Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Catching Up With An Old Friend: Ann DeLorenzo on As I Lay Dying

Catching Up With An Old Friend is a series in which readers, authors, and other bookish people share their favorite books. Read more about the project or see all the past entries. To participate, e-mail

Today's favorite book is from Ann DeLorenzo, who reads and writes from her apartment in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood of Washington, DC. After receiving an M.A. in literature she now works in the sciences, but dreams of returning to the world of books some day.

A little more than halfway through As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner puts forth a strange theory on the nature of words. Addie Bundren, around whose death the story turns, gets a rare moment to speak. While narrating her first pregnancy she thinks to herself:
… when I knew that I had Cash, I knew that living was terrible and that this was the answer to it. That was when I learned that words are no good; that words don’t fit even what they are trying to say at. When he was born I knew that motherhood was invented by someone who had to have a word for it because the ones that had the children didn’t care whether there was a word for it or not. I knew that fear was invented by someone that had never had the fear; pride, who never had the pride ... and that sin and love and fear are just sounds that people who never sinned nor loved nor feared have for what they never had and cannot have until they forget the words.
This is a radical notion for an artist whose chosen medium is words. If we are to believe Addie, and I think that we are, then how can Faulkner evoke these broad human emotions – fear, love, pride, and so on – in a work made entirely of words? Faulkner’s unmatched ability to use this paradox in language to his advantage – to create works of emotional realism and psychological complexity out of mere “sounds” – makes As I Lay Dying my favorite book. If great works of literature aspire to realistic representations of human feelings, then Faulkner’s shortest novel comes closest to conveying the startling complexity of human lives.

Picking a book as an overall favorite is a peculiar exercise that places a good amount of power in the chooser’s hands. Whittling down the definition of “favorite” is part of the fun of the assignment. I’ve read other books more times – As I Lay Dying I’ve read only twice, once about a year ago and again last week so that it would be fresh in my mind for this project. I’ve enjoyed (many) other books more – anything written by Kurt Vonnegut, for example. And I have certainly spent more time thinking and writing about a number of other works – a few stories by Raymond Carver probably have the most hours logged. I won’t tell you I have a sound explanation or an elaborate points system for putting As I Lay Dying above these and other books, but I can say that it is a book I love and that I have learned from, and in the end that is really the most I can ask from a piece of literature.

Faulkner famously wrote As I Lay Dying, published in 1930, in just six weeks. The intensity of the writing process is apparent in this pithy book, which is small in scope compared to Faulkner’s other works. The story is simple: Addie Bundren dies, and the remaining Bundrens – husband Anse, sons Cash, Darl, Jewel, and Vardaman, and daughter Dewey Dell – conspire to transport her across rural Mississippi for burial in Jackson. Staples of melodrama – sibling rivalry, infidelity, uncooperative weather – intervene. The story is told from the constantly rotating perspectives of family, friends, and occasionally random people who happen to come across the Bundrens on their journey.

Each of Addie’s children reacts to her death in different and often confusing ways. Cash constructs a coffin. Jewel rages against anyone who gets in his way. And Vardaman conflates a fish caught earlier in the day with his mother’s dead body, leading to the most famous line of the book: “My mother is a fish.” Anse, on the other hand, is a hard nut to crack as he speaks entirely in platitudes, often religious, and thinks mostly of his own sad condition. The final plot twist neatly exposes the underlying motivations for Anse’s behavior and just might qualify him as Faulkner’s least sympathetic character, an impressive feat in a body of work where racists, rapists, and religious hypocrites abound. Dewey Dell is distracted from her mother’s death with a familiar predicament for a country girl, a situation that gives us the beautiful line “I feel like a wet seed wild in the hot blind earth.” And Darl mostly observes and intellectualizes, actions that align him with the reader and make him the most accessible character in the book. Faulkner manages to weave madness, horror, and humor into the mix as characters lack the words or understanding to process Addie’s death. Sorrow turns macabre as Vardaman, the youngest child, bores breathing holes into Addie’s coffin, and punctures her face underneath. Unexpected comedic moments largely play off of Anse Bundren’s ridiculous vanity, particularly in the final chapter.

The paper-thin membrane between humor and tragedy that this last, pivotal scene brings to light is actually stretched across the entire book. Faulkner shows that as emotions become stronger, the lines between them blur, and laughter gives way to rage, sorrow to terror. And if this is the case, why bother to name them at all? In the end, it is Darl – whose near-clairvoyant insight allows him to narrate events that he does not actually witness, like his mother’s death – who is overwhelmed by this building storm of emotional intensities.

There are more reasons why I love this book, reasons that I could go on about at length. The language is gorgeous; the section narrated by Addie gives a feminist critique of the expectations of motherhood that is decades ahead of its time; the voices of various narrators are both distinct and convincing – all elements that coalesce to make this a book that moves its reader, that reveals to its reader a previously unrealized facet of human life. And it does so without ever naming the big themes on which it rests – fear, pride, motherhood – since to name is to simplify and there is nothing simple about this book. I’m not sure if As I Lay Dying will be my favorite book next time this question is asked, but I hope that you have a chance to read it and enjoy it and learn from it as I have.

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