"As I lay dying, the woman with the dog's eyes would not close my eyes as I descended into Hades." -from The Odyssey by Homer
William Faulkner is considered by many to be one of the greatest American writers of the 20th century, as well as one of the most important Southern writers along with Flannery O'Connor, Truman Capote, and Robert Penn Warren. His winning of the Nobel Prize for Literature brought him to the forefront of American literature, and his fifth novel As I Lay Dying consistently ranks high among the best American novels of all time.
Addie Bundren is dying. As she lays in her bed, her family and friends surround her, each with a different reaction to her passing. After her death, the family sets out to bury her with her kin in Jefferson. As they travel, many things impede their way from flash floods to a barn burning. The story is told through the eyes of the many characters who inhabit this novel, from the intellectual Darl to self-centered Anse to the deceased Addie herself. Will Addie ever be buried, and will it bring the family peace?
My Review (Caution-Spoilers!):
William Faulkner is one of those authors whom I have avoided out of sheer cowardice. Many critics say that he is one of the greatest American authors simply because the majority of readers have no clue what he is talking about. And at first, I was ready to agree with them.
The way the story is told takes a lot of getting used to. Like James Joyce, Faulkner is one of the pioneers of "stream of consciousness" writing. Basically, we are reading each character's thoughts as they are thinking them. This can make it very hard to follow at times, especially since many of the characters thoughts seem to have no connection to each other. But after awhile, Faulkner's writing grows on you. They cease to be random words and instead take on a beauty and flow of their own.
Basically, it isn't that the average reader is incapable of understanding, its just that Faulkner is not going to serve the meanings to you on a silver platter. You have to work for it. There is a story that a reader once approached Faulkner and said "I have read this particular novel of your three times and I still don't get it!" Faulkner's reply was "Read it a fourth time."
What struck me the most was how you could really tell that Flannery O'Connor read a lot of Faulkner's works. The style of writing, the portrayal of poor white Southerners, the grotesqueness, and the dark humor all appear in O'Connor's writing much as it does in Faulkner's.
Now, for all of the seriousness and character studies, this novel is also very funny. Not witty ala Jane Austen, but darkly humorous. Really, the whole thing is just so absurd that you can't help but laugh hysterically. The fact that Anse won't work because he believes that he'll die if he breaks a sweat? Hilarious! Addie having to be buried in her coffin upside-down to accommodate her wedding dress? Brilliant! The family traveling nine days to bury Addie only to find out that they had forgotten the shovel? I think I just squirted drink out my nose! It's moments like these that keep the work from sinking into complete darkness.
All in all, I think that I have gained a healthy respect for Falkner, though the novel did leave me with many questions. Is Darl really crazy, or is he the most sane one in the bunch? What really causes Vardaman to connect his mother with a dead fish? When is someone going to punch Anse's lights out like he deserves? I guess the only solution is to do what Faulkner himself suggested: read it again.
If you're putting off Faulkner because you are scared like I was, don't. You may like it, you might not, but it is definitely worth finding out.