I finished As I Lay Dying last Wednesday and I've been thinking about it on and off since then. A few simple facts: it is by far and away one of the easiest of Faulkner's books to read; it was written, deliberately, as a tour-de-force, and features the voices/thoughts of some 15 or so characters; while you might wonder why all the voices, it isn't just a gimmick, it really is integral to one of Faulkner's points.
While I enjoyed this book and would recommend it as the second book one steps to in the scaffolded entry into Faulkner's world, I have to admit that most of my thought has been around one place where I felt the book slip out of Faulkner's control--Darl's fate.
Without saying overly much about this important part of the denouement, let's say that Faulkner's propensity for histrionics which would serve him well as a screen writer, shows clearly in Darl's final monologue. There really is no trigger for it, nor any real sense of its inevitability. It neatly rounds out the package of the distant and alienated, somehow supernatural intellect I wrote about last week, but it fails to satisfy because it does tend to be over the top. I hesitate to write this because much of my thought has been puzzling through this portion of the novel and trying to see what Faulkner may have been attempting and what I may have missed. As I've said before, I am not necessarily a very deep or profound reader and so things that are right there on the surface can sometimes elude me. Which is to say, don't take what is said here as a profound critique of the book--it is merely a surface impression.
One of the themes of As I Lay Dying is the mass of contradictions that each person is as a person. Add to that the meaning of grief and the meaning, purpose, and playing out of family life, and you have a robust and sometimes rollicking novel. Despite what may seem to be very down-beat subject matter, there are moments of high comedy--in fact, more than moments. Much of the book is hilarious, if sometimes darkly.
The book begins as Addie Bundren lay dying in her room. Outside the room her oldest son Cash, who might not be the brightest bulb in the Marquis, is plank by plank assembling her coffin, showing her each finished board as it is complete. Addie has extracted from her husband Anse a promise that she will be buried with "her people" in the town of Jefferson, some 8 to 10 miles away and across the river that marks the southern border of Yoknapatawpha County.
Addie dies early on and the remainder of the book is getting her to Jefferson to be buried. The trials start with Darl and Jewel returning late from carting a load of lumber, and continue with a three day delay in the services which results in the Bundrens not beig able to set out until after the river has reached flood stage and washed out several easy passages across.
And so it continues--an almost epic quest to return Addie to the lap of her ancestors. Through it we learn much of the family dynamics and discover that Addie's death is quite convenient for almost all of her family. Cash wants to go to town to buy a gramaphone, Dewey Dell has urgent reasons of her own for wanting to go to town, Vardaman wants to see the red electric train on display in one of the town stores, and Anse wants to get a set of false teeth. All of these ulterior motives drive the Bundrens to Jefferson and through a host of escapades in between, including a stop in Mottston that nearly gets them all landed in jail because poor Addie isn't holding up well. And of course, the trio, quartet, or quintet of winged heralds that accompany them through much of the trip.
Through it we learn about Addie and Anse's relationship. In fact, that is one of the most intriguing juxtapositions of the book. Addie's only narration comes well after she is dead and in sharp contrast to Cora's reflection on some past events that shed light on the family--why Darl so viciously baits Jewel, for example.
I may post more excerpts later, but for now, let this review stand. The book is vintage Faulkner--it is far more easily comprehended than almost any other--a veritable model of clarity compared to either The Sound and the Fury or Absalom, Absalom! and a nice second step into Faulkner's world after The Unvanquished. I remember reading this in my senior year of high school and "getting" most of it; however, like all of Faulkner, I think it is better visited by an older, more seasoned, more patient, and generally more perceptive reader. The young reader is likely to be more derailed and fascinated by the literary pyrotechnics and tricks. I remember trying to write my own imitation of it after reading it all those many years ago. And in some ways, I am still writing my own imitation of it.