As I Lay Dying is one of the most-famous novels in American literature. I came in with pretty high expectations. I wasn’t exactly disappointed: It does what famous 20th-century literary novels do, which is combine insight into characters with stylistic innovations. But it sure has a lot of flaws.
There are “spoilers” in here, but this isn’t the kind of story that relies on plot twists to keep you reading. I’d have appreciated it better if I’d known what was going to happen (and, often, what was happening).
Cormac McCarthy’s border trilogy invites obvious comparison with Faulkner’s work: Both are written by country folk about country folk, are full of details of rural life, and focus at least as much on their characters’ psychology as on action sequences. Both have a unique style that combines startling poetic passages with disregard for whether the reader can tell what’s going on.
Let me start with the style, as that’s the most divisive thing about both men’s writing, but in different ways. Both of them have a flashy big-S Style, and a precious little-s style.
By little-s style I mean the way they construct sentences, supposing someone told them what each sentence had to say and gave them a bag of words they could use. Both make unusual choices about apostrophes, speech tags, and clause-joining. In Faulkner’s case he seems to have decided to lexicalize certain contractions but not others, to avoid deliberately-ordered sentence structures such as this one, and to avoid all speech tags but “said”. In McCarthy’s case it’s just part of a rebellion against grammar, whose transparent purpose is to keep his books from being shelved together with Louis L’Amour.
The problem with Faulkner’s little-s style isn’t that it’s bad in Faulkner’s work; the problem is that it leads to Cormac McCarthy. So many critics have praised Faulkner’s style, but it’s hard to tell when they’re praising the good things about his style, and when they’re praising him merely for being weird. McCarthy learned all the wrong lessons from Faulkner, throwing out quotation marks, apostrophes, and commas as a declaration of literary intent rather than because his characters talk that way. Faulkner avoids semi-colons because his characters never plan their sentences, and a semi-colon occurs only where a speaker has thought about the structure of the sentence before speaking it and broken it down into clauses and sub-clauses. McCarthy just converts semi-colons into commas, to look like Faulkner. Faulkner uses “says” everywhere to be simple. McCarthy omits quotation marks and speech tags everywhere to be simpler, with the result that he has long dialogues with no speech tags that are literally impossible, as he lost track somewhere in the middle of who was speaking, and comes out the other end having swapped speakers.
By big-S style I mean the way Faulkner’s characters come out with sudden poetic metaphors, or the way McCarthy lingers over the landscape and then explodes into a long run-on burst of poetry. Faulkner is dazzling but distracting. He takes care to have characters say things the way country folk would say them, then ruins it by sprinkling bits in their internal monologue like “her leg coming long from beneath her tightening dress: that lever which moves the world; one of that caliper which measures the length and breadth of life,” that no farmer would ever say outside of a church, let alone about his sister. He tosses four-syllable Oxford English Dictionary vocabulary and avant-garde analogies into their internal thoughts at random, just because he thought of it at that point. These are uneducated farmers who speak in words of one and two syllables, and I had to use a dictionary to figure out what they were thinking sometimes. McCarthy uses his poetry and metaphors strategically, focusing the reader on important elements and important transitions. Faulkner jizzes metaphors all over inappropriate characters at inappropriate times, which sometimes make no sense. McCarthy is in control; Faulkner seems to be writing drunk.
Both Faulkner and McCarthy have problems with ambiguity. In McCarthy’s case, it’s mere carelessness. If you find a “he” or a “him” in one of his sentences, there’s no guarantee that you can look to the left and to the right and figure out who it is. Important dialogue might be unattributed to a specific character, or in Spanish.
In Faulkner’s case, it’s deliberate. He loves to introduce a character into a scene without telling us who it is, or whether they are male or female, or how old they are, until later; or even to slip the character in in a way designed to mislead us into thinking it’s someone else (as is done at a critical point in Addie’s chapter, portraying her infidelity in a way designed to mislead us into thinking there was no infidelity).
