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07 July 2005

The Sound and the Fury

By William Faulkner

An exerpt from the review by Amazon.com: "[This] rich, dark, scandal-ridden story of squandered fortune, incest (in thought if not in deed), madness, congenital brain damage, theft, illegitimacy, and stoic endurance is told in the interior voices of three Compson brothers: first Benjy, the 'idiot' man-child who blurs together three decades of inchoate sensations as he stalks the fringes of the family's former pasture; next Quentin, torturing himself brilliantly, obsessively over Caddy's lost virginity and his own failure to recover the family's honor as he wanders around the seedy fringes of Boston; and finally Jason, heartless, shrewd, sneaking, nursing a perpetual sense of injury and outrage against his outrageous family."

Yikes! What a book. I tried to read this novel when I was 15 or 16, inspired I think by a line from a Pam Tillis song called "Maybe it was Memphis". I was in my country music phase, I had read Gone With the Wind, and I held a certain innocent fascination with all things rural America. HOWEVER, I did not realize two things: 1) this novel cannot be read and understood by very many 15-year-olds and, 2) I would never want meet one of these characters, let alone compare a boyfriend to a Faulkner creation as Tillis did! Too overwhelmed by the style, I could not finish the novel back then, and this episode encouraged me to keep up with Oprah's Summer of Faulkner challenge.

Just like As I Lay Dying, this is an astounding work of fiction - completely messed up, tragic, evil, dark, unashamed, unflinching. It begins from the point-of-view of Benjy, the man-child who was probably what we would today consider autistic. He flits in and out of 30 years worth of memories, with no distinction between one and the other. He thinks he can speak, but you understand later that his "speaking" is just a reflection of the thoughts he is unable to express. This opening is the stumper - no wonder I couldn't finish on my eariler attempt. It's nearly opaque, and only with careful reading can you tease out the distinctions, the present, the past, the characters.

Quentin's perspective follows as he unsteadily makes his way through Boston, seemingly with some guiding purpose. There are weird side diversion with a black servant and a lost little Italian girl. Only later do you understand his purpose, and that he was, in fact, a raging alcoholic. This explained why Quentin's narrative was only slightly more discernable than Benjy's.

Next comes Jason, the youngest and most mentally stable, although he nurses a debilitating, warped grudge against siblings that have left him with no prospects, no inheritance, and a family to care for. He is the constant object of social speculation, at least in his mind, because of his brothers' afflictions and his sister's glamorous, seedy life. He is a racist, a sexist, a cruel and tortured man - one who has been wronged and wrongs others. Despite his personality, I found him oddly sympathetic and some of his cruelty nearly justified - or at least understandable.

The last section brings the novel together. Written from an omniscient narrator's perspective, we finally encounter lucid, revealing prose that answers most of the questions the other narrations have asked. This is Faulkner tipping his hand, letting us see the Compsons as the world sees them, but without offering any sort of trite, neat ending. All that is normal at the end of the book is simply normal for this family - and unsettlingly abnormal for most other people.

But as the Amazon review suggests, this novel is as much about the nature of internal consciousness as it is about this particular family. I will admit I will be thinking and studying the ideas I encountered for quite some time, because some places just skipped on past my understanding. Two or three additional readings would be essential to "getting" everything. No wonder so many essays and literary careers have been built on sorting through this one. I kept notes. I reread countless paragraphs just to figure out what the hell was happening. This amount of effort may not be worth it to some people, but it was worth it to me. A fantastic experience.

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