As I mentioned in my last post, I have been trying to read all 100 books listed on the 100 Best Novels which is a list of English-language novels published in the 20th century. I do understand that this 100 Best Novels list was a marketing ploy on the part of the Modern Library, an imprint of Random House, which – SURPRISE- publishes all 100 titles. I also understand that any list of "best" books is incomplete and subjective. But for me it has been an interesting challenge to try and tick off every title and while there have been a few stinkers, there have been wonderful discoveries too.
When the 1930 Club (hosted by Simon, who blogs at Stuck in a Book and Karen, who blogs at Kaggy’s Bookish Ramblings) was announced for November, I saw that As I Lay Dying, which is on the 100 Best Novels list, was published that year. My choice was made! I worried at first that I wouldn’t finish it in time for the 1930 Club, but it is pretty short (my edition had 244 pages) and aside from some of the stream of consciousness bits, not too difficult to digest.
As with some high falutin’ modern classics, the story is simple: Aggie Bundren is dying. Her feckless husband has promised her that she will be buried in Jackson where her “people” are from, which is 40 miles away from their farm. She dies and the journey with her corpse is bedeviled by bad luck and ignorance on the part of the Bundren family. A journey that should take a couple of days ends up taking over a week and meanwhile, the body starts to decompose in the summer heat.
This is the second novel I’ve read from Faulkner and I am confident he will never become a favorite of mine. Despite the book's brevity, it still behooves the reader to read it fairly slowly. I did think the sections that were straight dialogue were great. I looked up a few samples of Mississippi accent on YouTube so I could get the right voice in my head. U.S. Southern dialects and accents are all really different from another and I needed some verisimilitude.
In Faulkner's depiction of the various character’s innermost thoughts, he often uses references and vocabulary that wouldn’t be known to persons of the Bundren’s socio-economic class. It is here where the book didn't work for me. I get that there is a line between what one states and what one thinks and we don’t think in words but it was jarring nonetheless. Especially when the speaker/thinker is supposed to be a child. The characters also drove me insane! I realize it was purposeful, but they all make the worst choices, whether out of ignorance or spite or selfishness. I think what makes the book and the characters so frustrating is that, while the book doesn't come right out and say it, in death they are honoring their mother in a way they neglected to when she was alive. But this is foolish. She is dead and there is no point to this ritual. It only damages and impoverishes them further. The devotion should have been shown when she was alive and could have had some benefit from it. But this is often the way of human motivation I think.
In some ways As I Lay Dying reminded me of Erskine Caldwell's Tobacco Road which also features poor, rural whites in the American South in the first half of the 20th century. But Caldwell went more for comedy - dark comedy, but still comedy. I guess some readers might find humor in the various setbacks that plague the Bundren family as they journey (or maybe in the youngest child Vardemann's confused thoughts, "My mother is a fish") but I found As I Lay Dying pretty bleak.
I am glad to have read it however. I am glad that Faulkner’s works exist. He had an significant influence on other writers; Cormac McCarthy for one, whom I’ve never read and Toni Morrison for another, whom I revere. I can see the through line to Morrison, although I find her books and her style to be much more compelling.