Ambiguity has been fetishized by literary critics. A fetish is something that has been involved in sexual pleasure frequently enough that the pleasure is associated with that thing, and it seems as pleasing to the fetishist as the original stimuli. Valid literary ambiguity is when the characters have ambiguous thoughts, feelings, or ways of describing what happened. That’s like at the climax of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, when John Singer doesn’t know what he is feeling.
Faulkner specializes in phony ambiguity created by deliberately concealing critical parts of a character’s thought. This is a valid literary technique when an unreliable narrator is deliberately concealing things from the reader. But it’s just a gimmick when Faulkner use it to create ambiguity. Dewey Dell obsesses over Peabody and thinks how he could “make everything right for her,” misleading us into thinking she has romantic feelings for him, until we find out much later that she wants him to give her an abortion. But Dewey Dell knows perfectly well what she wants from him, and isn’t aware of being a narrator, so this “ambiguity” only detracts from the story being told by fooling us into constructing some other story. When Addie narrates her infidelity in a way to conceal the fact that the man she was screwing was not her husband, this wasn’t a valid literary technique to show that Addie is deceiving herself; it was Faulkner leaving the necessary words out. Addie knew perfectly well whom she was screwing, and the words of her narrative showed that she thought of it as infidelity, which is why it was (deliberately) confusing. When Vardaman spills his stream-of-consciousness internal monologue on us in early chapters, we have no idea what he’s talking about until nearly the end of the book, at which point we learn he was thinking about a train he saw in a store window. But Vardaman knew exactly what he was talking about! This ambiguity isn’t a reflection of life’s and language’s complexity; it’s a distracting guessing game that conceals the story unnaturally.
When I began the novel, I thought Faulkner had the win in this regard. McCarthy tells westerns. They may dwell on the thoughts and feelings of the characters more than Louis L’Amour does, and they may be disguised by strange grammar and punctuation, but the stories themselves are westerns about strong, virtuous men thrown into bad circumstances and fighting their way out. Faulkner seemed to be writing about normal people with normal problems. But as usually happens with Faulkner, I gradually realized he had leaned a little toward a Southern Gothic freak show. If the Bundren family were here today, they would get their own reality TV show. Instead of normal people dealing with normal problems, we have a dysfunctional, disconnected family creating their own problems of flood, fire, and insanity. It’s a bunch of improbable sadfics mushed together. Cash is a good man with bad luck who doesn’t stand up to the morons around him. Jewel is his own worst enemy. Dewey Dell has lost her virtue. Addie didn’t love her husband. Etc. The characters act on each other mechanically, as weights and pulleys, rather than having emotional ties. The wordcount-eating subplot with Darl going insane, committing arson, and being taken away was one big WTF that ate up the last third of the novel and didn’t connect with anything else. I guess Faulkner just wanted to get a fire in there after his flood, for the sake of completeness.
The strength of the novel should then be in portraying each of the characters realistically. But character portrayal is always two steps forward, two steps back. The Southern Gothic problem runs through much of Faulkner’s work, making it implausible and not very relevant for people who aren’t insane or from dysfunctional families. Another aspect is the stylistic problem I already mentioned, throwing jarring academic language into the thoughts of “simple Southern folk”. And Faulkner sometimes throws one such startling metaphor into one character’s thoughts, and then throws the same metaphor in the same words into another character’s thoughts later, not only disrupting both characters but homogenizing them.
Then we have the most-irritating problem with Faulkner: Stream of consciousness. It’s what he’s famous for. As I mentioned before, he uses it to throw phony ambiguity everywhere.
Paragraphs, sentences, or words in internal monologues are italicized at random. In the worst cases, the italics indicate an intrusion into this character’s thoughts by some other unidentified character or characters. This is Faulkner being cute by not telling us things. If you want to do a stream of consciousness, fine; but give us the whole stream. If a character, during one conversation, mentally recollects an earlier conversation, he also recollects who he was talking to, and when and where it was. Faulkner just jams in the dialogue with no indication of who is/was speaking, deliberately disorienting us in a way that is not true to life.
