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As I Lay Dying – No, Andy doesn’t have alcohol poisoning

September 15, 2010

Booze is almost as big a player in this blog as literature, so I shall preface my remarks about Faulkner’s novel with a few comments about Monday afternoon. Lynette and I met at a new Fitzroy bar, Naked for Satan. Who doesn’t want to meet for a drink at a bar called Naked for Satan? We loved it, mostly – the decor, the ambience, the Basque (not, as I thought, Portuguese – thanks, Scotchboy) appetisers known as pintxos. There was an unfortunate misunderstanding about the bill which has since been straightened out, but in the confusion and annoyance of paying I managed to leave my copy of As I Lay Dying at the bar. Hopefully they’ve still got it, but this blog is being written without reference to the text itself. Which should be fine. A number of people seem to think my blogs have little reference to the text itself anyway.

Fat Yak and wagyu bresaola. Oh my god.

As I Lay Dying reminded me of two other books, read 25 years apart. A couple of weeks ago I blogged about Joe Bageant’s “redneck memoir”, Rainbow Pie. Faulkner’s Bundrens remind me of the people Bageant writes about. What happened to Bageant’s family would’ve happened to the Bundrens 20 years after Faulkner wrote his novel. Obviously I’ve only just read Rainbow Pie. The other book – read as part of my HSC in 1986 – is John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. I don’t know much about the States but I’d assumed Oklahoma was classed as the Midwest. Apparently it’s South Central, which is not a States classification I’ve heard before. Anyway, I think there are more differences between Steinbeck’s Joads and Faulkner’s Bundrens than there are between Faulkner’s Bundrens and Bageant’s Bageants. I think the Bageants and the Bundrens are cut from the same cloth; I suspect the Joads are part of another sociological phenomenon altogether. But what the fuck would I know? As I Lay Dying reminded me of both those books.

As I Lay Dying is difficult. It’s also powerful. It’s moving and disturbing, it’s distressing but sometimes teeters towards (presumably unintentional) hilarity. Netty thought elements of it were hysterically funny. I didn’t, but there are passages that, 80 years after publication, don’t quite achieve the effect I think Faulkner was aiming for.

Actually it’s not that difficult. Apparently it’s regarded as Faulkner’s most accessible novel, which I’m not sure I agree with – the only other novel of his I’ve read (15 years ago) is Light in August, which is much longer than As I Lay Dying but I don’t remember being a slog. Perhaps in my 40s I’m a lazier reader, but the patois and the changing perspective and the many events barely implied rather than actually described (what’s the fuckin coffin doin in a fuckin barn?? why’s the fuckin barn burning?? what?? what???) require a level of concentration many a modern reader would rather direct towards their Xbox. Or Farmville maybe. Ahem.

It’s certainly powerful, powerful and moving and disturbing and distressing. It’s a grim  portrait of a family that doesn’t know how to deal with its grief, a family headed by a man who’s simply not up to the job, a family riven by madness and lust and greed and deceit and stupidity. It depressed me in the same way I remember The Grapes of Wrath depressing me 25 years ago. The Joads, though, are far more victims of their social and economic circumstances than they are of themselves; the Bundrens are wrecked by their superstitions and traditions. And their ignorance. Which is pretty much the same thing.

There are times, though, when the story veers so unintentionally close to farce that I can understand why some people might – today – find it funny. A family chooses to honour its matriarch’s wish to be buried with her “people” miles away. And in doing so that family braves flood and fire and the stench of a rotting corpse and the ridicule and revulsion of those around them, both neighbour and stranger. At one point a man with his broken leg encased in concrete lies in a wagon on a coffin, breathing in his putrid mother while his leg goes gangrenous. There’s an earlier scene at a river – where the leg is broken – that also pushes the boundaries. On one level this is utterly desolating; the futility of it all leaves you wanting to scream at the sky. On another level, though, a level Faulkner didn’t mean to engage, it is funny. Told today, tweaked slightly, this would be atrociously black humour.

Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe he was havin a larf after all.

That said, these elements – for me – were minor, and I elaborate only because I know Netty will have more to say. Ultimately the impact of this book was profoundly grim, similar to Steinbeck. The final set piece in particular – and it involves false teeth and a gramophone – left me feeling queasy and depressed. There isn’t a lot about false teeth or gramophones that’s queasy or depressing, and to me that’s testament to Faulkner’s power as a writer. He may not translate well for a generation of ironic postmodern hipster wanker fuckwits, but – oh yeah. That’s testament to his power as a writer, too.

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