Musings on Faulkner

Can you think of a more boring title for a post?

When I was a junior in high school, I took AP English Literature with a teacher I’ll eponymize as Mrs. Carroll. English Lit was a tremendously challenging class – probably the hardest I had in my career – that most students hated, since Carroll made it a habit to seat students in a circle and call people out, Socrates-style, for discussion points.

I have two enduring memories from that year. First, Mrs. Carroll handed me back my first paper, a five-page analysis of Benvolio from Romeo and Juliet, with all but the last page crossed out with giant red “X’s” and a huge “NO” written the first page. The second memory was of a thirty-minute discussion about the meaning behind the literal tearing in half of the queen from Beowulf.

Not actually my paper. Her handwriting was worse.

Despite these rather traumatic experiences, Mrs. Carroll remains one of my favorite teachers. She had a knack for drawing out the between-the-lines. She demanded excellence and forced us to think critically. In most of my endeavors for this class, I succeeded in producing a modestly competent analysis of what was going on, with one notable exception: William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury.

The Sound and the Fury, in case you haven’t read it, is a book about… actually, I have no idea. Even after reading the Wikipedia entry for the novel, I still can’t figure enough out about the plot to produce a summary. To this day, it remains the only novel I have thrown against a wall in, well, fury. As he does in many books, Faulkner employs “a variety of narrative styles,” and appears to have no regard for chronology, narrator, or punctuation. The book jumps around moments in time without any apparent indication as to what time it happens to be and switches characters four times. At least, I think it was four.

Most jarring, for me, is Faulkner’s complete omission of punctuation in one section, narrated by Quentin. Or maybe it was Benjy, the castrated autistic son. I don’t know. Close friends of mine know that I’m a stickler for grammar and that I perversely delight in shredding rough drafts, so while Mrs. Carroll called the chapter a masterpiece of stream-of-consciousness writing, I called it bullshit.

The fact that we called the book S&F in class is hugely ironic because in science, S&F refers to structure and function, two things Faulkner eschewed in their entirety.

So why am I telling you all this? Upon the recommendation of a Faulkner fanatic and friend, I
gave the guy another try. Last night, I finished As I Lay Dying, Faulkner’s self-proclaimed tour-de-force. About one-third of the way in, I found myself again getting frustrated: I didn’t know whether to like or hate the characters, I had no idea what the plot was, and I didn’t really understand what was going on. Although the story was at least chronological – an improvement over S&F – the narrator changed every three pages and sometimes was totally nonsensical. I went back to the friend, M., and expressed my frustration. M. asked me, “have they gone to town yet?”

Town? What town? I don’t even know what state they’re in. I don’t know who THEY are. No, M., they haven’t gone to town yet. To the best of my knowledge, someone named Cash is sawing something. Other than that, I really have no idea what’s going on.

M. looked at me, smiling patiently, and said, “You have to read Faulkner like poetry. It doesn’t really make sense – it’s not supposed to.”

I looked back and said automatically, “You’re not supposed to end sentences with prepositions.”

M., sighing, instructing me to at least try to hold on until “things got weirder.” I agreed, and actually started to follow the story in fits and starts. I learned to just discount things I didn’t understand, to take everything with a grain of salt, and to not freak out when whole chapters ended without so much as a period. I stuck it out to the end, and was more relieved to have finished. At least, I think I finished; the book ran out of pages, but for all I know there are six more chapters hiding somewhere. I still don’t know whether I was supposed to like the characters or hate them, where they went, or why they did what they did. I’m not sure if the story was heroic or tragic, comedic or somber, or just plain strange.

Maybe being in intensive science classes has destroyed my ability to read good literature. I suppose my linear, analytical brain can’t handle a writing style where there is no punctuation of any kind and maybe just maybe was written spur of the moment by a guy who is really just playing a practical joke on all of us – hey i wonder how someone working in a missouri power plant can end up being maybe the most famous American author of all time and i am taking physics and having to learn about wave functions where the formula is complicated enough to make you scream

Note: If you see a YouTube video below, it’s an ad placed by WordPress, not me. 

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