As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
I am always looking for a good excuse to read at the classics, and Faulkner has been one of those writers that I have often seen quoted, but I’ve never read personally. My knowledge of him stopped at “his typewriter is famous.”
So, when a book club I recently joined decided to read him in celebration of the club’s initiation, I got pretty excited. Much like when I read all of Edgar Allan Poe‘s works, there was no way I could dive into As I Lay Dying without understanding the context of the work, and the author himself. So, in addition to purchasing the Timeless Literature Collection’s edition of the text, I also downloaded the Random House audiobook (here, on Youtube), and Robert Crayola’s As I Lay Dying: A Reader’s Guide to the William Faulkner Novel (which I do highly recommend).
…Obviously, university-style readings will never go out of style in this household, haha.
This is going to turn into a fairly long review, with multiple quotes and considerations, but in short, I would say that I really did enjoy the book (though my partner, N J, did not, and we are writing these reviews concurrently. Here’s the link to hers.)
Timeless Literature did a fairly poor job of formatting this book for its e-edition, with random, lost quote marks and missing punctuation. While I’m aware that Faulkner did have his own eccentricities about punctuation, these errors were definitely from the ebook portion. As well, there is no table of contents, and this is just me, but when you charge money for a new edition of a book that is currently in the public domain, I think you should add something to the text, whether that’s collected biographies or an introduction, or footnotes to help readers with context, or visuals, all three of which Timeless failed on, in my opinion.
The audiobook by Random House is top-notch. I don’t typically like audiobooks, but the voice actors were wonderful, and really brought a certain mood to the text, which was highly enjoyable, especially if you’re having a hard time imagining, or reading, Faulkner’s literal spelling of accents. I personally listened to the audiobook only halfway through, however, as I read much faster than they were talking, but if you’ve got other things you want to be multitasking with as you listen, this is a great edition.
Crayola’s reader’s guide was also a really great find. He does some great chapter-by-chapter replays (I do recommend reading it after you’ve finished the book, as it is a complete summation of the text, and while reading, I think it’s important to build your own opinions of the characters and what is happening first. I also appreciated the biography and explanation of the context of the book, and the character snapshots. If you like getting the whole picture of a book, definitely pick this little gem up.
And with that, the spoilers begin.
As I Lay Dying is a novel that centers around the death and burial of Addie Bundren, a mother of five who is married to the extremely selfish and lazy Anse Bundren. While this seems to be the central conflict of the book, it would probably be more accurate to say that the real conflict is within the interpersonal relationships between the family members, and whether, with the death of their mother, the family will be able to carry on, or self-destruct.
There are many, many narrators in the text, though in my opinion, the key players are Darl and Jewel, offering “logical” and emotional counter-weights to each other. The narrators aren’t reliable, and neither is the timeline, so this makes reading the novel a game of how much information can the reader juggle before the novel’s information begins sliding out their ears.
Of all of the characters, I liked Jewel the best, perhaps because, despite his violent tendencies, he is actually the one most able to express his loss and pain at his mother’s passing. Then again, if the narrators are to be believed, he was the most loved of the children, while Darl was the least.
Before I read Crayola’s guide, I actually thought that Darl had some sort of mental handicap. Crayola, and apparently Faulkner, both say otherwise: Darl believes himself to be intelligent, but isn’t really. Despite the writer’s intentions, my initial impression sort of stuck with me, though. Darl’s “specialness” came in the form of very awkward exchanges with others, and a famous monolog regarding verb tenses, and the peculiar logic of how a mother that was, can not be a mother that is, and therefore, Addie Bundren is not really Darl’s mother. I think that this section, which I will quote below, is one of the more interesting passages with Darl, and can be read on many levels, down to his well-known rejection by Addie, who weaned him as soon as she could.
In a strange room you must empty yourself for sleep. And before you are emptied for sleep, what are you. And when you are emptied for sleep, you are not. And when you are filled with sleep, you never were. I don’t know what I am. I don’t know what I am. I don’t know if I am or not. Jewel knows he is, because he does not know that he does not know whether he is or not. He cannot empty himself for sleep because he is not what he is and he is what he is not. Beyond the unlamped wall I can hear the rain shaping the wagon that is ours, the load that is no longer theirs that felled and sawed it nor yet theirs that bought it and which is not ours either, lie on our wagon though it does, since only the wind and the rain shape it only to Jewel and me, that are not asleep. And since sleep is is-not and rain and wind are was, it is not. Yet the wagon is, because when the wagon is was, Addie Bundren will not be. And Jewel is, so Addie Bundren must be. And then I must be, or I could not empty myself for sleep in a strange room. And so if I am not emptied yet, I am is. [Yet his mother was, as he tells Vardaman a few chapters later, as he tries to confuse his little brother and claim Jewel’s mother is a horse, if Vardaman’s mother is a fish:
“Then where is your ma, Darl?” [Vardaman] said.
“I haven’t got ere one,” Darl said. “Because if I had one, it is was. And if it is was, it can’t be is. Can it?”
