Thursday, November 30, 2006

47. As I Lay Dying

by William Faulkner

I’m surprised. I didn’t dislike As I Lay Dying. In fact, I even kind of liked it and I can see myself rereading it at some point. Why did I expect to dislike it? Well, there’s that problem I have with classic southern writers; they don’t seem to grab me nearly as much as they grab the rest of the reading populace. There’s also the fact that the book is written in stream-of-consciousness, which I almost always have difficulty following. So then, why did I want to read it? To be perfectly honest, there’s this little-known movie call Kicking and Screaming (not the Will Ferrell movie, this one came out much longer ago) about a group of college graduates who find themselves with nothing to do after said graduation. At one point Max is sitting in his apartment, staring at books, and saying, “As I Lay Dying…Heart of Darkness…” Then he starts singing and it’s really more amusing if you just see the movie, but since then I’ve wanted to read the book. Dumb reason, I know, but it got me to read one of America’s most famous authors, right?

Here’s the story as I understood it. Addie Bundren is dying. Her son Cash is building her coffin right outside her window, so as she’s passing away her last days she hears the sawing and the banging and witnesses the construction of her final home. Her husband Anse isn’t much for hard work, so much so that he believes sweat will kill him. Darl and Jewel, two more sons, make one final delivery for three dollars which causes them to miss Addie’s death. Vardaman, the youngest son, likens his mother to a fish that he caught, this being the only way his immature mind can comprehend her death; meanwhile, Dewey Dell, their daughter, fans over Addie as she slowly dies.

Anse’s final promise to his wife is that he’ll bury her with her family in Jefferson. Once she dies the family packs up and embarks on a trip that is at parts funny, at parts disturbing, and all together revealing about the Bundrens. Told from the points of view of every family member, and from characters that aren’t part of the family, we get to see into Bundrens from every angle. We get to see how Jewel can be both determined and selfish. Darl is the most introspective of the bunch, perhaps taking the death the hardest. Cash breaks his leg, but sucks it up and goes the entire trip without complaining. Dewey Dell has a secret and visits a couple pharmacists on the trip, searching for a drug that will take away her pregnancy. It’s generally thought that Anse is lazy and many of the characters wonder why he doesn’t just bury Addie in their hometown. And we learn from a section told by Addie herself about her somewhat apathetic relationship with love.

But there were some things I didn’t understand and I did look up some summaries on the internet. I didn’t really understand why Vardaman kept calling his mother a fish and I wasn’t entirely sure who it was that was pregnant and wanted not to be (these parts were told from the viewpoints of the pharmacists so I thought it might be a flashback on Addie’s life). I also didn’t understand much of the ending – Darl goes crazy and there are all these bananas and Anse introduces the children to a new “Mrs. Bundren” – but I learned that that was okay. There’s been a lot of confusion and debate over what these things mean and whether Anse traveled all the way to Jefferson just to meet a new wife. I was also suspicious of a passage wherein Vardaman confesses that he saw something which Dewey Dell made him keep a secret. Generally it’s thought that he saw Darl going crazy and setting fire to a barn, but I kind of thought Darl and Dewey Dell had an incestuous relationship and Vardaman had seen something he shouldn’t have. Turns out there are some theories leaning toward this as well.

One of the things I’ve learned by reading “classic” books is that it’s okay if you don’t understand everything right away. Some writers are just difficult and abstruse and they’re better read if accompanied by the thoughts of someone who spent a lot of time connecting some of those dots. Which isn’t to say that maintaining your own opinions on literature isn’t important, but it’s okay to get a little help every now and then. Now, I’ll admit that I did check out the Oprah lectures for As I Lay Dying, mainly out of curiosity for how she guided her readers through a book that’s seemingly impenetrable to even seasoned readers. She had video lectures from a Faulkner academic, quizzes to test yourself on how much you understood, and FAQs to give you answers to some of those things you didn’t. It was actually pretty comprehensive and if I had been taught to fear literature I’m sure her site would be a welcome helping hand. I’m not the biggest fan of Oprah’s book club, but most of us ardent readers can attribute our love of books to an influential source. We weren’t born this way; we became this way. If Oprah can help someone discover that in themselves, no matter how late in life, that can only be a good thing.

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