On Reading Faulkner
I read Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying in high school. I even wrote a literary critique on the book. Of course I merely compiled and reconstructed the thoughts of other noted scholars on the subject. This earned me an “A,” and so I was happy. The End.
What it did not earn me was a true understanding of how this book, or any other by William Faulkner was to be read. This is why, when I picked up this same book fifteen years later, I had no idea what I was doing. I was expecting to read a Twain-esque account of the humor and absurdity of turn-of-the-century Yoknapatawpha, mixed with death and a few lofty social ideals.
That lasted until page two.
By chapter two, I turned the book upside down to see if it made any more sense. Isn’t it a rule that if you use a pronoun it should be clear to what that pronoun is referring? Isn’t it important to let the reader know with some degree of chronology the events leading up to a dialogue? At least within 50 pages?
He (Faulkner – see, that isn’t so hard) didn’t play by the rules. Which leads me to the first basic rule when reading Faulkner . . . get the Cliff Notes. Or at least the online SparkNotes. They’re very helpful for understanding at the very least concepts like . . . oh, I don’t know . . . A PLOT!!! But this reader’s guide will also be glad to tell you how to interpret the thematic elements behind what you’ve just read (read: how to think).
So, with the help of my online “aid,” I made it through a truly wonderful and fascinating book about the Bundrens and their journey to bury poor Adi. Man, talk about your screwed up families.
I took some time to recuperate and re-organize my brain into proper lobe positions. This took approximately six months, one John Grisham novel, one Nicholas Sparks novel, and a few Capote short stories. After that, it was off to the races again.
My next project, Light in August. First let me say that this selection was solely predicated on the availability of audiobooks through my library’s online lending system. I downloaded the book, transfered it to my PDA (thanks to my 1GB storage card) and committed my drives to and from work to the legendary author and his strange use of the “stream of consciousness” narrative.
I’m almost done. While it helped that the actor reading the book is VERY good, I still had to break out the old SparksNotes bookmark in my browser. I tried, really. But by chapter four, I was as lost as last year’s Easter egg. But this book has a rhythm. It has a meter that can be followed for each character. The language changes with each dialogue, much like As I Lay Dying. And I finally understood the one thing every reader needs to have when reading Faulkner . . .
A lot of mental RAM.
If you are like me, you like to let go of useless information to make room for new useless information. Normally, this is OK because any other author would give you clues to keep important details at the front of your mind. To Faulkner, everything is important. And he will most likely give you a detail in chapter one that will not make sense until chapter seven. If you are able to piece together the seemingly random bits of data, you will most certainly find a very interesting, if not mind-blowing connection among characters and events.
My advice, read this book. But don’t be afraid to follow every other chapter (or every other paragraph if necessary) with a glimpse at the SparksNotes. If you’re like me, you’ll get the hang of it after a while. And soon, you’ll not only be piecing together what you’ve just read, but you’ll actually begin anticipating what is coming next. (Careful, professional driver on a closed course).
If you’re so inclinded, have fun. And remember, Faulkner is best served with a warm pipe on a cool Autumn afternoon. (But don’t tell my wife.)