The somewhat surreal logic of the novel (famously, “My mother is a fish.” as the one sentence chapter for Vardaman’s POV) was actually really fun to read. It reminded me, in parts, of many of Hesse’s works, and, to a lesser extent, Salinger. Symbolism, double meaning, stream-of-consciousness. If there was any way to describe literary fiction as a separate entity of regular, commercial fiction, passages like the above would be the example. (And for those that suggest literary fiction is a redundancy, yes, it is…. but, then again, literary fiction has a penchant for repeating itself quite often…)
One of the most prominent bits of symbolism in the text belong to Jewel, and his relationship with Addie and the rest of the family. For example, several times, it is left to Jewel alone to carry the weight of the coffin (figuratively and literally), but it is Jewel’s horse who vicariously flings mud on his mother’s coffin (and her, by extension, by being a bastard child).
Anse is a symbolic buzzard as well, feeding off of his children and delighting in circumstance that will give him more cause for self pity. At one point, Darl even describes him in such a light that the ending of the novel is no real surprise:
He tries to soothe it again, clumsily, his hand awkward as a claw, smoothing the wrinkles which he made and which continue to emerge beneath his hand with perverse ubiquity, so that at last he desists, his hand falling to his side and stroking itself again, palm and back, on his thigh. The sound of the saw snores steadily into the room. Pa breathes with a quiet, rasping sound, mouthing the snuff against his gums. “God’s will be done,” he says. “Now I can get them teeth.”
Jewel’s hat droops limp around his neck, chanelling water onto the soaked towsack tied about his shoulders as, ankle-deep in the running ditch, he pries with a slipping two-by-four, with a piece of rotting log as fulcrum, at the axle. Jewel, I say, she is dead, Jewel. Addie Bundren is dead. [Italics being internal monologue of the characters, and in this case, Darl switching from a house POV (which he shouldn’t have known), to the location where he really was, with Jewel.]
And finally, Vardaman, at one point in the text, when he starts to believe his mother is a fish (and indeed, her coffin almost washes down stream like one) bores two holes into Cash’s perfect coffin, in the process boring into her face, much like a hook catches a fish.
As I Lay Dying was touted by Faulker himself as a tour de force, and while it is a very interesting read, there were parts I didn’t particularly care for, and almost too much is open to interpretation. So much is clear in how much N J and I differed on our readings of the text.
Nonetheless, the novel is full of beautiful descriptions, and raw people, and takes a unique view on how people process death. We assume that the death of a loved one will affect people profoundly, but in Faulkner’s story, it is clear what grief there is comes from Jewel and Vardaman, and the rest of the characters hardly consider her for even five minutes after she dies.
Crayola suggested in his guide that As I Lay Dying is a dark comedy, but I hardly found that to be the case. However, no matter its genre, the treatise on characters less than righteous or generous was interesting, and probably what I enjoyed most about the book.
To end, here are some more quotes from the text:
When I was a boy I first learned how much better water tastes when it has set a while in a cedar bucket. Warmish-cool, with a faint taste like the hot July wind in cedar trees smells. It has to set at least six hours, and be drunk from a gourd. Water should never be drunk from metal.
And at night is better still. I used to lie on the pallet in the hall, waiting until I could hear them all asleep, so I could get up and go back to the bucket. It would be black, the shelf black, the still surface of the water a round orifice in nothingness, where before I stirred it awake the dipper I could see maybe a star or two in the bucket, and maybe in the dipper a star or two before I drank.
Jewel, and his wonderfully flavorful mouth:
“Eat,” he says. “Get the goddamn stuff out of sight while you got a chance, you pussel-gutted bastard. You sweet son of a bitch,” he says.
More Jewel, the only character to show true agony at the suffering of his mother (though she is later proved to be no angel herself):
It’s because he stays out there, right under the window, hammering and sawing on that goddamn box. Where she’s got to see him. Where every breath she draws is full of his knocking and sawing where she can see him saying See. See what a good one I am making for you. I told him to go somewhere else. I said Good God do you want to see her in it. It’s like when he was a little boy and she says if she had some fertilizer she would try to raise some flowers and he taken the bread pan and brought it back from the barn full of dung.
And now them others sitting there, like buzzards. Waiting, fanning themselves. Because I said If you wouldn’t keep on sawing and nailing at it until a man cant sleep even and her hands laying on the quilt like two of them roots dug up and tried to wash and you couldn’t get them clean. I can see the fan and Dewey Dell’s arm. I said if you’d just let her alone. Sawing and knocking, and keeping the air always moving so fast on her face that when you’re tired you cant breathe it, and that goddamn adze going one lick less. One lick less. One lick less until everybody that passes in the road will have to stop and see it and say what a fine carpenter he is. If it had just been me when Cash fell of of that church and if it had just been me when pa laid sick with that load of wood fell on him, it would not be happening with every bastard in the country coming in to stare at her because if there is a God what the hell is He for. It would just be me and her on a high hill and me rolling the rocks down the hill faces and teeth and all by God until she was quiet and not that goddamn adze going One lick less. One lick less and we could be quiet.
Darl’s contempt for Jewel:
“It”s laying there, watching Cash whittle on that damn…” Jewel says. He says it harshly, savagely, but he does not say the word. Like a little boy in the dark to flail his courage and suddenly aghast into silence by his own noise.
And more beautiful words from Faulkner:
The sun, an hour above the horizon, is poised like a bloody egg upon a crest of thunderheads; the light has turned copper: in the eye portentous, in the sulphurous, smelling of lightning.