One of William Faulkner's finest novels, "As I lay dying" was originally published in 1930, and remains a captivating and stylistically innovative work. The story revolves around a grim yet darkly humorous pilgrimage, as Addie Bundren's family sets out to fulfill her last wish: to be buried in her native Jefferson, Mississippi, far from the miserable backwater surroundings of her married life. Told through multiple voices, it vividly brings to life Faulkner's imaginary South, one of the great invented landscapes in all of literature, and is replete with the poignant, impoverished, violent, and hypnotically fascinating characters that were his trademark.
The plot involves a mother, Addie Bundren, who has died, and her family fulfilling the promise to bury her in the distant Jefferson county, a journey rife with trials and tribulations.
The literary technique of the novel involves 59 chapters, each of which is narrated by one of 15 individuals, including the deceased Addie. Each character has a unique voice, which shows through in the writing, ranging from Cash's first chapter, which reads like an instruction manual, to Darl's last chapter, which reads like James Joyce, to Vardaman's quotable chapter, which is only five words long.
Expertly crafted, this book shows that Faulkner had mastered dark humor. As well, he uses the literary technique to its fullest strength. The characters, both caricatures and realistic people, are at the same time sad and hilarious.
If you're a fan of other Faulkner works, or enjoy the writings of Joyce, then you may very well enjoy As I Lay Dying.
Read by Marc Cashman, Lina Patel, Robertson Dean, Lorna Raver
“… words dont ever fit even what they are trying to say at … motherhood was invented by someone who had to have a word for it because the ones that had the children didn’t care whether there was a word for
Addie Bundren has died. Her eldest son, Cash, builds her coffin as her husband, Anse, and her remaining children, Darl, Jewel, Dewey Dell, and Vardaman, prepare to travel to Jefferson where she will be laid to rest with “her people.” Addie has extracted this promise from Anse, and although it is pure madness to undertake such a journey with a corpse in the oppressive Southern heat, Anse is determined – his steadfastness more a measure of headstrong orneriness than love or honour. Not unpredictably, the journey is ill-fated from the start; a washed-out bridge sets the family struggling against the forces of nature and Cash’s ensuing injuries. Precious time is lost, the corpse is decomposing, and Vardaman is counting buzzards …
Written in stream of consciousness, As I Lay Dying is presented by fifteen narrators in fifty-nine eponymous chapters; interestingly, Addie narrates a chapter, too. Thus the experience of the story is emotional as well as physical, intimately first-hand, with characters developed gradually, though none the less richly. While I am not particularly inclined to the stream of consciousness style, its purpose here is wonderfully effective. And Faulkner’s South is, of course, is not only believable, but visible and tangible. This Random House Audio edition, brilliantly read in Southern dialect and in the vernacular speech of the uneducated Bundrens, is uber-impressive: more a performance than narration.
“It’s Cash and Jewel and Vardaman and Dewey Dell,” pa says, kind of hangdog and proud too, with his teeth and all, even if he wouldn’t look at us. “Meet Mrs Bundren,” he says.
That the body was placed reversed on the coffin, to start, could not have boded well for the entire endeavor. Against all common sense, Anse insists on crossing the ford instead as the bridge had collapsed. A ludicrous scene follows with horse, mules, people and coffin being carried away by the waters. The coffin is intact, and surviving waters, fire, and the petty hostilities between the siblings and the sly manipulations of the lazy Anse throughout the transport, it finally entered Jefferson in a procession accompanied by vultures overhead, for now it had been the 9th day and the smell was horrible.
While we learn of things that happened in the course of bringing Addie's body to Jefferson, we also learn of her life and the family's, skeletons and all, before this took place, spread in the novel's 59 chapters and from the point of view of 15 narrators. Written in a stream of consciousness style, some effort is necessary when switching from one point of view to another, as narrators can be articulate, confusing, vague or abstruse. I found this fun, though, as all these were like dots I had to connect and work out by myself. Also, by getting into each character's mind, we experience and perceive rather than "told" of what he or she goes through, and so as a reader, have to sometimes consciously detach ourselves from the narrator to "see" what is happening. For example in the case of the boy, Verdaman who thinks his mother is a fish. I had to pull back and reflect -- why did he think his mother is a fish? So there, go find out why he thinks his mother is a fish. Read the book and find out why Faulkner is a giant of literature.
The novel traces the peregrinations of a family trying to return the body of mother to her home town for burial; a wandering in the summer heat of the south that takes nine days to complete with a decomposing and increasingly foul corpse. The story is told from the various perspectives of the family and from some other characters that move through and are part of the lives of the family, or part of their journey. There is the revelation that mother was not all that she appeared to be (an affair with a Minister! who suffers pangs of remorse, determines that he will confess to the husband, Anse, but then rationalizes that the wish is as good as the deed when he learns that the woman has died without revealing anything). The perspectives of the sons were not very revealing, nor the daughter for that matter, in terms of their relationships with their mother, or their father Anse, or even each other, beyond inarticulate rage and sense of despair or disconnectedness.
