Monday, March 11, 2013

The Sound and the Fury (William Faulkner)

How exciting! One of the big ones in the Quest for Great Literature. What a shame, then, that I didn't like it. Am I a slob for not enjoying Faulkner (or my previous experience with his rival, Hemingway: The Sun Also Rises)? I like F. Scott Fitzgerald, though! Does that count?

The Sound and the Fury is highly experimental in its set-up. We are tracing the history of the Compson family in Faulker's famous, fictional Yoknapatawpha County over the course of Easter weekend, plus a jump back to a day eighteen years previous to that weekend. There are four sections, three of which are narrated in the first person by the boys of the Compson family (Quentin, Jason, and Benjy/Maury), with the fourth section taking place through an omniscient narrator.

One of the reasons I didn't like the book was how difficult the opening is to work through. Benjy has a complex set of mental issues that have left him stunted in his ability to perceive and interact with the outside world. His narrative slides in and out of time, moving through about thirty years of his life seamlessly and often without signal. It's nearly impossible to keep track of all of the changes or even the people or the events being discussed (again, so difficult because Benjy's understanding of the world is so different from our own). This is the book at its most experimental and its most frustrating. As I have mentioned lately, stream of consciousness and I are not friends, and this is that technique driven to the extreme. I'm not saying that I'm opposed to working for an understanding (sometimes denser is better), but the amount of work Faulkner expects of the reader is ridiculous.

The second section follows Quentin, and is the portion of the novel that moves back to 18 years before the beginning of the book. This is generally more comprehensible, but it's clear that Quentin is also suffering from some mental instability (he kills himself on the day of his narrated section) and has moments of Benjy-like stream of consciousness. Faulkner uses it more interestingly and understandably in this section to communicate to us something about Quentin's character--perhaps that he is externally stable but internally wrecked? The way the author uses his technique here can make for some very interesting lines of thought and discussion without feeling as hopeless and frustrating as the first section.

The third section is arguably the best. The narrative style doesn't dissolve into temporal mumbo-jumbo. We are with Jason, the middle Compson son, on the day before Benjy's section. This is a fascinating character sketch that manages to be from Jason's point of view (i.e., he ought to be unreliable and make us like him) and simultaneously disparaging of him. It is so easy to hate Jason, and it was this section where I understood all of the Faulkner hype. "Oh, so this is why people like him," I said to myself. I can only imagine how great the entire book might have been if it were this way.

The fourth section, then, is a letdown. We stop using first-person narration, which, after the head-spinning sections one and two should be cause for celebration; however, the final movement of The Sound and the Fury feels a bit unfocused. Faulkner takes us through Dilsey's (the head servant) day (Easter Sunday at that), but it's not centered entirely around her and goes a bit off the rails. Characterization is perhaps at its weakest in part four--despite how confused I felt at the beginning of the novel, I felt like I came away with a pretty good understanding of Benjy's personality, or Quentin's in the second part, but the omniscience here feels a little lazy. "Yeah, they get the point," it seems to say to us. "I don't need to expand on this."

I have such complex feelings about the novel. Parts of it--in particular, character creation--are stunning and part three is one of the most fascinating psychological portraits I've ever encountered, but when put into context with how utterly mind-boggling and excessive part one (and parts of part two) feel, it's hard to say that I liked the book. Too much experimentation for the sake of trying it out, it would seem.

The book touches on some very interesting thematic issues--innocence and familial history (one of the more confusing aspects, especially in Benjy's section, is two characters named Jason and two characters named Quentin) and Biblical allusions and the decay of the American South. It's certainly a very rich text that merits study, but this doesn't mean that it's a good text. At times it feels a bit kitchen-sink-y: Faulkner panics and throws in as much as he can to cover as much ground as possible. I would have liked to see a novel where the author seems more in control, and for that reason I plan to continue to read some of his other works (namely, A Light in August and As I Lay Dying). There's no doubt Faulkner was incredibly talented, but it seems that sometimes this talent suffocates under a heavy layer of "I must reinvent literature" pretentiousness.

My rating: 2.5/5
The Sound and the Fury on Goodreads
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