Recently I picked up a copy of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, a novel I somehow missed in my literature studies, though a long time ago his story “Barn Burning,” maybe one of the best short stories ever written, inspired me to become a teacher and a writer. Also, I wanted to see if I remembered correctly that Faulkner’s work might not translate that well to the big screen. James Franco is either a genius or out of his mind. When the film comes to town, I’ll be curious to see which, or if it’s some of both.
What strikes me about Faulkner’s “experimental” novel is two things: the deception in its structure, which is to say a first impression that its short chapters and multiple voices would make for a quick read; and also that the engine in the novel – the problem of how to get Addie Bundren’s body to her native Jefferson, Mississippi to be buried (her dying wish) despite a flood, and then injury, and then fire — is overshadowed by what motivates her husband Anse and her children Cash, Darl, Jewel, Dewey Dell and Vardaman to engage in this journey. The fifteen voices that tell the story, including one chapter from Addie herself, reveal what undergirds every action in the novel: The inscrutable world is a dark and hard place full of relentless futility. The best we can hope for is to survive the world or leave it on our own terms, as Addie herself seems to have done. Faulkner once said his writing was “hammering at…that man is indestructible because of his simple will to freedom.” (An interview from 1956 is here). His characters’ insistence on survival, however misguided or self-interested, is the relentless drumbeat of As I Lay Dying.
Faulkner called this novel a “tour de force,” and I suppose it is in the way it was different, an experiment that flouted conventional storytelling. I spent more time than I’d like to admit keeping track of the book in the plot way. Time loops around, for one, and I found myself rereading chapters more than a few times to make sure I was getting it. Addie shows up for just one chapter to speak her mind long after she’s already a dead and rotting corpse on her way to Jefferson, for example. Anse and the five kids all help to tell the story, and in each of their pages their mundane, repetitive conversations are interrupted by language in italics that seems to represent the lyrical, internal language each character is unable to give voice to on the surface. I’m not sure this technique really works.
But to be sure Faulkner’s intentions were grand. The title, a line from The Odyssey, is the first hint that Faulkner’s plan is epic in scale. (Thank you, Wikipedia, for teaching me that As I Lay Dying is also the name of a metalcore band, whose “lyrics and music take no direct inspiration from the novel.” Dear Faulkner, are you spinning brodies in your grave? ) But it’s a short epic, chock full of unfortunate events not unlike Odysseus’ journey. There are broken bones, a rotting corpse, a burned down barn, a bad love affair, a hoped for abortion, sexual abuse, siblings sending their brother to a mental institution, and finally, a marriage. By the time we arrive to Jefferson to bury Addie, digging the hole and putting her in it only takes a few sentences, because by this time, the story is about anything but burying Addie. What has propelled the family to this place has been eclipsed by the fractured agenda of each character, with Anse, who takes something from each of his children in order to serve himself, at the center of it all.
I had the best success as a reader when I focused on giving myself over to each character’s way of revealing the story instead of tallying up my frustrations. They’re a heartbreaking lot, some of them despicable like Anse, others tragic like Cash, the one character aside from Vardaman whose volition is not about his own needs.
Still, between the work required to be a thoughtful reader of Faulkner’s book, and what I think is the failed technique of those italics to represent what his characters wanted to say, if only they could, I’m not sure this book would be published now. Unless I’m reading it wrong, I’m not sure most people are willing to work that hard for an ending so dark, what with our penchant for endings in which all loose ends are neatly wrapped and characters leave the scene with no hard feelings.
But maybe James Franco’s split-screen delivery will work to unspool for audiences the existential question inherent in the gap between a heart that sings lyrically against the grim wilds of a hardscrabble life. I gotta hand it to Franco for trying anyway. When the film comes my way, I’ll be one of the first in line to see it.