The parallel in structure is there with Last Orders, but no passages struck me as copied or plagiarized; though I'm told that some literary sleuth did a side-by-side comparison that purports to show the same. In any case, Last Orders was a superior book, tighter, more complex, and in the end considerably more hopeful. I suppose if there is one thing that reading teaches, it is that life and character are infinite in their permutations, and that people are more often that not, not what they seem, but I find it hard to believe that a writer of Swift's ability and stature would plagiarize a novel, particularly on the basis of a writer as well-known as Faulkner.
I like stories about the South and what I've read from Faulkner. As I Lay Dying, is most simply a story about a family whose mother dies and the journey the family takes to fulfill her wishes of being buried in her fairly far away hometown. However, this is also a story about
I really don't think there is much to say about Faulkner that hasn't already been forced into the brain of nearly every American high school student..I think he's probably one of the better authors that every high school student (except for me) was forced to read...I'm just catching up now.
"As I Lay Dying" is the story of a woman's death and the incredibly inept attempts of her family to bury her in an appropriate place. Told in fifteen different voices, including that of the deceased, the story makes the reader struggle a bit at first, but soon each voice becomes easily distinguished. The characters are clearly etched and each is completely different from all the others.
Although this is a true Southern Gothic tale, and at the same time very funny, in the end it's about the futility of human existence. At least that's what I thought: the last sentence (don't by any means read ahead) is a stunner.
Basically what happens is there's this
Sometimes this book is confusing... mostly it is funny though. "dark comedy" or whatever. Darl is very "philosophical" and sometimes his chapters will be about what is and is not or wasn't and can't be is. And it's not important to know what he's talking about.
The best characters in the book are Jewel (because he's a sexy and trouble outcast) and Vardaman (because he's a little kid and little kids are absolutely hilarious). Vardaman really warms my heart. I love him, I do. Like one time Darl was talking to him about his philosophy. it went something like this:
Darl: "Jewel's mother is a horse"
Vardaman: "but my mom is a fish so how can Jewel's mom be a horse? Darl, what's your mom?"
Darl: "i haven't got a mom. She was is so she isn't is so I am not is"
Vardaman: "But you are, Darl!"
anyway it's funny and you should read it.
Published in 1930, this is the story of Addie Bundren's last journey with her family to be buried in Jefferson, Mississippi. One of her sons, Cash, begins to build her coffin where she can hear the sawing of the planks where she lays dying. The novel is told through 15 first person points of view in 59 chapters, a third of which come from one of her sons Darl. Although a bit macabre, it might have worked with a more conventional style, where we could understand Addie and her family and the impact of her death from all those perspectives--one of them told by her even as she lays rotting in her coffin. But I think part of my problem with writers such as Joyce and Faulkner is that their techniques too often seem a gimmick--it's all you can notice and stands between the reader and the story and any immediacy and makes it impossible to care about their characters--not that the bunch in this novel, kindly called "dysfunctional" in some reviews and "white trash" in others is ever lovable.
It's not as if the style fits those characters. These are simple country folk. And much of their monologues are rendered with the usual Huckleberry Finn-like misspellings and dialect and the random absence of an apostrophe. But then Faulkner can't resist rolling out these articulate, sophisticated sentences that don't fit the first person point of view. Some of those passages are beautiful. Note this description of the rain:
It begins to rain. The first harsh, sparse, swift drops rush through the leaves and across the ground in a long sigh, as though of relief from intolerable suspense. They are big as buckshot, warm as though fired from a gun; they sweep across the lantern in a vicious hissing.
Lovely, but doesn't fit backwoods farmers who seemingly can't spell or punctuate grammatically, does it? Then there are the times we go to that irritating stream of words that is supposed to represent a wandering, meandering mind with its run-on sentences and non sequiturs:
We picked on down the row, the woods getting closer and closer and the secret shade, picking on into the secret shade with my sack and Lafe's sack. Because I said will I or won't I when the sack was half full because I said if the sack is full when we get to the woods it won't be me. I said if it dont mean for me to do it the sack will not be full and I will turn up the next row but if the sack is full, I cannot help it. It will be that I had to do it all the time and I cannot help it. And we picked on toward the secret shade and our eyes would drown together touching on his hands and I didnt say anything. I said "What are you doing?" and he said "I am picking into your sack." And so it was full when we came to the end of the row and I could not help it.
