In the deepest American South, Addie Bundren lies on her deathbed. She was a powerful woman. Her family have gathered to watch her die. All but one: outside, working to the last ticks of Addie’s clock, her son, Cash, renders her coffin. When at last she dies, it falls to her family to form a grim, slow procession to her grave in Jefferson, which is many summer miles away. The laden wagon follows the worn ruts and, with the death of their matriarch, with it fixin’ to rain, the family members are headed for a reckoning.
Faulkner is the great force behind this work, and while the book cherishes the characters, so too does it hold them in contempt. While we have sympathy for the family in the early stages of the journey, this diminishes as they transcend their dusty, empty Depression and break into straight communication with the reader. Faulkner has a mastery of English, from the scholarly – where the thoughts of some characters are captured in first-person prose they could never produce – down to (or sideways into) the puzzling vernacular of the American South. This vernacular makes the reader a tourist. It pushes and pulls in equal measure; it irritates and astounds.
For me, this book has some blemishes. Faulkner’s hopscotch through his characters’ minds is at first delightful, then dizzying and finally claustrophobic. Characters enter, do their turn, and leave. Who are they? Will they become important? The reader must ask these questions because assembling Faulkner’s jigsaw requires work. Not only is the sex of a character often obscure until later (when revealed, it then serves as a macguffin and back to the bloody jigsaw) but the events they witness are often shattered in time: reaction to the fording of a swollen river, to take an example, is reported before the event itself. As a result, the physicality of the scene (who is standing where, what are they doing, and when) is clouded.
And what does the reader make of the proud soliloquies of ostensibly inarticulate people? What magic could wring this poetry from their skulls? There can be no reasonable objection to this if Faulkner is consistent, but he is not. A character may stumble through a paragraph that trips over durnt and outen before breaking into a showstopper. That is, before delivering honed and breathtaking perceptions through, in Faulkner’s artful prose, his most scholarly lens.
That said, there is no doubt that this book deserves to be a star in the firmament of American literature. It unwinds like clockwork to slowly reveal the heart of its characters: Anse, the proud father who works to harvest pity; Darl, the unloved son; Cash, the practical survivor whose miseries are physical; Vardaman, the innocent youngster; Dewey Dell, the beautiful sister with the greatest secret; Jewel, the horse-shouter and kicker; and finally Addie, dead nine long days in her coffin, listening, decaying that summer; and still there is William Faulkner, walking sometimes behind them, sometimes with them, and when inside them, condensing their thoughts to poetry.