But usually it’s just a section of their ongoing monologue that is continuous with what’s around it, but set off by italics in random places, as if Faulkner had a sticky “italics” key on his keyboard. I found it enormously distracting and time-consuming to stare at it until I concluded it was meaningless.
Another problem with his stream of consciousness is that he likes to use children and mental defectives as narrators, but has no idea how such people think. It seems like he just grabbed a fifth of whatever alcohol was nearest when he needed to write such a character, then vomited drunken meaninglessness across the page. Here’s a section that is supposed to represent the thoughts of a child:
The train is behind the glass, red on the track. When it runs the track shines on and off. Pa said flour and sugar and coffee costs so much. Because I am a country boy because boys in town. Bicycles. Why do flour and sugar and coffee cost so much when he is a country boy. “Wouldn’ t you ruther have some bananas instead?” Bananas are gone, eaten. Gone. When it runs on the track shines again. “Why aint I a town boy, pa?” I said. God made me. I did not said to God to made me in the country. If He can make the train, why cant He make them all in the town because flour and sugar and coffee.
This isn’t how little kids think. They don’t even talk quite this disjointedly, but imagining that they think like this, well, that would take someone who doesn’t interact with children and has forgotten what it was like to be one.
Here’s the way he writes the thoughts of a man beginning to go crazy:
In a strange room you must empty yourself for sleep. And before you are emptied for sleep, what are you. And when you are emptied for sleep, you are not. And when you are filled with sleep, you never were. I dont know what I am. I dont know if I am or not. Jewel knows he is, because he does not know that he does not know whether he is or not. He cannot empty himself for sleep because he is not what he is and he is what he is not.
Or maybe it’s just a man starting to fall asleep. Ordinarily I’d say it isn’t, since the narrator never said anything like “And then I lay down and tried to sleep,” but Faulkner wouldn’t give us plain statements of fact like that, because that would spoil the fun of puzzling out what the hell was going on.
The narrative voice in this novel is different from other first-person novels. It feels like they’re thinking, or talking to themselves, not like they’re talking to you. But it’s hard to put my finger on why. Maybe this is the good part about his stream-of-consciousness style. If so, that isn’t the part that people usually imitate when they do stream-of-consciousness. I associate it with broken grammar, sentence fragments, and thoughts that crash into each other in a heap. But maybe it also means this simple, direct, un-self-conscious first-person narration. I can’t say how he does it, but it is different.
The more that I think about it, the more I think that what makes it work is exactly what I’ve been complaining about—the lack of context or explanation. In a normal first-person story, every time the narrator gives you background or context, it shows she’s aware of you, the reader. Faulkner’s characters never give you the background or context you need to interpret them. That’s what makes them so confusing, but that’s also what makes the narrative seem like a window into their minds, which abolishes any fear of deliberate manipulation or misleading of the reader.
A person doesn’t usually think to themselves, “My ma is 45 years old,” or, “I have always hated lemons,” so you see how that makes it difficult to introduce context. Still, I think Faulkner takes it too far. There are ways to go back, recognize that certain information must be introduced, and have the characters say something that implies it. And Faulkner habitually leaves out critical information that the characters would have been thinking to themselves, which seems deliberate.
Faulkner’s “simple folk wisdom” sometimes makes his characters phony. Darl thinks too much, so he goes crazy. I reckon that’s what happens when you get too much book-learnin’, Floyd. We have genetic determinism in the horses and in the character of Jewel. (When a horse is mean, it’s because he comes from bad stock, not because you beat him every day.) And we have the “Christians are all fanatics and hypocrites” meme in Cora and the minister, and the way Anse uses the word “Christian” to manipulate people.
I had maybe more problems than I should have with simple plausibility issues.
– There’s one point where Darl says Jewel is following them 300 yards behind, and then gives a detailed description of what the folks 300 yards behind are doing and look like.
