As I Lay Dying is one of those titles that I had heard thrown around by friends or fellow readers—both in praise and in distaste—for years before ever picking it up for myself. It was required reading for my highschool girlfriend in AP English (which is ironic, because she hated reading, whereas I loved to read, yet I was in “regular” English). I would hear classmates talking about the book and the fact that it was hard to understand and that each chapter was told from a different character's perspective, which intrigued me. At some point James Franco went and made that low-budget adaptation of the novel that, according to the unreliable opinion of the internet, is godawful.
Having been blown away by what is arguably Faulkner's most famous and beloved work, The Sound and the Fury, earlier this year, I took a brief repose into other authors' books before deciding it was time to dive into some Faulkner once again. One has to be in the right mindset to read Faulkner, or at least I do, as his books can be challenging and require utmost attention, thus reading him takes a bit of mental steeling and careful intention. A simple beach-read type of author, he was not, and yet in the case of these two novels, the payoff was well worth the effort put forth. And when things got tough to follow or all the necessary pieces of the puzzle had not yet been given? I learned to just keep going. Faulkner's breadcrumb trails always led to somewhere.
As I Lay Dying has its challenging moments, but overall it is a more straightforward story than Fury. The tale centers around Addie Bundren, a self-righteous and stubborn woman who is oft found wallowing in her own troubles and is on her deathbed at the beginning of the novel. It is her dying wish that her body be transported to Jefferson, Mississippi to be buried with her ancestors. She lies in bed while watching her oldest son work outside the window all day, Cash, who is building by hand the wooden coffin in which Addie will be buried. Addie's teenage daughter, Dewey Dell, stands by her side, fanning her in the heat. The middle son, Jewel, is a cynical bastard, cruel and impatient with the rest of his family, and his only pride in life is in caring for his horse, Snopes. Darl is the most “normal” and articulate of the sons, and narrates more chapters in the book than any other character. Vardaman is the youngest son, an imaginative and curious little boy who observes his older brothers with a sort of quiet fascination. Lastly is Anse, or “Pa,” Bundren, a slack-jawed man who spends his days sitting on the porch and staring into the fields, and who has not lifted a finger to work in twenty years or more due to some ambiguous injury in his younger days. He, like Addie, has his own sense of self-righteousness and stubbornness, although he is completely unintimidating and the children mostly view him as a bother and a chore.
The main plot consists of Addie's death near the start of the book and the family's troublesome journey to Jefferson to bury her, during which time each character expresses their thoughts on the trip, opinions of their fellow family members and their motives for going along.
Two similarities between Dying and Fury struck me: First is that both tell stories of large families in the South that may have at one time been stable in terms of income, had a level of respect in their communities and perhaps once resembled something like a healthy family unit, but at the time we are introduced to them in the novels they are crumbling into broken, pathetic messes, barely holding on to life and dignity. Irony and tragedy are all over these books, as well as dark humor, and Faulkner's keen sense of the fleetingness of life is on full display. I find it interesting that he explored the dissolution of Southern families in particular (understanding, of course, that he did grow up there, so there were the sort of people with which he was familiar). His books also seem to paint the Christian faith in a mocking, satirical light and expose the errors of greed and pride. Secondly, both books include a character who is mentally unwell. The more obvious of the two is Benjamin Compson in Fury, although Cash's mental instability becomes more and more apparent throughout Dying until the culmination at the end of the book when he literally goes crazy. It is a tragic scene, as is much of the novel, and serves to further express the madness of the whole premise.
The final scene left me shaking my head and muttering phrases of disbelief out loud for several minutes, though that is not to say the ending wasn't quite “good,” at least in terms of being a fitting close to the book. This is quite a novel, and I can see why it is heralded alongside Fury as being one of Faulkner's best. It is also very dark and at times demented, especially considering the time and social climate in which it was written. For some reason, I am glad for having read The Sound and the Fury first, although I am not sure why. Perhaps it gave me a better perspective with which to approach more of his work.
Long story short, Faulkner was a genius, and a master of minimalism and ironic symbolism. Any serious lover of literature is doing themselves a disservice if they have overlooked his work.