As I lay dying – challenging read after which “ordinary” novels seems lacking

This is my review of As I lay dying by William Faulkner.

In the fictional county of Yoknapatawpha, based on Faulkner’s deep knowledge of Mississippi in the Great Depression, wife and mother Addie Bundren lies dying for only the first fifth of this modern classic, to the hypnotic mantra of sawing as her son Cash painstakingly constructs a coffin within sight and sound of her bed . The rest of this short but dense novel is taken up with the fateful Odyssey borne of Anse Bundren’s stubborn to the point of foolish insistence on taking his wife’s body on a ramshackle cart over routes where road bridges have been swept away in the floods, to “lie with her own people” in the town of Jefferson. As it turns out, both he and his daughter Dewey Dell have an ulterior motive for getting there at all costs.

To achieve this, Anse needs the assistance of his children, in particular his three very different adult sons. It is a continual puzzle as to how this pathetic, incompetent man manages to use his wheedling guile to hold them to their thankless task, which brings each of them long-term suffering of a different kind. Only Anse comes out of the situation with any advantage – clearly, the cynical Faulkner did not believe that people get their just desserts. Yet there is a bond between the often hostile brothers, as shown by the risks taken to salvage Cash’s precious carpentry tools from the river-bed.

The unrelenting, macabre and bleak theme is rendered tolerable, even gripping by the remarkable style, the wry black humour and quirky Southern speech. The book requires intense concentration with its multiple points of view, each chapter representing by turns the thoughts of a different character, expressed in a stream of consciousness that is part literary, even poetical, part pithy, part convoluted colloquial dialogue. On occasion Faulkner even invents words for want of an existing one that suits – “uninferant”, “uncurried”.

It helps to know that Faulkner disliked the “normal” style of straightforward explanation, preferring to leave major events merely implied or hinted at, rather in the style of the film scripts which he took to writing in later life. He enraged Ernest Hemingway by observing that he “lacked courage”, by which he meant, not in a physical sense, but as regards being prepared to “get out on a limb…risk bad taste…overwriting….dullness.” Faulkner himself took all these risks in spades in this novel. Apparently written in only six weeks, it has a raw, unedited feel at times, as may have been his intention. It is debatable whether this is a strength or weakness. I found myself rereading some passages because they are so stunning, others in a vain and tantalising attempt to make sense of them. Sometimes, the brilliance seems to slip into pretentiousness or tedium.

Some of the most powerful passages describe Jewel Bundren’s sadistic passion for his “pusset-gutted bastard” of a horse. “Enclosed by a glittering maze of hooves as by an illusion of wings”, Jewel “moves with the flashing limberness of a snake….for an instant… whole body earth-free, horizontal, whipping snake-limber….Then Jewel is on the horse’s back. He flows upward in a stooping swirl like the lash of a whip, his body midair shaped to the horse” and so on. Later we see the horse “dancing and swirling like the shape of its mane and tail and the splotches of its coat had nothing whatever to do with the flesh-and-bone inside them”.

There is humour in Darl Bundren’s acutely droll assessment of his father. “He got sick once from working in the sun when he was twenty-two years old, and he tells people that if ever he sweats, he will die. I suppose he believes it.”

Irony marks the portrayal of the preacher who rushes to Addie’s bedside in an attempt to pre-empt any deathbed confession with one of his own, complacently concludes that his efforts in battling through the floodwaters are sufficient to obtain God’s mercy, “He will accept the will for the deed” and enters the “house of bereavement” with a mere sanctimonious “God’s grace upon this house”.

There is menace, not to mention an indictment of Anse’s inappropriate behaviour, in the continual references to the ever-present vultures which obsess Addie’s youngest son Vardaman: “Now there are seven of them, on little tall black circles”.

At one extreme, Vardaman and his teen-age sister Dewey Dell seem handicapped in their ability to communicate by their limited speech. At the other, the sensitive, perceptive Darl is often used as the mouthpiece for the author’s most sophisticated verbal pyrothechnics. Yet even the tortuous southern speech can be surprisingly telling as when bemused neighbour Tull observes, “The Lord aimed for…a fellow… to do and not to spend too much time thinking, because his brain is like a piece of machinery: it won’t stand a whole lot of racking”. Likewise, Cash’s final observation, “ But I ain’t so sho that ere a man has the right to say what is crazy and what aint. It’s like there was a fellow in every man that done a-past the sanity or insanity, that watches the sane and the insane doings of that man with the same horror and the same astonishment”.

There are also deeper levels of meaning to this book about, say, Addie role as a wife and mother, or the language of religion used to as a form of social control in a deferential rural community which defy inclusion in a short review without “spoilers”.

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