– There’s a crucial scene fording a river, which is described as being nearly 100 yards wide normally and the water so high now you can’t even tell where the river is. Aside from the insanity of trying to drive a wagon underwater through a ford after a long thunderstorm, we then have people diving into the river to retrieve all of the tools that they dropped when their wagon was swept away. Now, a river under such circumstances is wild beyond endurance, and as much mud as water; and those tools would be spread out over an area 100 feet wide, 10-20 feet deep, and half a mile long, and the description of them diving into it and retrieving the tools made me want to set the book down and laugh.
– The story is supposed to be realistic, but there’s one paragraph where a character speaks a remarkably specific prophecy that comes true later, not accomplishing anything thematically or story-wise, yet turning the whole novel into a fantasy.
Maybe my biggest problem was the lack of basic cues that would help us figure out who these people were and what their relationships to each other were. Things like what century it is, whether the town they’re in is big or small, or how old they are. The text makes it sound like Addie’s about 80 when she dies, but the ages of her children (which you don’t find out until later) imply she’s about 45. That makes a big difference to how we expect folk to feel when someone dies. We’re told lots about Anse’s reluctance to do hard physical work, but not whether he’s young or old, which would help us interpret this. Jewel bullies the brothers about and seems to be the oldest son; near the end of the book we find out he’s 10 years younger than Darl. (When someone has an entire novel about a set of brothers and we can’t tell which one is the oldest, they’ve failed.) I think Dewey Dell is a little girl, maybe thirteen, then find out near the end that she’s 17 and beautiful, and this is crucial information that would have helped me understand what she was doing all through the book.
I believe this could have been a better book if Faulkner had resisted the temptation of giving everybody their own sad story. The good stuff was diluted by too many chapters devoted to too many underdeveloped and under-integrated characters, especially Dewey Dell, who should’ve been eliminated from the book, and Vardaman, who got too much screen time, especially since his thoughts usually didn’t make sense. I also think that a book about a family should have some points where the family members understand each other and reach out to each other. The lack of that makes the novel something of a grotesque. If you want Southern Gothic, go for it.
The novel has many great things about it, mostly the way folks talk, the characters that are clearly-portrayed and interesting (Anse, Cash, and Vernon Tull), and the insights into why people do what they do. I should list a few of these:
– Anse, the father, is determined to bury his wife far away at Jefferson, when he hardly ever gets determined about anything, and it seems like he gets some sort of gratification out of the difficulty of it, as if it were a proof that he had hard luck.
– Vernon notes that Anse isn’t lazy about doing things, he’s lazy about changing what he’s doing, so that he hates to start a job, and then hates to stop it when he should.
– Vardaman, the little boy, beats the doctor’s horses because he blames the doctor for killing his ma. And he’s right. The doctor came; she saw him and decided it was time to die. The curious thing was that the father hated to call a doctor because of the expense, and yet at the last moment, when nothing could be done, the adults all believed that they had to call a doctor because that’s what one does, while only the little boy looked at the situation and saw it clearly.
– Darl is institutionalized, but Anse, Jewel, and maybe Cash are all crazier than he is.
I didn’t emphasize them because I’m so ticked off about it being admired and imitated for all the wrong reasons. It’s recognized as a classic for its use of stream of consciousness, and for its realistic portrayal of realistic people. I got more out of it than I did out of All the Pretty Horses, but I think its stream of consciousness was a gimmick, poorly done, that was part of a larger infuriating game Faulkner was playing called “confuse the reader”. The characters were not very representative of reality, and their portrayals were a mix, stylistically and in content, oscillating wildly between realistic and insightful, and fake and shallow. Most importantly, the family members didn’t seem to have a history with each other and their stories didn’t connect with each other. You could say that was a meditation on the loneliness possible in a large family, but I, having experience with large families, would call it sloppy writing. I find myself wondering whether someone in search of honest portrayals of country folk wouldn’t be better off reading a James Herriot book.