Thursday, December 13, 2007

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

As I Lay Dying currently holds the prize for the book I've started and put down the most times. I think I started it four times, got about 25% of the way through, and then realized I really didn't know what was going on. This last time I read it, I finally made it through, and now I'm not quite sure why it was so difficult.

As I Lay Dying tells the story of Addie Bundren, her death, and the subsequent trip to her hometown where she wanted to be buried. Each chapter is told from the point of view of a different person, and the book has quite a large cast. The sons: enigmatic Cash, borderline-empathic Darl, loner Jewel, youngest child Varadman; the daughter, confusingly named Dewey Dell; Anse, the selfish, uneducated father; and an extended cast of characters encountered along the way. Even Addie takes a single chapter to speak from beyond the grave.

Spoilers Follow.

Although the family's quest to bury Addie where she requested initially seems like a selfless act, some of the family members have ulterior motives for wanting to make the trip to the big(ger) city. Anse is already looking for a new wife and Dewey Dell is looking for a way to kill the baby no one knows she's carrying.

The tone of the entire book is pitch black and macabre, full of distasteful and distubring bits. Vardaman, drilling holes in the casket so his dead mother can “breathe”, drives a spike too far into the casket and into her face. Cash's leg is broken, so Anse encases it in cement, creating a makeshift oven in which it is eventually essentially baked alive. Dewey Dell is duped into a “Treatment” for her pregnancy that's essentially rape. Anse finds a new wife a day afer burying his old one. Not to mention that about halfway through the book, Addie Bundren's body begins to rot and smell so badly that the Bundren's are nearly arrested.

I read some analysis of this book after I finished it, and a lot of folks read it as a sort of black comedy. It's not an impossible viewpoint to adopt, but it requires a darker eye for humor than I have. I found the story mostly disturbing, but I also found that the initially confusing style added quite a lot to the narrative. We don't know if we can trust the narrators, and even if we could, their stories are delivered in a stream of conciousness style that is reinterpreted everytime a new character shares his viewpoint.

Overall, As I Lay Dying was a very good book, and I'm unsure if it made me want to read more of Faulkner's work or stay away from it. Faulkner reportedly wrote As I Lay Dying insix weeks and claims he didn't change a word. He is also quoted as saying that he wanted to write one book that his reputation could stand or fall upon. The book is a fish.

Edit: When I googled for this cover, the entire first page was the metalcore band As I Lay Dying. Lame. guys.

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