Sunday, October 15, 2017

Sanctuary by William Faulkner

The worst one of all said boys thought all girls were ugly except when they were dressed.  She said the Snake had been seeing Eve for several days and never noticed until Adam made her put on a fig leaf.  How do you know? they said, and she said because the Snake was there before Adam, because he was the first one thrown out of heaven; he was there all the time.  But that wasn't what they meant and they said, How do you know, and Temple thought of her kind of backed up against the dressing table and the rest of them in a circle around her with their combed hair and their shoulders smelling of scented soap and the light powder in the air and their eyes like knives until you could almost watch her flesh where the eyes were touching it, and her eyes in her ugly face courageous and frightened and daring, and they all saying, How do you know? until she told them and held up her hand and swore that she had.

Sanctuary is Faulkner's "potboiler," a novel that takes his familiar themes and characters and weird, poor Mississippi setting and uses them to frame a salacious and prurient story.  There's an element of pulpiness in it--check out the trashy cover in the image above--but Faulkner is too idiosyncratic and elliptical for Sanctuary to really be shocking or titillating.

The first of the novel's two main characters is Temple Drake, a Mississippi undergrad who gets mixed up with a jerkoff alcoholic frat boy who takes her against her will to a bootlegger's house where he abandons her.  There she's raped by a petty criminal named Popeye, who whisks her away to a brothel in Memphis where he stashes her away.  The second is Horace Benbow, a conflicted lawyer who has just left his wife (because of his sexual feelings for his stepdaughter--nice one, Faulkner) and who takes up the defense of the bootlegger who has been charged with a murder that Popeye committed.

Horace and Temple's stories only intersect briefly.  Horace's sympathies are oriented toward Ruby, the wife of the bootlegger Lee, and her infant child; in fact, the townspeople begin to assume that he and Ruby are carrying on an affair, explaining his pro-bono work on Lee's case.  Faulkner wants us to see that Temple is pretty much forgotten; the case hinges on a murder that has nothing to do with Temple, and though Horace tracks her down to find out what happened, his priorities are elsewhere.

Temple's character is frustrating.  We're asked to accept that her feelings toward Popeye are conflicted, and that she's not exactly his prisoner, but neither is she exactly free to leave.  A kind of Stockholm syndrome makes sense, but Faulkner wants us to believe that the rape takes away Temple's agency to a degree that makes her passiveness in the face of her imprisonment sensible.  There are hints of a retrograde notion of female hysteria.  I think we're supposed to read Temple as a cautionary tale about the teenage desire to be inducted into the world of adult sexuality, the darker side of which she and her fellow coeds are unprepared for.  But there's something about the way that's coded according to gender that makes Sanctuary seem like it's trafficking in cheap literary archetypes.

Mostly, Faulkner's elliptical style makes it difficult to really figure out what's going on.  We learn that Popeye hasn't been having sex with Temple himself; instead, he's recruited a gangster named Red to do it while he watches.  Temple has fallen for Red, in a way, making Popeye jealous, but Faulkner neglects to include any of this in the narrative.  By the time we learn about Red's existence, Popeye's already shot him, and we're expected to fill in the blanks.  Faulkner keeps the most salacious part of the ordeal close to the chest, choosing to reveal it only in the final courtroom scene: Popeye is impotent, and the initial rape is performed with a corncob.  Okay.  Honestly, the "shocking reveal" is what makes Sanctuary seem more like a pulp novel than anything else.

Still, Sanctuary has all the elements that make Faulkner worth reading: the currents of sex and death, the lack of sentimentality, the tension between the impoverished setting and the flights of decorated prose, the black humor.  The savageness of Faulkner's novels makes us underestimate how funny they can be, I think.  But it's hard not to feel that Faulkner's slumming it a little, searching for a bestseller that his style won't let him fully commit to.

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