I’d not read any William Faulkner before although I had an awareness of him, I’m not sure from where but as Rita Leganski had recommended him in her reading list at the end of The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow, which I loved, I thought I’d give him a go.
It is a strange premise for a book really, having a family transporting their dead mother’s body from their family home to where she wishes to be buried in Jefferson, her home town, a good ride down the road. What perhaps is even stranger is having that mother still alive at the start of the book although barely, waiting for one of her son’s, the carpenter, to finish the making of her coffin outside of her bedroom window where she can supervise its progress, hence the title of the book, I think.
I think it is this to which people refer when they talk of Faulkner’s black humour as you can’t read that and think that that is a normal state of affairs.
Leading from that then, the book centres on the Bundrens and the fulfilment of their mother’s wish to be buried and Faulkner constructs his narrative by having all of the characters give voice to their thoughts. The book is linear in its structure moving chronologically from one point to another with the bits in between made up of the instances of the journey as well as the relevant reminiscences of the character who is narrating at the time.
These include the members of the Bundren family which is made up of:
- Anse Bundren, father to all of the Bundren children except one;
- Addie, mother to all of the Bundren children and eventual occupier of coffin;
- Cash, one of the male children of the Bundren family and the carpenter who built the coffin;
- Darl, another of the male children and the most competent narrator from the family. However, he is considered by most who know him to be “touched” i.e. mentally unstable and is a fine observer of his family, their foibles and knows things that they may not want revealed;
- Jewel, another of the male children of the Bundren family who is Addie’s favourite;
- Dewey Dell, the only female family member who has worries of her own besides her mother’s impending demise;
- Vardaman, youngest male child of the family who has the most garbled narrative, probably because of his age but also because he is disturbed by the events leading up to and after his mother’s death that occur on the journey.
Faulkner has used stream of consciousness as the means by which all ideas and facts and events are related to the reader by his characters and I have to admit that I really do dislike stream of consciousness which is one of the reasons I could never get on with Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf.
Awfully confusing and therefore uninteresting book for me, Mrs Dalloway. It wasn’t until reading that that I realised that a pedestrian narrative, linear in construct with a third person omniscience or a first person perspective are, for me, the best. I’m not averse to alternatives but a conventional narrative is where I feel most comfortable.
That’s not to say that Faulkner’s book has no merit: it does. But the voices which are the least clear to understand like Vardaman’s rankled me and did inhibit my enjoyment of the book, I cannot deny.
There are also many other voices in addition to those of the family and I could list them all here but it is tedious for you and me both. In summary, there are people from whom the Bundrens require help near to their homestead like the doctor and the preacher as well as neighbours who share their commentary on what the family plan to do; once they are on their journey with mother on board a cart pulled by mules, there are the people whom they encounter on the way, some of them known, some of them unknown who offer food or shelter to the party.
Needless to say, there are problems on the way, namely to do with crossing rivers as it has been unseasonably wet and bridges have been taken out by gushing water so that the route to Jefferson is riddled with obstacles.
It takes them a while and an injury to one of the party hinders them even more which gives us plenty of scope to see the family dynamics at work and get a feel for the Bundrens. Every family has their tensions and every family has their secrets and the Bundrens are no different.
What is interesting is Addie’s narrative, only one section devoted to her voice in the book as it reveals a lot about how she met Anse, how she feels about her family, secrets she may have kept and desires she may still harbour as well as suggestions as to why she doesn’t want to be buried near the family home.
There are some surprises in this book most notably what happens to Darl as well as the way that the book ends and there is no doubt that Faulkner is an accomplished writer who can evoke a bygone era of America and the characters that inhabited it vividly with his use of the Southern vernacular and syntax.
However, I did not really pick up on the dark humour and anyone who has read my review of The Great will know that I am not against the blackly comedic – far from it. But it went over my head in this book. And I can see where it is inferred: in the coffin being built outside Addie’s window and the disgusting smell coming from the coffin when they park it in the street, causing the locals to hold their noses – not nice but comic, yes.
But, for whatever reason, it never reached my funny bone. Maybe my mind was numbed by too much concentration from the stream of consciousness stuff. Who knows? Either way, I was disappointed. I went into this book with an enthusiasm which just wasn’t met.
The book wasn’t bad; not at all. It just wasn’t exceptionally good either and that is where I feel let down. Expectations were not met.
I will return to Faulkner though, The Sound and The Fury being a book I regularly spot at the thrift store. Perhaps I’ll get along with that a little better.