As I Lay Dying is a very peculiar book. There’s no context given for the story, we just start in the middle of things. “Jewel and I come up from the field, following the path in single file.” With a master’s skill, Faulkner sets us up right away — by the character’s name, Jewel — to assume this is a woman. Nope. Faulkner is always striving to keep the reader off-balance with tricks like this.
The chapters are extremely short as a general rule, and all in the first person. So this unsuspecting reader went a few chapters in before saying, ‘wait a minute, this isn’t the same person who was talking before…’ then realizing every chapter is narrated by a different character. More discombobulation. Should have realized the chapter names referred to the speaker. So the first chapter name is Darl (also a boy, btw). Who is maybe 16 years old, and of course not a terribly reliable narrator. Faulkner is constantly playing tricks on the reader. Nothing is explained, nothing is described in any sort of full manner, and what we are reading is often grotesque enough that it shocks us into a sort of numbed disbelief: a sort of ‘What in the heck am I reading?’ moment.
You can easily see why Faulkner won the Nobel. You can also see why he had a hard time selling copies. The events are weird, and get weirder, the characters are Gothic, then borderline monstrous. It’s a 200-page or so book, and it wasn’t until around p. 160 that I burst into laughter. And laughed for about five minutes. It’s just so crazy, so weird… yes, there are dead mules, as there should be in a Southern Gothic novel, right? Yes there are fires and floods and breathtaking stupidity. Along with crazy cruelty.
But Faulkner does not sustain the humor. We plunge back into a serious, sad view of the world, and come to shore 50 or so pages further along, changed and uneasy by the experience.
I have to warn the reader that Faulkner uses the N-word. And there are essentially no African-American characters, a vast chasm in this world. This is not a book of solutions, not a book of high nobility, or the yearning thereto. It is a flat-eyed view of people at their worst, artificially isolated and given a strange, Sisyphean task to reveal as many shadows as possible.
But it is also surely unlike anything else I’ve ever read, leaving aside other works by Faulkner himself. He’s a very peculiar writer indeed.
Happy Reading, Happy Writing,
P M F Johnson
Check out Disk of Dragons and Trollen Rose, the first two novels in my mystical fantasy series. My hero, Rev Caern, battles to establish a kingdom of justice, despite disasters that threaten his people. You can find these ebooks on Amazon.