Don’t ask me how I accomplished it, but somehow I managed to graduate as an English literature major without ever having read William Faulkner. I have a vague recollection of perhaps reading part of one of his short stories and really disliking it. But I’m not sure if that really happened. I’m also not sure what made me think, through the years, I wouldn’t like Faulkner. I’ve always loved Southern Gothic tales — especially when the atmosphere of the book or play is humid and dripping with Spanish moss and there is a wise, all-seeing Black character acting like a Greek chorus to the self-destruction of the Whites. (I read every one of Carson McCullers’ books twice for Advanced Placement English until I think my teacher begged me to do a book report on another author.) I guess all that Southern decadence and decay just seemed so fascinating to me having never been in the Deep South.
As I planned our cross-country roadtrip, which took a huge detour down through Mississippi to New Orleans and back up the other side of Big Muddy through Louisiana, I told myself, it really was time to crack open a Faulkner novel. Still, I resisted even though we’d be traveling right through Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County (actually Lafayette County), land of Snopeses, Compsons and Sartorises.
A month after our return, I decided I had to do it and figured I might as well just plunge right in with The Sound and the Fury.
Okay, full disclosure time here: first, I scanned through the on-line Cliff Notes. Normally it’s a matter of honor not to resort to the cheater’s way out. I’ve only done it once, when — halfway through Joyce’s Ulysses and having started the book way too late in the assignment to read carefully — I realized I had no clue what was going on. This time I decided to confront “stream of consciousness writing” head-on and read the synopsis first, then tackle the book.
Best decision I ever made! Freed of having to try to impose a timeline and some sort of “who did what” sense on autistic Benjy’s sense memories and jumbled impressions, I could just enjoy the language. And what language! This is not a book you read to find out what happens (although knowing what happens didn’t stop it from being a page turner.) You read to find out how each character reacts to what happens or how each character’s psyche is changed by what happens. I couldn’t stop reading. Then I read whole sections again, just to make sure I hadn’t missed any of the wonderful imagery. Ironically, the parts I ended up liking least are the two sections with the most straightforward narrative and timelines: Jason’s section and the “omniscient narrator” segment. Autistic Benjy’s and mentally distraught Quentin’s sections were the most rewarding for putting you instantly in the smells, sounds and gut feeling of an event in a way that made you overwhelmed with it as if YOU were actually experiencing it.
Although I read at least a book a week, I seldom have that wonderful feeling of suddenly finding an author whose writing suddenly compels me to immediately buy and read everything he or she has written. It’s like discovering some new and wonderful place. Except, everyone else seems to have discovered it before me.
In searching the web for tidbits on Faulkner and his work, I stumbled over the fact that Oprah had “assigned” everyone THREE Faulkner novels for their summer reading of 2005. (And Oprah can make the Flatbush telephone directory a best-seller if she makes it a Book Club Selection.) So all of America has presumably read Faulkner ahead of me (or at least those novels on Oprah’s reading list). They also probably understood it all better than I did, thanks to Oprah’s amazingly comprehensive multi-media on-line study guide for The Summer of Faulkner.
Who IS this woman? And why is she so far ahead of the rest of us? Okay, I’m not Oprah, but get some Faulkner today!