appreciate the meaning.

All three brothers try, unconsciously, to construct order out of the chaos that are rampant in their family. They all fail as the family’s values become corrupted over time. Caddy seems to be the central character although none of the narratives devote to her. We know Caddy through her brothers who all hold her in fond memories—and gone is the love that binds them all together after she left. Ironically, it’s Dilsey who maintains a strong sense of order and endures the Compsons’ tumultuous downfall. The Sound and they Fury has the essential quality of a book that can be read over and over again, because it will afford a freshness and new meaning. It begs to be re-read.

321 pp. UK Vintage Paperback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[391] As I Lay Dying – William Faulkner

” I can remember how when I was young I believed death to be a phenomenon of the body; now I know it to be merely a function of the mind—and that of the minds of the ones who suffer the bereavement. The nihilists say it is the end; the fundamentalists, the beginning; when in reality it is no more than a single tenant or family moving out of a tenement or a town. ” (Section 11, 43-44)

As I Lay Dying reveals a single action over a limited number of days (roughly 10), as the Bundren family, braving disasters in the form of flood and fire, embarks on a journey from Yoknapatawpha County to Jefferson, where they will bury Mrs. Addie Bundred, who is dying as the book opens, at her family site. It’s obvious from the beginning that Addie was for most of the Bundrens a stabilizing force, whose death has not only aroused in every family member an inquiry to identity, but also provokes an adherence to her last words. As a promise to the dead, the preposterous journey is to fulfill the need to bury Addie in Jefferson even though it puts the family at risk of life and limbs.

It must have been like a piece of rotten cheese coming into an ant-hill, in that ramshackle wagon that Albert said folks were scared would fall all to pieces before they could get it out of town, with that home-made box and another fellow with a broken leg lying on a quilt on top of the wagon . . . (Section 45, 203)

Strange and bleak as the story sounds, it’s also hilarious and absurd. The absurdity of the situation somehow mingles with a heroic aspect that verges on the mock-heroic. Addie’s eldest son, a skilled carpenter, builds the coffin with calculation and passion, keeping his mother the progress of her final home. Anse, the sluggard of a husband, feels little sympathy for his dying wife. Later on the journey, after braving an overflowing river, instead of treating Cash’s broken leg, Anse, pining for some “goodstore teeth,” is bent on reaching the burial ground. As I Lay Dying is a drama of a damaged family, with each member, Addie included, searching for a wholeness that cannot be restored. Indeed, as the deceased Addie reveals, much later in Section 40, that Jewel, high-strung, impulsive, and heedless, is the illegitimate product of her affair with the preacher Whitfield, it explains Jewel’s secret employment at night in order to save money to buy a horse, which he assures Anse will not eat a bite of his food.

And at times when I went to go to bed she would be sitting in the dark by Jewel where he was asleep. And I knew that she was hating herself for that deceit and hating Jewel because she had to love him so that she had to act the deceit. (Section 32, 130)

The Bundren children, along with Addie and Anse, as well as other outsiders all contribute to the 59 narrative monologues that make up the novel. The story itself begins with the dying Addie and ends with her burial. She is the alpha and mega: her sons who in their different ways are obsessed with their mother, desperate for her approval and love, but perpetually dissatisfied. She is the center of the novel because even though she has betrayed her husband, she still controls everyone’s life. Whereas all exists in the same reality, the mode of language and perception alters this reality. Sometimes it’s the outsiders who possess a better grasp of this reality than the Bundrens. If the Bundren children do have a common ground in this reality, it would be an object or issue through which they filter their mother’s death: Darl with questions of existence and identity, Jewel with horses, Vardaman with fish (the famously succinct one-line chapter that equates his mother to a fish), Cash with his carpentry, and Dewey Dell with her sexuality.

