It’s not like I set out on purpose to read two iconic works of American literature in two consecutive weeks. No, really. Honest.
After reading Huckleberry Finn last week and As I Lay Dying this week, I’m starting to think with a Southern accent. Please send help. It’s gettin’ powerful bothersome.
It’s been a long week here at Book to the Future headquarters. For the past six days, the temperature here has been over forty degrees. With no air conditioning, our little townhouse is more like a sauna. A sauna with piles of books against every wall. It’s cooler now, but be warned – I’m operating on very little sleep here.
So, keeping that in mind: here are my thoughts on William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. They mightn’t make sense. Which is kind of fitting, actually, because this book doesn’t make much sense either…
As I Lay Dying
by William Faulkner
It’s all James Joyce’s fault. Him and that Virginia Woolf. After their experiments with stream of consciousness writing in the nineteen-tens and nineteen-twenties, all of a sudden, everyone wanted in. Stream of consciousness narrative caught on faster than the Snuggie. Within the space of a few years, everyone was doing it – with various degrees of success.
The problem with stream of consciousness writing is that, while it instantly makes the author look totally hip and happening, it’s not exactly reader-friendly. Some authors make it pretty much impossible for the poor reader to follow what’s going on (yes, Mr. Joyce, I’m talking about you) while others ensure it’s easier for us to keep up with what’s happening.
As I Lay Dying is a highly experimental, stream of consciousness novel. With a difference: it’s narrated by a whopping fifteen different characters. That’s fifteen different streams of consciousness.
The result? A strange combination of utter beauty and complete, brain-paralysing confusion. But somehow, it kinda works.
Meet the Bundrens – they’re possibly the most dysfunctional family ever. Addie Bundren, mother of five, lies in her bed watching as her eldest son, Cash, builds her coffin outside her bedroom window. Meanwhile, her selfish husband is more concerned about earning money, and her seventeen-year-old daughter, Dewey Dell (yes, that’s really her name…) is pregnant. To add to the family’s problems, Addie’s favourite son, Jewel, was born after an extra-marital affair that the family has never acknowledged. Vardaman, the youngest member of the Bundren family is too young to understand what’s going on. And that leaves Darl. He narrates most of the book, and is perhaps the only sane member of the family. Except when he’s not sane.
Addie made her husband promise her that when she died, the family would take her to a distant town to bury her among “her people”. So, when she passes away, the family load Addie’s coffin onto a wagon and set off for Jefferson, Mississippi.
Along the way, the Bundren family confront their fears, their desires, their insecurities – and acknowledge a few uncomfortable truths.
As I mentioned earlier, As I Lay Dying is narrated by fifteen different characters. We hear not only from the Bundrens themselves, but also from their neighbours, their acquaintances – even complete strangers. And each character speaks in their own Southern vernacular. With so many streams of consciousness at work, it’s no wonder all the rivers the Bundrens attempt to cross on their journey are flooded.
Reading As I Lay Dying is like being a psychiatrist. You get to listen as, one by one, each of the book’s narrators sits on your couch and tells you all their innermost secrets. I can’t resist a book with multiple narrators. It’s like they’re speaking to you; confiding in you. For a voyeur like me, it’s tantalising.
But here’s where things get really interesting: the narration of As I Lay Dying is like an Escher painting: it’s utterly implausible. For instance, on the first page, Darl describes the look on Jewel’s face – even though he’s just told us that he’s walking behind Jewel. It gets weirder: Darl also narrates Addie’s death, even though he’s not actually present at the time. And later in the novel, Addie narrates a chapter herself, despite the fact that she’s actually dead at the time.
I love interesting books. Books that make you smile and scratch your head in wonder.
As I continued to read, I kept scratching my head…but there were many moments in which I definitely struggled to keep the smile on my face. Keeping up with this book is a gargantuan effort at times. There’s one chapter, narrated by Vardaman, the youngest son, that consists of only five words:
My mother is a fish (p. 76)
Err. Okay. Whatever.
Then, a few chapters later, again from Vardaman:
But my mother is a fish. Vernon seen it. He was there.
“Jewel’s mother is a horse,” Darl said.
“Then mine can be a fish, can’t it, Darl?” I said.
Jewel is my brother.
“Then mine will have to be a horse, too” I said.
“Why?” Darl said. “If your pa is your pa, why does your ma have to be a horse just because Jewel’s is?”
“Why does it?” I said. “Why does it, Darl?”
Darl is my brother.
“Then what is your ma, Darl?” I said.
“I haven’t ere got one,” Darl said. “Because if I had one, it is was. And if it is was, it can’t be is. Can it?” (p. 90 and 91)
Just typing that out again made my head hurt. That’s what you’re up against when you’re reading As I Lay Dying. Circular conversations. Unreliable characters narrating things that didn’t really happen. And more.
I can really appreciate As I Lay Dying. There are aspects of it that really impressed me. But, then again, I don’t like feeling totally, hopelessly lost when I’m reading, either. A little readerly confusion can be a good thing. But complete, total disorientation? Not so much.
As I Lay Dying is the kind of book that, upon finishing, begs to be re-read. I still have so many questions I’d like answered. But it’s time for me to move on.
One day, I’ll revisit this book and make up my mind how I feel about it. Until then, I’ll remember As I Lay Dying as one of the most beautiful, but profoundly confusing books I’ve ever encountered.
Official Book to the Future Rating:
Superawesome! – Awesome – Okay – Blah – Superblah!
Should you read it:
Hmm. This is a toughie. Every reader is different. I’ll leave this one up to you.
In a word: