In the last several months, no less than three books that I have read and that have touched me deeply have made reference to William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying. Clearly the universe was saying to me, "READ THIS BOOK!"
I resisted at first because I had, in fact, read this book many years ago and I thought I remembered it fairly well. But after I read Jesmyn Ward's Salvage the Bones in February, I knew I had to read what many consider to be Faulkner's masterpiece once again.
As I Lay Dying tells the story of the dirt-poor Bundren family, led by their patriarch Anse, surely one of the most feckless, worthless, good-for-nothing characters in all of fiction. There are five Bundren children: Cash, Darl, Jewel, Dewey Dell, and Vardaman. We meet the family as their wife and mother, Addie, is near death. She lies in her bed under the covers in sweltering July in Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, as different members of the family take turns fanning her. Outside her window, she can hear the sawing and hammering by her oldest son, Cash, as he fashions her coffin.
The story is told in turns by each member of the family; each chapter features the voice of a different member. Also, we hear the voices of a few neighbors or benefactors who take pity on the woebegone family and come to their aid along the way. It is Faulkner's distinctive narrative structure, using multiple points of view and the inner psychological voices of the characters to advance the plot and explore motives and action.
Death comes to Addie and they dress her in her wedding dress, place her body in the coffin and nail it shut. But that's just the beginning.
Addie had always expressed a desire to be buried in the county seat town of Jefferson where she was raised and where her family is buried. Anse had promised that he would take her there to be buried. So, they hitch the mules to the wagon and load Addie's coffin on it and set out on the days-long journey to Jefferson.
If the weather had cooperated, perhaps they could have made the trip without incident, but they are beset by torrential rains which flood the river which they must cross. They are forced to take shelter with neighbors along the way.
The days pass and the inevitable happens; a foul odor emanates from the coffin. During the day, vultures circle overhead and sometimes alight on the coffin when they stop moving. The scene is pure Southern gothic in which Faulkner uses almost equal parts of humor and grotesquerie to paint the picture for his readers.
As they attempt to cross the river, the wagon capsizes and the mules become tangled in their traces and drown. Cash's tools which he had brought along are lost in the river and he himself almost drowns and suffers a badly broken leg. The coffin is almost lost. But the wretched family is able to survive, retrieve the coffin and the wagon, and eventually all of Cash's tools, as each member of the family, except worthless Anse, goes back into the raging waters to find all of his beloved implements. It's at this point that one realizes that these sad-sack people actually love each other. At least, they love Cash. They know what those tools mean to him and they are unwilling to have them lost.
They find another team of mules and resume their trip, which continues to be one disaster after another. After flood comes fire, the revelation of Dewey Dell's unwanted pregnancy and her attempts to end it, Darl's descent into madness, and nine long days pass and the number of vultures gathering overhead increases daily. Vardaman, the youngest son, chases them away as they come near or land on the coffin. And amazingly, the Bundrens receive help from various neighbors along the way.
This book was published in 1930. Most of Faulkner's best work was done in the first half of the twentieth century, much of it in the first third of that century. He wrote of the social realities of life in the South as it made the transition - or, in some instances, struggled against making the transition - from the Civil War to the modern era. He wrote of a culture that was impoverished both economically and intellectually, but in which the people still hung on to their stubborn pride and their concept of dignity. I think his ultimate triumph in expressing all of these ideas was this book.
My favorite chapter in As I Lay Dying is Addie's chapter. It actually comes after she has died but it is her telling the story of how she, who was intellectually his superior, came to be married to Anse and how their lives together took shape. The chapter reminds me of nothing so much as Molly's soliloquy in Joyce's Ulysses. (Maybe I need to read that book again, too.) And my favorite part of the chapter is Addie's meditation on how words come to be:
“That was when I learned that words are no good; that words dont ever fit even what they are trying to say at. When he was born I knew that motherhood was invented by someone who had to have a word for it because the ones that had the children didn't care whether there was a word for it or not. I knew that fear was invented by someone that had never had the fear; pride, who never had the pride.”
"...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.”
“People to whom sin is just a matter of words, to them salvation is just words too.”God, that man could write!
Faulkner, of course, has been an inspiration to many of his fellow writers, especially Southern writers. I see much of him in the work of Jesmyn Ward. Her Batiste family in Salvage the Bones echoes the Bundrens.
Yes, this macabre, visceral story still has relevance for us almost a hundred years later. It still has things to teach us about the human spirit and condition. I'm glad the universe sent me an urgent message to read it.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars