My rating: 5 of 5 stars
As I suggested the book to my book club, the least I could do was to moderate the discussion.
Faulkner, as everyone knows, is a challenge. When I told my step-mother, she joked that if she went to her death bed without reading another word of Faulkner, she’d be happy. The last time I read “As I Lay Dying” was in prep school, and about the only part I recalled was “My mother is a fish,” perhaps the shortest chapter in American literature, which I puckishly quoted under my senior yearbook picture – of me seen through a fish-eye mirror. Since I had already had my fun with Faulkner, now it was his turn to have fun with me.
One of the joys of moderating at my local book club is you get to send questions the week before. I sent four:
1) In what ways is “As I Lay Dying” a fundamentally spiritual book?
2) Does it matter what skin color the main characters are?
3) For ye have the poor with you always – would Faulkner agree or disagree?
4) Which character, if any, could be the author’s alter ego?
In a nice way one of our longer-term members, a former English major, said my questions were “provocative.”
The problem is I finished the book several weeks prior and then got so busy I only had a short 15 minutes before the book club to remind myself who the main character were, much less what I thought of them. It is a book of multiple fish-eye mirrors, with each chapter narrated by one of a dozen figures, the exact relation among them intentionally obscure. To barely keep track, while reading, I had written the order of personalities, and any hints of interrelations.
So when I padded over to the book club meeting, only several blocks from my apartment, I was still looking at highlighted passages from dog-eared pages for clues. Our meetings, in the 2nd floor conference room, are agreeably held at the Wolfsonian Musuem. When I arrived in the lobby, a small group was already forming. They promptly told me what a relief I was moderating, implying that I would offer easy insights into the otherwise impenetrable prose. I truthfully if sheepishly replied, if any insights came out during the discussion, the group would be responsible.
I began the meeting by mentioning my step-mother’s comment and asking, as we tend to do, for each person’s impression in turn. As for my take, I admitted it must be the most baroque road trip book I’ve read.
For those who don’t recall or haven’t yet had the pleasure, the book is about Addie Bundren’s long journey, in a coffin, to her grave. The journey is filled with mishaps, from a team of mules being swept away in a flood, to a barn burning, to one son’s broken leg being set in concrete, to another son’s descent into lunacy. Husband Anse promised to keep her dying wish to be buried among her people, so neither she nor he are blameless in all this. As one narrator reasons, “But it’s just like him to marry a woman born a day’s hard ride away and have her die on him.” (p.30)
So while the entire novel is a prolonged meditation on death, and its never-ending reverberations, we also get a peek at the human condition. Anse, for one, is not fond of journeys: “Because if He’d aimed for man to be always a-moving and going somewheres else, wouldn’t He a put him longways on his belly, like a snake? It stands to reason He would.” (p.37)
Once the cortège gets going, Anse’s nearly psychopathic determination to honor Addie’s dying wish is explained another way: “I notice how it takes a lazy man, a man that hates moving, to get set on moving once he does get started off, the same as he was set on staying still, like it aint the moving he hates so much as the starting and the stopping.” (p.114) Sounds like the intertia of life.
Darl, the soon-to-be nuts son, has flights of lyricism that can only be described as authorial. His meditation on death is the most succinct: “It takes two people to make you, and one people to die. That’s how the world is going to end.” (p.39)
Here, unsettlingly, the sins of the father are largely against his offspring. But Anse doesn’t see it that way. “I am not religious, I reckon. But peace is in my heart, I know it is. I have done things but neither better nor worse than them that pretend otherlike, and I know that Old Marster will care for me as for ere a sparrow that falls. But it seems hard that a man in his need could be so flouted by a road.” (p.38)
But a man on a mission is not to be deterred, whether it be floods, son and daughter sacrifice, or other hardships, for early on Darl comments, “Pa breathes with a quiet, rasping sound, mouthing the snuff against him gums. ‘God’s will be done,’ he says, “Now I can get them teeth,” (p.52), and indeed he does – with the money his pregnant daughter had intended for an abortion.
Other surprises include the auger holes drilled into Addie’s face, Anse’s sudden re-marriage at book’s end, and the real lunacy of drowning a team of mules while fording a raging and flooded river, that nearly kills several sons. The book is fantastical, but thankfully avoids the metaphoric slough of surrealism, where every move has an arched eyebrow meaning.
Needless to say, Faulkner casts a jaundiced eye on the culture he grew up with, yet he also treats his characters with both compassion and lightly dark humor. His capturing of a mileau that is uniquely and ineffably American is done with compelling naturalism: every action and reaction is fully believable, inevitable.
The search for meaning, however, is part of the human condition. Our reading group, naturally, grappled with what was really being lugged around in Addie’s coffin, besides a putrefying corpse. The south, we concluded, is a region more weighed down with the past than most, and in Addie’s coffin Faulkner was also burying a part of his.
(Edition referenced: First Vintage International Edition, Oct. 1990.)