If I had to describe Faulkner’s writing in one word, it would be ABSTRACT.
If I had to describe the experience of reading it in two words, they would be ARMY CRAWL.
Literary critics called Faulkner’s style “experimental.” This is kind and decent of them. I, on the other hand, have to wonder if at some point toward the end of his life, Faulkner’s eyes went wide during a conversation with a reviewer, or his publisher, or his mom, and he said in shock both utter and genuine: “Oh—you mean people actually want to understand my novels? Oops.”
In The Sound and the Fury, there are two major characters named Jason (and two named Quentin); long series of intermingling flashbacks; four separate and unreliable narrators (including one with no notion of time or chronology); and stream-of-consciousness ramblings with little distinction between the past and the present. In short, it’s very difficult to know what is going on, who is involved, when it’s taking place, and how anybody feels about it.
And yet. In spite of Faulkner’s lifelong determination to confuse his readers, The Sound and the Fury is wildly intriguing. It’s about a family so dysfunctional that when Caddy, the only daughter, gets pregnant out of wedlock, her own brother falsely attempts to claim paternity. Yes, you read that correctly: He lies to make people think he’d committed incest with his sister. I think the gesture came from a place of love, or shame, or something properly literary, but sheesh. Even fictional brothers should stick to traditional gifts, like The Mindy Project on DVD. Or Post-its.
The first quarter of the novel is narrated by Benjy (a.k.a. Maury), a mentally disabled brother/son of the Compsons who is unable to comprehend abstract concepts such as time and morality. Upon sharing a set of non-sequential (and barely navigable) memories, he passes the narrative torch on to Quentin, a Harvard student and brother to Benjy and Caddy. As his incestuous inclinations might suggest, Quentin has a delicate grip on sanity, as well as a tendency to overreact to the “harsher” facts of reality (such as his sister’s promiscuity). He succumbs to his obsession with obsolete Southern ideals via suicide.
From there we move on to sections narrated by Jason Compson IV, the family patriarch and asshole, and then Faulkner himself (in the third person). Caddy, around whom many of the novel’s events revolve, never takes the mic.
Should she? Probably. In a story meant to depict the deterioration and eventual collapse of Southern ideals and values, as represented by one aristocratic household with no hope for perpetuation or salvation, Caddy is the seismic wave that triggers the Compson family’s avalanche of a downfall. But instead of being dragged down by her roots, she frees herself from them—and is ultimately better for it.
Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?
I’m going to give Faulkner the benefit of the doubt here, unequipped as I am to penetrate his genius.
OH WAIT—no I’m not. Try being a little less experimental next time, Faulkner.
It used to be I thought of death as a man something like Grandfather a friend of his a kind of private and particular friend like we used to think of Grandfather’s desk not to touch it not even to talk loud in the room where it was…
“Whut you gwine do ef hit rain?”
“Git wet, I reckon,” Frony said. “I aint never stopped no rain yit.”
The air brightened, the running shadow patches were now the obverse, and it seemed to him that the fact that the day was clearing was another cunning stroke on the part of the foe, the fresh battle toward which he was carrying ancient wounds.
He could see the opposed forces of his destiny and his will drawing swiftly together now, toward a junction that would be irrevocable.