I read this novel for the first time when I was about fourteen years old. My mother was a Faulkner fan, and I wanted to be as cool as my moms, yo, so I picked it up and, lo and behold, devoured it in a single weekend. A year later, I read it again, much more slowly, gradually becoming more and more intoxicated by its language and its ideas. Over the next six or so years, I worked my way through every single Faulkner novel and short story I could find, and at this point in my life, I would be surprised if there is a single thing written by the man that I have not read. And read more than once, at that.
In college, I took a lit course in which we read Absalom! Absalom!, the novel I typically cite as my all-time favorite book, and most of the discussion that week focused on how everybody but me hated Faulkner with a vengeance. Personally, I attribute this to the fact they all had been forced to read The Sound and the Fury in high school. Of all the Faulkners, S&F is my least favorite, and it would never, ever be the one I suggested someone start out with. I assume teachers always pick it because the first section is such a shining example of the stream-of-consciousness style. But it’s also a total bitch to grasp and an INSANE downer (not that the others are cheery, mind you), and the combination seems to turn people off so fast they never go back and try anything else. A crying shame, I tell you. Because William Faulkner was a genius. Ain’t no bones about it.
For those that managed to escape this one in high school and therefore have no idea what it’s about, The Sound and the Fury tells the story of the Compson family and is split into four sections, each narrated by a different family member. The first section is told from Benjy Compson’s point of view — a 33 year old man-boy with fairly severe mental retardation. The second is set about 20 years earlier and is told from the point of view of Benjy’s brother Quentin, who is one of the most heartbreakingly broken people of all time. The third is told from Quentin’s brother Jason’s perspective — he’s an asshole. And the final section is written in the third person and focuses primarily on the Compson family’s black servant, Dilsey, who is, not-so-coincidentally, the only character in the novel who isn’t a total disaster.
These are all miserable, broken people, (except for Dilsey, who is a rock of awesome) and this novel essentially tells the story of the horrible sufferings and tragedies of each of their lives. In essence, if you get into this novel deeply enough to understand what’s going on, your reward for making all that effort is a steaming pile of misery. So you can see, then, why this might not inspire further exploration of Faulkner for many people.
But for me, at the maudlin age of 14, it was absolutely life-shattering. For one thing, it was the first time I’d ever read anything that attempted to take me into the mind of someone with mental disabilities (Benjy, obviously, but also Quentin in his own damaged way), and Faulkner was so effective at it I was utterly enthralled pretty much from page one. Damn. Brilliant.
The novel also serves, as all Faulkner novels do, as one giant metaphor for the deterioration and self-destruction of the South after the Civil War. The Compsons’ lives are constantly being intruded upon by the past (which, as Faulkner writes in Requiem for a Nun, “isn’t dead; it isn’t even past”), and no matter how they thrash and struggle, there is never any freedom from it. Even when the Compsons make sacrifices to try in some way to atone for their history, those sacrifices only come back to bust them in the chops in the most painful and tragic of ways. The Compsons are like a fish caught in a net — the more they fight, the more tightly they become bound. And their fate? Also that of the fish, I’m afraid.
This focus on the past, this need to subject it to constant scrutiny and never, ever unhitch it, is hallmark Faulkner, and it, more than anything else you will ever read or see or hear (in my opinion, anyway), will teach you everything you need to know about the impact of the Civil War on our nation. Faulkner’s novels were my first introduction to the Civil War as a actual force — a force that wrought upon this country some of the most completely irrevocable grief of all time. It has always felt to me like Faulkner’s entire works represent his attempt to tell the same story over and over and over, never being satisfied with the way it came out. Yoknapatawpha County, the fictitious setting of many of Faulkner’s books, is like an open wound that’s never allowed to heal. It is a thing that represents both excruciating pain and unfailing courage. It is a sad thing. And a beautiful one.
Oh, stop. I hate talking about Faulkner. I think I love it, and then I start doing it and I hate it. I feel like everything I say comes out wrong and sounds absolutely idiotic. And besides, you either love the guy or you hate him, and I’m pretty sure there is little I can say that will swing you from one side to the other. That said, if you’ve always wanted to try a Faulkner novel and never known where to start, the one I usually recommend is Intruder in the Dust, because it’s a courtroom drama and thus is sort of like Law & Order meets Dusty Old White Literary Dude With Chip on His Shoulder. It’s much more traditionally entertaining and accessible than many of Faulkner’s other novels, but it still gives you a solid introduction to his writing style and themes.
From there, if you want to know what I’d read next, you know where to find me. Someday, and I’ll make that someday soon now that I think about it, I hope that where you’ll find me is in Oxford, Mississippi, hanging out somewhere with a cup of coffee and a book while I breathe in the same air that went in and out of the lungs of Billy F.once not that long ago. And then set his heart on fire.
“Between grief and nothing, I’ll take grief.” — Harry Wilbourne in Faulkner’s The Wild Palms.
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