Faulkner writes in a style characterized by great complication and variety, render a story that is simple in itself very difficult to read. The layered subjectivity that individualizes the monologues can be intermittently readable. The deluge of pronouns takes some getting used to. As the “homeward” journey presses on, the narratives also become more rational. Each narrative reveals just enough information to help understand the story, as the wagon metaphorically suggests, knowledge is obtainable only by friction and motion. This originality of style helps reinforce the implication that there is no absolute perception of reality.

261 pp. Vintage Softcover. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

Thoughts on Faulkner’s The Light in August

William Faulkner’s Light in August is set in the south at times of slavery. What seems to be a tale of an ambitious, determined pregnant woman hitch-hiking out from Alabama to look for the child’s father evokes the lives of a skein of interesting characters whose lives readers will not easily forget.

Lena Grove was pregnant with Lucas Burch’s child. She set out from Alabama for Jefferson, Mississippi to search for the man who promised to send for her as he settled down with a job at the mill. Welled with anticipation and hope, Lena arrived at the plant only to realize that she had mistaken Byron Bunch for Lucas Burch.

As soon as the search shed lights Faulkner takes away Lena from his readers and defers her until the end of the book. Joe Christmas, a man with mixed ancestry (part white and part Mexican) somehow befriended with Lucas Burch who carried a fictitious identity “Brown” and colluded in bootlegging whiskey.

A substantial coverage of the book recounts Joe Christmas’s childhood in an orphanage, his abused adolescence under the McEacherns, his mystifying affair with a slave advocate Miss Burden, and his apprehension after he allegedly burned down the house in which Burden resided in and thus murdered her. Brown sold him out for the thousand-dollar reward.

Byron Bunch, if not dredging overtime at the mill, would visit and keep accompany of Reverent Gail Hightower, who had be expelled by the elders in town after his adulterous wife committed suicide in Memphis. The ex-minister inherited a small income, gave arts lessons and handpainted Christmas cards. He was constantly plagued by visions of Confederate horsemen who killed his grandfather.

So go back and forth the narratives of the book, over vast intervals of time. Byron Bunch, who was in the know of Lucas Burch’s dual identity from the beginning, deftly dodged Lena from the truth but arranged her to settle down at Burch’s cabin. Together with Lena, Byron also ascertained the identity of Joe Christmas when the Hines, an old couple from Mottstown, arrived in Jefferson.

I don’t want to elaborate on the aspects of symbolism (this book has an abundance of them). The names could be symbolic (Christmas, Burden, Bunch, etc). The notion of race and skin color is outrageous in this book. Joe Christmas led a tragic life as a desperate, oppressed, enigmatic drifter who was irreparably consumed by his mixed ancestry. His very own grandfather talked of lynching him because of his copper, parchment-colored skin.

Political overtones seep through the book. Miss Burden’s father moved back south from California and spent much time cursing slavery and slaveholders. I get the impression that the curse of the black race is God’s curse, while the curse of the white race is those whom the white race has suppressed. The chapter on the reverent is so obscurely filled with dissertation on sins (some of the most arduous, tenacious reading of the entire book).

The structure of the novel is worth a discussion. With 21 chapters, Lena Grove’s search for the father of her child is deferred until the very end. Faulkner barely mentions her in passing in Chapter 14 when she settles down in Jefferson. The third and the second-to-the-last chapters devote to Reverent Gail Hightower. From Byron Bunch seems to be sewing all the pieces together as he recounts all the happenings in town and Lena Grove to the reverent. So everything in between shrouds the story the Joe Christmas. The result is a concentric ring structure Faulkner has astutely and deftly constructed in the novel.

Light in August deftly captures the Southern life focusing both on the personal histories of his characters and the moral complexities and uncertainties of an increasingly dissolute, diverse (of which Joe Christmas is an epitome, nobody recognized him as part Mexican) society. The book is a unique combination of a plethora of symbolism and a stream-of-consciousness technique. The characters stay with readers.

512 pp. Trade Paperback. Vintage Corrected text edition. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

*Unlike a formal review with quoted passages, I improvise this as words transmute from my head to the iPad after I read the book all in one sitting under a tree in the park. This post represents very raw thoughts and impression of the novel.