Saturday, October 11, 2008

Cannonball Read #4: As I Lay Dying, by William Faulkner

There are a lot of books I simply have not gotten around to, and the worst parts of these books are the few pages at the back that list all the other books put out by the publisher. By the time I get to these pages, I always flip through them, and always get all depressed because there are now another 200 books I have to read before dying in order to be an accomplished human being, and then I get depressed in a happy way because I love to read even though there are a bazilliion books in the world that I want to read all the time.

Question: is there a job that will allow me to read all the time without particular direction, and yet still continue with my master plan of Fixing Politics and the World?

In any case, this is my first run in with Faulkner, and I have mixed feelings about it. The book is an account of a family taking their dead mother to the place where she wants to be buried, set in post-Civil War America. The story is told through short bursts of various vantage points, which I am of two minds about....I'll just admit now that I had a bit of a hard time reading this book. There is a generous handful of characters, and most of them share the same dialect and same kind of thought process, so it could be a little hard for me to keep track of who was talking at a given point. As a result, I often had to turn back to the start of the chapter to check the speaker's name; listing the speaker's name somewhere on the top of the page would have been helpful. That being said, the story itself is terrific and the writing is excellent. The imagery on both a broad and a minute scale is simply stunning. These aspects of the book are all the more impressive when you consider that he wrote this in one shot, without much editing or other general tinkering.

The story is in its simplest form about a family trying to do well by one of their family members in spite of their complicated relationship with her. To me, the family featured was of the type that usually gets all its rough edges buffed off before being committed to paper. It seems that the bookshelves of the world are full of two types of families - disgusting, warped, deeply fucked-up families who dedicate themselves wholeheartedly to abusing each other, or sickie-sweet, airbrushed dream families who do nothing but sit at home on weekend nights saying nice things about each other. The family in As I Lay Dying is just weird, but a normal kind of weird. They're not educated, and in the case of the children appear to have little but their own common sense to help them develop any kind of moral compass, and it's this latter quality that I find most interesting, because the results are so disparate between them. Cash, for instance, obsessively dedicates himself to perfecting his mother's coffin without considering the negative consequences of building it right outside her window. The others draw some guidance from religion and neighbors, but the common theme amongst them all is their rudderless development.

The most important thing about all of these people is that they do the best they can, no matter the circumstance, and no matter the nuttiness of their chosen path. At one point, Cash's leg gets broken, and they decide that to deal with that serious-due-to-lack-of-modernity problem by...setting it with CONCRETE. There are also numerous incidents where they encounter challenges posed by nature (since Murphy's Law basically stalks this crew around, there is a massive rainstorm and corresponding flooding as they start on their trip) and fail on an epic scale. Throughout the journey, the family's genuine attempts to adhere to the best moral code possible keeps them together, even though they often float over the trip with their own thoughts and considerations...their basic desire for goodness ties them together.

I do have one complaint, that being *SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER* the random meeting with Addie's mother after they finally reach their destination *END* at the end of the story. I often worry about missing nuance in great writers' works, and maybe I'm just being oblivious to some crazy full circle situation here, since Addie was the mother of the family and there was a frought relationship between the sides of the family (to say nothing of the state of things inside the nuclear family), but I just felt like it was a random, almost throwaway addition and did not care much for it. Maybe some Faulkner scholar can help me out here, but I didn't like the addition and thought it was incoherent.

288 pages

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