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29 August 2005

Light in August

By William Faulkner

"Light in August, a novel about hopeful perseverance in the face of mortality, features some of Faulkner’s most memorable characters: guileless, dauntless Lena Grove, in search of the father of her unborn child; Reverend Gail Hightower, who is plagued by visions of Confederate horsemen; and Joe Christmas, a desperate, mysterious drifter consumed by his mixed ancestry. Originally published in 1932."

Although I took six weeks to finish this last of Oprah's Summer of Faulkner, it had little to do with the novel and more to do with my circumstances. I had to stop reading mid-way through in Cincinnati, move here to Madison, apply for a library card, and wait for a copy to come available! AND the thing is 512 pages of Faulkner... a little challenging. However, compared to As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury, this was a walk in the park.

Lena was a frustrating creature, steadfastly determined to find the father of her unborn baby, the cad and drifter Lucas Birch. You see, he just left for Mississippi to find work...uh-huh. She walks from Alabama until she reaches the town of Jefferson and finds Byron Bunch instead--a good, kind, middle-aged man who falls in love with her right away. This is the opening of the novel. Then there is a murder, the resulting investigation, and an extensive 200-page flashback in which we learn the histories of several characters, including the orphan drifter and boot-legger, Joe Christmas.

Odd that Faulkner should create one of the most profoundly live characters I have ever encountered in Joe Christmas, where the majority of his thought and action takes place in flashback. As a child of questionable parentage, everyone in the 1920s South calls him "nigger" or "wop," even though he is as white as anyone else. It's the stigma of his past--just the mere insinuation of a drop of African blood--that determines much of his fate. But he doesn't help himself much either. He resigns himself to this role, using it in many ways to excuse his misanthropy. The story of his young childhood, both in the orphanage and after he is adopted by an ultra-religious taskmaster and his wife, is heart-wrenching and searing.

After this extended flashback, we return to the day Lena arrived in Jefferson. Only three weeks then pass before the conclusion of the novel, but it feels like a lifetime spent among the people of that little Mississippi town. Joe Christmas must suffer for his deeds (justly) and for his heritage (unjustly), while other characters struggle to align themselves in the correct spheres of morality, race relations and religious conviction in his presence. It is an oppressive and judgmental arena in which they must act out their lives.

In conclusion to this magnificent trio of works, I must say that Light in August must be my favorite, if only for its (relative) ease of reading and its (relatively) hopeful ending. Maybe Lena wasn't as gullible and dim as she appeared. Maybe she just wanted to take a walk...

However, I cannot dismiss the other two novels. As I Lay Dying was the most humorous in a dark, sarcastic way, full of quirky characters and pitiful desperation. After discovering how to read Faulkner, it was probably has the most straight-forward story arc as well. But The Sound and the Fury was the best puzzle, where reading meant trying to find within myself the means to look through the opaque prose and find the heart of meaning. The entertainment was in the challenge, because there was nothing funny, redeeming, or hopeful there.

I may revisit Faulkner again one day, but for now I need a break from his world. I've lived there all summer--a memorable experience, but also a dark stay.

Blogger Keven said...

Meghan O'Rourke has a good article on Slate about how good the combination of Oprah's book vlub and Faulkner is here.


Blogger Keven said...

club, not vlub


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