Thoughts on William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying
Mom seems to be honing in on the classics for her Mommy & Me book club selections. When her next pick arrived in my mailbox, I tore open the puffy white postal envelope to reveal William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. The first thing I noticed after the title was that the book had affixed to the upper right corner a golden “Soon to be a Motion Picture” label. I scowled at the foul defacement of the book cover and immediately went to work on the edge of the label with my fingernail. Fortunately, it was just a sticker with gentle adhesive and easily removed, leaving no residue. I detest those labels and will only purchase a book that has one if it is removable. If the label is printed onto the cover, forget it. Of course, the worst offense of all is the replacement of the original cover art with the dreaded movie poster. Ugh. I wonder if post-film printings of novels like Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle and Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist ended up with “Now in Cinemas!” stickers. Which was the first novel to be defaced by such a label and whose idea was it anyway? Because it remains common practice, I suspect it results in the sale of books people might not pull off the shelves otherwise, but I’d still like to cinch up my suspenders and wag my cane at that filthy marketing executive anyway.
William Faulkner is one of those classic novelists I had managed to avoid all throughout school and university. I didn't dodge him intentionally. I just never wound up in a literature class with him on the syllabus. Syllabus. I haven’t used that word in more than a decade. Remember how exciting it was when a professor handed out the syllabus and you perused it, quaking with excitement to see all of the things you were going to learn over the next few months?
The book, though. In several alternating points of view, each character narrates their involvement with the Bundren family’s journey to transport their recently deceased mother across the Mississippi countryside via mule-drawn wagon to her desired burial place forty miles away. That would be an hour-long trip on surface streets in modern times, but this is early 20th-century Mississippi. Roads are dirt, bridges are rotten wood. Add to that a furious rainstorm the night before the family sets out and now the roads are mud and the bridges are washed away. What should have been a two-day trip even in a wagon drags out over more than a week and momma’s not smelling too swell by the end of it.
The Bundren family are different people. Hill people. No – not people. Folk. These are hill folk of the American South – misunderstood and odd. You know how when you are driving across the country and you stop for gasoline in a little town off the highway and the people there have teeth the color of candy corn, bathe in streams and seem to speak their own language and when you leave you look in the quivering rear-view mirror and see all of them standing in the road watching you go?
Even with so many characters written in first person, Faulkner managed to create clear voices for each of them. Being inside some of these people’s heads was disturbing. Some of them seem normal-ish, if not troubled, and some seem downright nuts. I had a difficult time deciding whether Vardaman, the youngest boy, was mentally unstable or just a regular kid with fractured attention span who doesn't know how to emotionally handle the demise of his mother. These fascinating people are what this book is about. The journey to get momma’s corpse, matter-of-factly referred to as "it", from Point A to Point B is just an excuse for these people to have something to do. It is the Bundrens and the people they meet along the way that are the focus of As I Lay Dying. If you want plot-driven narratives, look elsewhere. This book is an examination of a part of America we modern city dwellers may never see again. Modern civilization was already spreading into Faulkner’s fictional Yoknapatawpha County in this novel and the Bundren Family was viewed with wary eyes by those who encounter them. As I Lay Dying is about the values of these hill folk. In some cases, their values are all they have, which explains why they cling to them so very much. For them, it is about what is right and durnit when something is right, you best see it done.
Now, about that “Soon to be a Motion Picture” sticker: I see this thing is written by, directed by and stars James Franco. I reckon I might could set down to give it a look-see.