Monday, May 12, 2008

Book Notes: The Sound and the Fury

[Note: Holly has made the point that, if we post about great books we've read on the net, lazy students can cut and paste what we write for their papers.

I definitely hear that, but I just feel like it's a good thing to hype great books that I've read, just to get the word out there. If you are a student who is cutting and pasting this, please understand that you are too stupid to be in school and you should drop out now and save your parents the money. Thank you.]

Reading Faulkner was quite the thing to do when I was in college; I went to school in southern Virginia, where raw cotton would blow across the road and people still follow countless rules of decorum; and Faulkner was still remembered as the writer in residence at UVA as well as perhaps the greatest American writer of the Old South. One summer I remember seeing nearly everyone I knew walking around with one of his books under their arm.

I tried reading Absalom, Absalom! in my freshman year and got very little out of it. I think you have to read Faulkner fairly slowly and I tried to breeze through it in a Saturday afternoon. To be honest, I barely remember it. A bit later, I read As I Lay Dying, which I enjoyed quite a bit more (it actually reminded me of Beckett for some reason), and actually planned for some time to write a sprawling novel with several narrators and a dead body set in the South. I imagine it wouldn’t be as good.

The Sound and the Fury was the first Faulkner novel that I really found moving. It’s essentially a Gothic novel about an old Southern family that is, by all accounts, cursed. One son is a mongoloid who is castrated after trying to rape a town girl. Another son has incestuous feelings for his sister that end in suicide. The third son is embittered and hateful. The daughter is a fallen woman whose own illegitimate daughter becomes another fallen woman. Clearly, no good can come of this family.

Nevertheless, a major theme is how the characters try to escape their ill-fate by all means possible, from changing a son’s name to smashing a watch; of course, this doesn’t work- it’s impossible for humans to escape time after all. Faulkner is fascinated with the way that the past affects the present through human consciousness. The first three chapters are told from the viewpoints of the three brothers, and he is good at showing how memories are experienced in the present. Nevertheless, this makes it a bit hard to follow at times: Faulkner actually considered having different time periods printed in different colors. Again, I would read it slowly.

The other difficulty I has was reading the chapter narrated by the son Jason, who is an insufferable prick. Nevertheless, there is something Shakespearean in Faulkner’s ability to inhabit characters at such odds with each other; these diverse chapters play off of each other and create an entire dying world in a dilapidated southern farm.

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