There are chapters that end with a sentence without a period. There is a chapter of only one line: My mother is a fish. (Admittedly in the context of the book not quite as nonsensical as that sounds.) Cash, the guy eagerly building his mother's coffin at the beginning gives us a chapter of two sentences and another consisting of a short list, both dealing with building the coffin. All sorts of modernist techniques are on display and grinding to dust any hope of enjoying the novel.
Goodness knows not all great works are easy to read. Chaucer and Shakespeare are not easy, although mostly because the English language has changed so much since their time, but also admittedly poetry is more difficult to scan than prose. For Dante, Homer, Virgil, I'm happy to make the effort, and I can see how their style and structure works with their content, and once I get used to their styles I'm enthralled. With Faulkner's novel, I didn't feel that strong link. And even though their stories are centuries old, I often felt for the characters in classic works such as Homer's--it's a line in his Odyssey, in fact, which provides the title of Faulkner's novel. So when I find characters from my own country and century far less able to touch me than from a work of epic poetry from 2,700 years ago, I can't help but feel the author is to blame.
I will try Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury someday. It's considered one of the most important novels of the last century, and thus I imagine it might have something to teach me about modern literature. I felt I did learn a lot in that regard from reading Joyce's Ulysses, as much as I hated it, and even from this book by Faulkner. I also remember loving his short story, "A Rose for Emily"--but then there are short stories by Joyce I also love. Sometimes less extreme, earlier works by an author we don't usually like can speak to us, or their extreme techniques work better in a more concise form. But I can't imagine reading another of Faulkner's novels beyond The Sound and the Fury unless someone can recommend something by him that ordinary readers who are not doctoral candidates in literature can truly enjoy, with something resembling a plot and characters that don't repel.
The first thing I thought (and
I am always fascinated by stream of consciousness, and Faulkner is a master. One of the biggest complaints I see in reviews of the novel are the difficulty in determining what is happening. However, I think this is one of the stronger points of the novel’s construction. After all, how often does one think factual things about oneself or family.* Also it exposes different viewpoints. Events are not always seen in the same way by each character. The post poignant of these is the chapter from Addie’s perspective. This in itself could be a remarkable and beautiful short story.
I found myself fascinated by Darl’s character. For most of the book, I found him to be the more well adjusted, comprehensible one. Here is a lovely passage from early on: “When I was a boy I first learned how much better water tastes when it has set a while in a cedar bucket. Warmish-cool, with a faint taste like the hot July wind in cedar trees smells. It has to set at least six hours, and be drunk from a gourd. Water should never be drunk from metal. At night it is better still.” However, as the book moves on both his actions and thought patterns degenerate significantly. I’m still not sure what to make of his breakdown.
Finally, Faulkner again deals with issues of fate, sin, inevitability, etc. The father’s feelings on roads for example: “Durn that road…A-laying there, right up to my door, where every bad luck that comes and goes is bound to find it…But I told her it want no luck in it, because the Lord put roads for travelling: why He laid them down flat on the earth. When He aims for something to be always a-moving, He makes it long ways, like a road or a horse or a wagon, but when He aims for something to stay put, He makes it up-and-down ways, like a tree or a man.” As difficult as the family’s situation becomes, I could never quite bring myself to feel like their fate is hopeless. I can’t tell if this is me projecting my optimism on the story or Faulkner not believing his own doomed characters. Thoughts?
*Possible Spoiler Alert* such as ‘I am pregnant’, ‘he is not my father’, ‘I had an affair’, etc. I found this a really hard novel to address without spoilers.
Anyway, Addie Bundren is dying and her fucked-up, destitute family are preparing to go down the mountain and bury her in town. Horrible secrets out; the past bubbles to the surface through the dark ichor of psychosis. They don't know yet how to be the new kind of people, owners in a consumption society, and so they are obsessed with exotic bananas and shun refined foods as above them. In each of them there is a deathurge, and a central irony is that it is stronger than the death-curse laid down by Addie the adder-mother. But it's that page 83--first Cash with his meticulous (numbered!) exclamation of why he built her coffin beveled, then Darl again: "My mother is a fish." That first ripe glimpse that this is a book heady with madness. Those moments are fearsome.
Written in a modernist stream of consciousness style, the story is about the death and burial of Addie Bundren, as observed by her
There were many moments of black humour throughout, often to do with poor deceased Mrs Bundren in her homemade coffin as the final journey to her hometown continually got derailed.
Faulkner's method of narration left a bit of work for the reader at times, so I read the online Sparknotes for the book as I went to make sure my understanding was staying on the right track.
4 stars for a very different and worthwhile read.
Faulkner's genius for drawing character is highly evident in this novel. The humor is black as night; fire, flood and frantic horses figure prominently, as do unscrupulous minor characters, and bull-headed men. I'm glad I re-visited the Bundrens.
Review written in June 2007.