Sunday, March 2, 2014

On William Faulkner's Light in August

“And so is it any wonder that this world is peopled principally by the dead?”

“Man performs, engenders, so much more than he can or should have to bear. That's how he finds that he can bear anything.”

Perhaps the only literary task more difficult than reading William Faulkner's novels is writing about William Faulkner's novels. Somehow, in spite of a liberal arts education, I'd managed to avoid him in school only getting to read The Sound and the Fury in my late twenties. This was an overwhelming experience. So much so that I immediately reread it. I then internalized Faulkner's prose and paid homage to him the worst possible way, co-opting his style and riddling my own novel with cryptic stream-of-conscious self-indulgent preciousness. Writers should really never attempt to plagiarize another's signature method, but most of us learn that the hard way (via significant revisions and clarifications). His 1932 novel, Light in August, is not as complex or revolutionary as his more famous work, but it is hallmark Faulkner in its structural intricacy, multiple point-of-view narrative, racial violence, and Southern Gothic atmosphere.

How does one even begin to summarize Light in August? No other American writer is so adept at putting together such a multi-layered story composed of minute jigsaw pieces, assembled, seemingly willy-nilly across decades and perspectives, but always with Faulkner there is method in apparent madness. Lena Grove, heavy with child, is in Jefferson, Mississippi, looking for Lucas Burch a wildcat good-for-nothing who ran out on her in Alabama. Instead she finds Byron Bunch, working at the local planing mill. Byron doesn't tell her about an ex-coworker named Joe Brown, which is where Burch is hiding under an assumed name. This "Joe Brown" is living in the woods with a “foreigner” named Joe Christmas, only Joe is not an immigrant but a troubled drifter handling his mixed heritage racial identity with decidedly indelicate emotions. Brown and Christmas share a shack adjunct to a plantation house owned by a New England “carpetbagger” spinster named Joanna Burden. The crux of the story is her murder and the torching of her mansion the day Lena arrives in Jefferson. The main suspect in the crime is Joe Christmas, especially when it is learned by the townfolk Christmas has “nigger blood.”

If the novel has a central figure it is Christmas, whose biographical provenance has the shadow of peculiarly Southern violence cast over his life from its very conception, predestining the bloodletting to come: his white grandfather murdering his black father; the death of his mother due to childbirth complications; the murder of his adopted white father; and before Joanna Burden's own demise, the numerous victims of sexual violence and barroom brawls. Joe Christmas abandoned the chance for a normal life when he slammed a chair over his adopted father's skull. On the run, a handsome tramp, he makes a life out of starting over, following a road that “ran through yellow wheat fields waving beneath the fierce yellow days of labor and hard sleep in haystacks beneath the cold mad moon of September, and the brittle stars: he was in turn laborer, miner, prospector, gambling tout; he enlisted in the army, served four months and deserted and was never caught... He owned nothing but the razor; when he had put that into his pocket he was ready to travel one mile or a thousand, wherever the street of the imperceptible corners should choose to run again.”

Joe Christmas's running takes him to Jefferson where he works a low-wage job at the local planing mill. He operates a small, careful bootlegging business in the woods and has a tumultuous sexual affair with his benefactress, Joanna Burden. An older woman, nearly menopausal, their talk is mostly perfunctory, but Joanna opens up to Christmas one night, telling him about her origins, an abolitionist heritage, tough, moralizing New England stock, and her family's almost spiritual calling to help blacks (as if the cause entwined itself with the family's namesake): “I thought of all the children coming forever and ever into the world, white, with the black shadow already falling upon them before they drew breath. And I seemed to see the black shadow in the shape of the cross.” Before she was born, Joanna's brother and grandfather were murdered in the town square in an argument with Sartoris, an ex-slaveowner. Christmas cannot comprehend why Joanna's father never struck back, eye-for-an-eye. But Joanna feels her father understood well enough to “respect anybody's love for the land where he and his people were born and to understand that a man would have to act as the land where he was born had trained him to act.” Thus one man's self-restraint is as natural as another's resort to violence-- Faulkner seems to be describing us as products of purlieu, which makes for inevitability in both peacefulness and destructiveness. In Joe Christmas, we have post Civil-War black-white racial relations boiling over in a single man, whose entire history is composed of sexual exoticism and senseless violence. And Joe isn't even positive regarding his black lineage. "If I'm not, damned if I haven't wasted a lot of time."  In a good novel, good people make bad decisions-- it's a lot more complicated with an anti-hero.

The reader is never entirely clear whether Joe Christmas was responsible for the murder and mutilation of Joanna Burden, as Joe Brown is as slippery, mendacious, avaricious and irresponsible as any two-bit shyster one is likely to encounter in Faulkner's invented Yoknapatawpha County. But if he is flawed, he is in bad company, as the men and women in 1930s Deep South led hard, wasted lives, spiritual dissipations manifesting themselves physically. The local sheriff is “a tub of a man, with the complete and rocklike inertia of a tub.” Gail Hightower, a disgraced ex-preacher and confidant to good-hearted Byron Bunch, has “that odor of unfastidious sedentation, of static overflesh not often enough bathed.” The crisis occurring in the town of Jefferson is a confluence of catastrophic decision-making, people acting against their best interests, incapable of clarity. In such circumstances, tragedy begets tragedy, and so it goes when men, not only members of communities but descendants of historical hatreds, follow through on their prejudices to the bitter end.

Bill in his younger days

Reading Faulkner is an intense experience. It also requires anachronistic levels of concentration-- it is impossible to grasp the complexity of his storytelling in short bursts of one- or two-pages read. You don't read Faulkner with music on or between tweets. His convoluted syntax, multiple narrative perspectives, and time-tooling can intimidate even the most experienced readers, and occasionally even fans like myself feel like shouting, “WTF, Bill?” when he goes really far out. (I've even wondered how much whiskey was in the tumbler for certain passages only to be humbled when a seemingly random flight-of-fancy is revealed as an integral clue to the puzzle of a man-- someone once connected the work of the novelist to that of the architect, and it is a good metaphor, for good writing, no matter how complex, finds a way to utilize every brick in its structure.) But for all the confusion and mystery, the effort is rewarded to us with not a glimpse but a long linger in the darkest areas of the human heart. Our inner life is somewhat wiser than we were when we started, and maybe tougher too.

No comments:

Post a Comment