The Sound and the Fury

So, long time no post? I think I drowned in The Sound and the Fury. I’m actually fairly disciplined if necessary when it comes to reading (thanks to the age-old school vs. pleasure reading conflict), and refused to let myself get caught up in any fiction other than Faulkner. Unfortunately, he didn’t tempt me too often.

[They] say a drowned man’s shadow was watching for him in the water all the time. It twinkled and glinted, like breathing, the float slow like breathing too, and debris half submerged, healing out to the sea and the caverns and the grottoes of the sea. The displacement of water is equal to the something of something. Reducto absurdum of all human experience, and two six-pound flat-irons weigh more than one tailor’s goose. What a sinful waste Dilsey would say. Benjy knew it when Damuddy died. He cried. He smell hit, He smell hit.

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Normally I love reading classics because they make me think, with larger-than-life characters and universal themes, elements that speak to every reader. The Sound and the Fury is less like speaking and more like multiple one-sided phone conversations overheard on a train, a barrage of thoughts with little context.

We learn about plot mostly secondhand, through character hints and reactions; instead the novel focuses on the Compson family: mentally retarded Benjy, intellectually troubled Quentin (the male one), Jason the “brutal cynic,” and tempestuous Caddy, a influential force on the lives of all her brothers. Their “long-suffering” mother is a burden mostly because she believes herself to be, while their servant Dilsey seems the sole calming presence.

Honestly, not one of the characters is really that likable. I didn’t really care what happened to them, especially because, with the exception of Benjy and Dilsey, they mostly brought it upon themselves. When Mr. and Mrs. Compson complain of each other’s bad blood it’s somewhat true, because the family has a talent for both self-pity and self-destruction.

The stream-of-consciousness writing is my other issue with the book; it’s just not a technique that appeals to me, and here Faulkner seems to delight in being obscure. For example, after the narrator change for the second section it takes quite a while to learn that the new voice is Quentin (and the brother, not the niece). I honestly might not have figured it out without having read the back cover. In addition, the narrative slips back and forth between present and flashback with little indication other than strategically placed italics. Expecting the reader to do that much detective work in the constant confusion seems somewhat conceited, and I don’t even know if the conclusions I drew are correct.

I’ll concede that writing in this manner requires skill, for the the author must really become the character. What are his memories and fears, what small detail will spark a train of thought? My friends and I used to love the word association game, and comes across at times as a similar exercise. In this attempt at verisimilitude, however, most of the text was relatively tangential or mundane, again prompting the reaction of why I should care. John Irving did it much better with first person narration in A Prayer for Owen Meany (which I still owe a review for).

Jason’s section was easier to read than his brothers’, perhaps because his perspective on life was less hazy. In the fourth and final section, focusing mostly on Dilsey, I was surprised to see Faulker switch to a third person omniscient narration. Was this because he needed a wider viewpoint for some of the events, or because he didn’t want to write in constant dialect (not pretty, but a product of the times, I guess)? Either way the story seemed to have little resolution.

I’m glad I read Faulkner and I do think the book is an interesting example of stream-of-consciousness, but I probably won’t be checking out the rest of his catalog of classics. I never thought I’d say that I preferred More Die of Heartbreak. His short stories are supposedly very good, however, so later on I might see if my anthologies have any. In the meantime, perhaps a trip to Cliff’s Notes might clear things up.
This hard-fought accomplishment is my first for the Classics Challenge 2010. It’s also on the 1001 Books and Guardian lists (family and self category for the latter).

Update: Also, I wish I had remembered this Pearls Before Swine strip. Yet another reason why Stephan Pastis is my hero: “You could pour words out of a bucket and end up with a more comprehensible book than that.”

Published in: on August 24, 2010 at 11:28 pm  Comments (1)  
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  1. […] book that makes me think about it and look for literary criticism is good in the long run. (Except The Sound and the Fury which will forever make my list of most frustrating […]

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