I hated this book.
As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner is a book detailing the journey of the Bundren family as they seek to bury the matriarch with her kin in Jefferson, Mississippi. Along the way they suffer from flooded-out bridges, lost mules, family betrayal, and disillusionment while simultaneously giving a glimpse of the different personalities that make up the Bundrens.
Hate might be a bit strong…possibly. Maybe. Maybe not. And it’s not because the characters are poorly developed or the writing is cliché or the plot is boring. It’s because it’s so darn depressing and vague. Allow me to elucidate.
Of the Bundrens—Addie (the dead matriarch), Anse (the patriarch), the four boys (Cash, Darl, Jewel, and Vardaman), and the only girl (Dewey Dell)—only Jewel is truly fascinating. The others aren’t boring, exactly, but they’re clearly metaphors. You have Addie, the depressed one; Anse, the lazy one; Cash, the single-minded one; Darl, the sensitive one; Dewey Dell, the desperate one; and Vardaman, the innocent one. You could say that Jewel is the angry one, but he’s also the only one who wants to get away, the one who sees his family for what it is: a dysfunctional unit that sucks the life from the different pieces. I was actually actively rooting for him to just leave the rest of them toward the end (and take me with him because Anse is awful). And yet he can’t leave because he has younger siblings for whom he feels responsible and older brothers to whom he’s loyal. He even has a certain amount of love for the parents who totally screwed them all up. He’s by far the most complex character, with Darl a close second (he encompasses the madness of the story).
This is part of the my hatred. Actually, it’s most of the problem. You see, Faulkner intentionally makes the story vague and cryptic. He jumps from character to character (15 in under 300 pages), which might seem brilliant, but it’s just confusing. He uses the narration gaps to stump the readers. I don’t know about you, but I’m not a fan of books that try to confuse readers. Yes I like a twist as much as the next person, but the difference is those books explain things, at least a little bit. Leaving things to the reader’s imagination is great as long as there is some sort of stable foundation on which one can make assumptions. If the foundation is a narration of unreliable characters and incomplete information, you have to guess at what’s happening and what happened. And then the end comes and.
Seriously, just like that. An abrupt halt. And you’re like, “What the heck, Faulkner?! Is that it?” This method might get critical acclaim, but it’s hardly good writing. Plus, I want that lazy, manipulative, jerk Anse to get his comeuppance. I want his family to desert him. I want him to suffer. I guess that makes me petty, but whatever.
Speaking of writing, it might be the only saving grace (other than Jewel). Faulkner is a good writer at least when it comes to the actually writing (not when it comes to stringing a cohesive, reasonable plot together).
“People to whom sin is just a matter of words, to them salvation is just words too.”
This is an interesting quote, thought-provoking. Do words have power (ironic coming from a writer). I believe so. Addie apparently did not (though I suspect she had some sort of emotional disorder such as depression).
On the other hand, Faulkner intentionally starts talking rubbish. Let’s be honest: it’s rubbish, adding to the vagueness of his plot to bring you to that moment when you wonder if reading the book is worth it (it isn’t):
“In a strange room you must empty yourself for sleep. And before you are emptied for sleep, what are you. And when you are emptied for sleep, you are not. And when you are filled with sleep, you never were. I don’t know what I am. I don’t know if I am or not. Jewel knows he is, because he does not know that he does not know whether he is or not. He cannot empty himself for sleep because he is not what he is and he is what he is not. Beyond the unlamped wall I can hear the rain shaping the wagon that is ours, the load that is no longer theirs that felled and sawed it nor yet theirs that bought it and which is not ours either, lie on our wagon though it does, since only the wind and the rain shape it only to Jewel and me, that are not asleep. And since sleep is is-not and rain and wind are was, it is not. Yet the wagon is, because when the wagon is was, Addie Bundren will not be. And Jewel is, so Addie Bundren must be. And then I must be, or I could not empty myself for sleep in a strange room. And so if I am not emptied yet, I am is.”
See what I mean?
I know it’s not popular to hate Faulkner or modern classics, but if I can do it to The Catcher in the Rye (to a lesser extent), I can certainly do it to As I Lay Dying. Yes, some of the quotes can be fascinating and some of the characters can be interesting, but the sheer lack of anything positive, any redeeming quality in the plot along with intentionally obscure writing makes me wonder why I bothered reading it.