As I Lay Dying, by William Faulkner (Part 2)

Last week, we delved into Faulkner’s storyline of the poor, eccentric Bundren family’s adventure in burying family matriarch Addie. This week, I thought I'd try to plumb Faulkner’s writing technique in this novel.
First, I should say I’m not a Faulkner fan. Not that I’m a lazy reader, you understand. But a reader’s attention can’t drift while reading his books – if you do, you’ll miss something vital in his dense-as-poetry prose. It’s almost as if he delighted in playing games with the reader. As a result, academics love to parse his writing technique for meaning and hidden intent. And I suppose I can’t escape my mini-stab at that here.
First, there are the multiple points of view – by my count, thirteen separate perspectives, including that of the deceased Addie. Why would Faulkner do this?
The first answer is that by Faulkner's time, modern prose had drifted away from the omniscient point of view of the eighteenth and nineteenth century novel. Keeping to one omniscient point of view narrows the story’s perspective; however, new conventions of technique have ably handled that.
Henry James, I believe, was one of modernity’s earlier experimenters with multiple points of view. The idea in doing doing-as James-did is, ironically, to gain a broader viewpoint on characters, settings, and story. Even though an old-fashioned narrator claims to be “omniscient,” the story is seen and described through the narrator’s rather lens. But with multiple POVs, a story can be told from conflicting viewpoints – even viewpoints that negate others. This adds resonance, multidimensional depth.
I’m sure Faulkner was aware of this and used these POVs to that purpose, but I think he also had something else in mind. He seems to have wanted to use these multiple viewpoints to show the fragmented reality of the Bundren family – each unhappy and barely coping in his or her own, private way. Clearly the story bears this out.
But does Faulkner’s use of the technique work in this respect? In my mind – barely. My main complaint with Faulkner has always been his disregard of the reader’s comfort in experiencing the story. But he was always an excessive personality, and his too-many POVs were eventually toned down in Southern literature to five or less, particularly by the likes of Doris Betts and Cormac McCarthy.
Faulkner’s writing was also the prototype for the Southern Gothic literature that came to full fruition under Flannery O’Connor, and that is still popular – again through such writers as Cormac McCarthy. One of the more perplexing traits of Southern Gothic has been its subliminal humor. Such stories depict the agony and depravity of poor Southerners, how they cope with numbing lives. Humor, then, is a leveling device, showing the strength of soul of these people, much as blues music has done for Southern blacks.
Faulkner uses this technique fairly well, but once again he trifles with excess, leading many readers to laugh at his forlorn characters – not to lead them to empathize with the Bundrens, to experience that strength of soul within them.
All too often, the characters here come out of their rural, illiterate voice to espouse some of Faulkner’s own ten-dollar words, leaving his characters on the doorstep of caricature. Still, he prose can be majestic in As I Lay Dying:
“Overhead the day drives level and gray, hiding the sun by a flight of gray spears.”
“Cash…holds the two planks on the trestle, fitted along the edges in a quarter of the finished box. He kneels and squints along the edge of them, then he lowers them and takes up the adze. A good carpenter. Addie Bundren could not want a better one, a better box to lie in. It will give her confidence and comfort.”
In this last passage Faulkner worms his way into his own unique view of metaphysics – that as long as one is remembered, and has had progeny, he/she lives beyond the body. Not a particularly novel thing to ponder these days, but in his day, likely revolutionary.
Actually, revolutionary is the proper word to describe Faulkner’s literary ground-breaking, here and in other of his later works. These novels had warts, but his developing technique spawned more literary progeny than he could have imagined. In that sense – and by his own seeming metaphysical rules – William Faulkner will live a long literary life.


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