I read plenty of books in high school and college that I didn’t like much but only one that I actively loathed: The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner. I could not see the point of a book that was so utterly incomprehensible. Our professor provided a reading guide that listed all the shifts in points of view by page number, and I still couldn’t make heads or tails of it. I’ve never minded a challenge when reading, but that was just too much. Plus, it was long. Most of the books I didn’t like were at least mercifully short.
But knowing that Faulkner is considered one of America’s great novelists, I’ve told myself for years that I ought to give him another try, this time with one of his more accessible books. When my church’s book group chose As I Lay Dying to read, it was finally time for that second attempt. Imagine my surprise at how much I enjoyed reading about the mixed-up crazy-pants Bundren family of rural Mississippi.
The book begins with the Bundrens preparing for the death of Addie, the family matriarch. Outside her window, eldest son Cash is carefully constructing her coffin, holding up the boards so she can see the wood he’s chosen. Sons Darl and Jewel are planning to run an errand that can earn them three dollars, but their father Anse is worried that Addie will die while they’re gone. Meanwhile, Dewey Dell, the only Bundren daughter, is worrying about her unplanned pregnancy, and youngest Bundren son Vardaman is applying a child’s illogical logic to the problem of death. When Addie does die, the family loads up the wagon and takes her the 40 miles to Jefferson to honor her wish to be buried with her people.
One member of my book group noted that reading this book is like walking in at the middle of a movie, and that’s exactly how it felt. Each brief chapter is narrated by a different family member or a neighbor or stranger who observes their actions. The characters just share their thoughts in the moment; they don’t offer background or explanations. We must read between the lines to learn anything at all, sometimes even to get a handle on the basic events of the plot.
I didn’t find this nearly as difficult as The Sound and the Fury. That is partly because I’m a better reader than I was 20 years ago, but I think it is an easier book. The shifts in perspective are clearly marked and there is a definite story, told mostly chronologically with moments of backtracking. Even so, I ended up reading the first third of the book twice because I wanted to get a grip on who these people are.
The effort I put in to understand the Bundrens completely paid off. This family is all kinds of dysfunctional, and their travels put all their oddities on display. I got the most amusement out of Anse, who spends most of his time moaning about he was “ever a misfortunate man.” When his son Cash is lying on the ground, injured and vomiting after a disastrous river crossing, Anse continues to wail about his own misfortunate state. Anse moans almost continually about how he “don’t begrudge” Addie any of the pain this journey is causing. When neighbors try to help by offering shelter, Anse refuses to accept, not wanting to be beholden to anyone. But he changes his tune when he wants something, like the loan of a mule team or anything belonging to his children. He’s a piece of work, that Anse.
As the journey continues, the family gets in increasingly serious scrapes, and with each scrape the comic potential increases right along with the disaster potential. Soon, the buzzards are following the wagon and the stench is causing strangers to remark on it. Honoring the dead is all well and good, but there’s something to be said for good sense.
But good sense is just what the Bundrens seem to lack. One neighbor remarks, late in the Bundrens’ journey, “A man aint no different from a horse or a mule, come long come short, except a mule or a horse has got a little more sense.” The Bundrens are driven by a promise made to a troubled woman. Addie, there on the wagon and in her coffin, is guiding this whole journey. But a horse or mule will balk when urged to do something colossally stupid. Do the Bundrens balk? Not in any substantive way. Instead, they let Anse make them martyrs to his promise to Addie and urge everyone, including their mules and horses, toward disaster. The mules don’t have a choice, but the Bundren children do. Yet they keep letting Anse direct them.
I mostly enjoyed this book for its dark comedy. I laughed out loud so many times! But there’s a lot of interesting stuff here about family ties and the ways people understand each other within families or within close communities. Also, as goofy as the Bundrens’ adventure is, each character’s actions make sense in a cock-eyed sort of way, but at what point does cock-eyed logic turn into complete wackadoo craziness? I like what Cash says about the matter, late in the book:
But I aint so sho that ere a man has the right to say what is crazy and what aint. It’s like there was a fellow in every man that’s done a-past the sanity or the insanity, that watches the sane and the insane doings of that man with the same horror and the same astonishment.
Cash, the most deliberate and thoughtful–and largely ineffectual–member of the family, has it right. From a certain perspective, anyone’s actions could look insane.
P.S. Just as I was getting into this book, Susan shared a link to Girl Detective’s amazing Lego diorama of a key scene in the book. I never would have thought Faulkner could inspire Lego creations, but I loved this!