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In which Netty delves into the deep south, and finds it more amusing than it’s probably meant to be …

September 19, 2010

The American south has long been a fertile source of material for its writers, and those who are merely fascinated foreigners (hello, Nick Cave). In early discussions on the reading list for the upcoming ANRC 11 (yes, folks, our humble blog is about to enter its fourth big year, and still no sign of a US talk show in sight), there’ll be more southern American fiction to devour and dissect. But that’s another blog for another day. In the meantime, welcome to ANRC 10, Mr William Faulkner, renowned doyen of the southern gothic genre.

As I Lay Dying was first published in 1930, Faulkner’s fifth book in four years (sixth if you count a novel written in the late 1920s but not published until the early 1980s, some 20 years after the author’s death at the age of 64). With a lifetime’s work of 20 novels, numerous short stories and a couple of volumes of poetry, a Nobel Prize for Literature and a Pulitzer or two, he was extraordinarily prolific for someone who reportedly also had a lifelong drinking problem (along with contemporaries such as Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Williams, no slouches in the literary arena themselves). Good on ‘em, I say. The only thing I ever manage to write when I’ve had too much to drink is poorly spelt status updates on Facebook.

As I Lay Dying consists of 59 chapters overseen by 15 narrators; interior monologues, much of it stream of consciousness. In my post-reading discussions with Andy last week – and as a neophyte to Faulkner’s work – I wondered aloud if this was one of the first instances of a novel structured thusly (Andy assures me that Virginia Woolf, whom I have, admittedly shamefully, never read, was doing something similar around the same time). Or perhaps it’s testament to my ignorance of early 20-century fiction that I was surprised to find a novel written in 1930 that seemed so, well, modern.

It’s the story of the Bundren clan, a poor farming family who reside in the fictional Yoknapatawpha County (based on Faulkner’s home county of Lafayette, Mississippi, and a recurring setting throughout his work). As the book opens, Cash Bundren is making a coffin for his mother Addie, who is dying of an unspecified illness, whilst her husband Anse, her other children – Darl, Jewel, Dewey Dell and Vardaman – and various neighbours mill around, some working, some just waiting for her to finally give up the ghost. Anse has promised his wife he will bury her in Jefferson, some 50 miles away, but the trip is delayed due to problems with the family wagon. Three days after Addie’s death, the clan finally sets out with the coffin aboard, but the summer rains have set in, flooding the rivers and making crossing the old, rotting bridges impossible.

The scene wherein the family, frustrated at their lack of progress, finally tries to negotiate a swollen river is one of the (presumably unintentionally) most hilarious passages I have ever read. The wagon upends, accidentally drowning the team of mules. While the others watch on from the river banks, horrified, Cash, who is attempting to steer the wagon across and can’t swim, breaks his leg, while Addie’s coffin is set loose in the river, until it is finally chased down by Jewel. Now, maybe I’ve watched too much Alan Ball and Larry David in my time, but this was all just too over the top for me to take seriously – although, as Andy points out, it’s unlikely Faulkner, writing back in 1930, was terribly au fait with the concept of black comedy. So perhaps on that level, the book hasn’t aged particularly well, although I could argue that the work of Shakespeare and Dickens, both of who predate Faulkner by absolutely eons, have survived the test of time better. Update those characters, settings and some of the language, and they are still just as relevant today, whereas Faulkner’s Bundrens could not exist anywhere outside of 1920s southern America.

And whether or not Faulkner had a sense of irony, or a sense of dark humour, is ultimately a moot point. And sure, there is tragedy and pathos aplenty in these pages. But where Andy sees profoundly grim, I see spirit and survival. I am loath to elaborate any further on the plot, on the off-chance anyone reading this blog has their curiosity piqued enough to end up reading the book. Do the Bundrens finally fulfil their dead wife and mother’s final wishes? Well, that ultimately becomes a moot point too, as the individual journeys of the various family members takes precedence in the story line. For their respective journeys do not simply end at Addie’s eventual resting place. The characters continue to tread their paths, some obvious, some not so, until, finally, the plot twist in the very last pages – a masterful stroke of an ending better than anything in recent memory.

The subject of this book came up in a recent conversation with a colleague, who remarked he had studied it at uni. “Oh,” I asked, “do you remember much about it?” “Nope,” he replied cheerfully. With apologies to said colleague, I think his summation does As I Lay Dying a great disservice. Although to me it is very much a book of its time, rich, intricate and complex family histories are prime fodder for American novelists of any era – just look at the sort of stuff  modern-day proponents such as Jonathan Frantzen, Tracy Letts or Lionel Shriver are doing. I am sure the Bundren family will stay with me for quite a while – and I like to think that in 20 years’ time, if someone asks me if I’ve read As I Lay Dying and if I remember much about it, I will give a very different answer to the aforementioned colleague.

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