As I Lay Dying: Afterthoughts

As I Lay Dying
William Faulkner
267 pages
3-stars-out-of-5

 

I’m not sure if the rating that I gave this book is entirely fair, because I can’t say that I knew what the hell was going on in the book half the time. Between the dialect, the propensity for each chapter to start in media res, characters losing their marbles, and strange shifts in time, this may have been the hardest 267 pages to understand that I’ve ever read. And for the love of god, Kate, give it a rest about the goddamn cakes!

As I Lay DyingYour mother is not a fish.

OK, so Faulkner apparently wrote this book over six weeks between midnight and 4am, and pretentiously did not change a word of his original draft. This may explain why it’s so hard to understand. I don’t know about you, but 4am is not a time in which the thoughts in my head are, shall we say, coherent. Not only did Faulkner not edit it at all, he considered it a masterpiece work of genius. This tells me some things about his character. The narrative is told through the first person point of view of fifteen different characters. Alex tells me that the voice of each character is authentically Sounthern, and I’ll have to take her word on that.

The story is about Addie Bundren, who, for the first fourth of the book is laying in her bed dying. After that, the story is about the attempt of her five children and her self-centered husband to bury her in her native town.

Right.

Let’s start with the kids. Cash is the eldest, and either a little slow or the most prudent character in the book. I alternated between the two. He’s a carpenter by trade, and he’s busy sawing and nailing up his mother’s coffin outside of her window while she’s held up in bed. We meet his brothers Darl and Jewel as they come up the hill with the wagon. Darl is the second eldest, and has a bit of an inflated sense of his own intelligence (sounds a bit familiar). Jewel is the third in line, and is both his mother’s favorite and her secret shame. We don’t get introduced to the final two children, Dewey Dell and Vardaman until a little later, but Dewey Dell is the only daughter, and she’s got bigger problems then her mother’s impending death. Vardaman is the youngest and is in heavy need of either some counseling or a lesson in biology by the end.

Then there’s Addie’s husband Anse, who sort of starts out as a bit of an indecisive idiot and slowly morphs into a self-centered asshole by the end. I suppose he was an asshole from the start, but I had a bit of sympathy for him in the beginning that was blown all away by the end.

The cast of characters is rounded off by Cora Tull, her husband Vernon and her cakes which, I’m sorry, get so much unnecessary mention in the story that I’m including them as characters. There are others, too, but they only exist to fill in plot details and are not worthy of mention.

While Addie lays dying, and Cash builds her a coffin, Jewel, Darl, and Anse are outside discussing whether or not Jewel and Darl should go off to earn three dollars. On the one hand, their mother could die at any minute, she wants to be buried out of town and the weather looks like it could start storming at any minute. On the other, three dollars! So the boys skip off to get paid, and Addie dies without any of the people she wants to see with her. The doctor arrives too late to be of any help, because he is also an asshole and delays leaving, specifically so Addie will die, and be free of her good-for-nothing husband. (Is this something doctors do in the South, because that’s terrifying.)

Vardaman, who has spent the afternoon fishing, walks in to see his mother breathe her last and is instantly scared for life. He takes it out on the doctor’s horses, beats them and sends them scattering because he believes the doctor is the one who killed his mother. I’m inclined to agree that, while he’s not guilty of murder, he’s at least guilty of gross neglect.

Meanwhile, Dewey Dell’s thoughts on the whole matter largely boil down to, “I wish the doctor could read my mind and give me an abortion without me having to ask him.” Yup.

The boys finally return home with the three dollars fresh in their pocket to learn that their mother has died, they take it a bit hard. Darl seems quite shocked at the event, as if, you know, she hadn’t been sick, in her bed, on the verge of death these last few weeks. Cash still isn’t done with the coffin, either. It’s explained that it’s because he really wants to make his mother the pimp’nest coffin in the world, but I think he’s just a shitty carpenter. Anyway, this causes a very large delay in getting her even in a box, and dead bodies don’t stay fresh for long. Keep that in mind. It’s important for later.

By the time Addie is finally in her coffin, staring off on her way to her final resting place, it’s started raining, and hard. Jewel insists on bringing his prized horse along, and Cash insists on bringing his new tool box, presumably for all the touch up work on the coffin he’s going to have to do.

Fast forward through a lot of Anse refusing the help of his neighbors, and they finally reach the river. But oh noes! The bridge has been washed away! So they go a little upstream to cross a different bridge, but it too has washed away. GASP! So Anse finally has to give up and head back to Tull’s land to cross his bridge. By this time, Addie has been dead for a week. Mmmm. In this time, Vardaman has come to the conclusion that his mother is a fish, and Darl doesn’t help this by telling him that Jewel’s mother is a horse. Darl also starts losing the plot around this point.

Anyway, Tull still has most of a bridge left over from the flooding, and fast forward through a bunch more shuffling and indecisive waffling, and they decide to unpack all unnecessary persons from the wagon to have them walk across the half a bridge, while Cash attempts to ford the flooded river with Darl’s aid from the opposite bank. Jewel walks his horse along side of it, and they would have gotten to the other side except the log of fate rises up, gets tangles in their lead rope and capsizes the whole wagon. So Addie in her coffin, Cash, Jewel and his horse and an entire team of mules get swept away. Jewel and his horse escape because the horse is necessary to the plot later, but Cash winds up unconscious with a broken leg, and all the mules drown. The coffin is recovered, along with every. Single. One. Of. Cash’s. God. DAMN. Tools.

So now they have a fresh problem. They have a rotting mother, a carpenter with a broken leg, and a wagon and no mules. Tull refuses to give his mules to the cause and frankly, I don’t blame him. The man obviously knows a disaster when it washes up on his lawn. So Anse’s solution is for Jewel to sell his horse to buy new mules. This is where any sympathy for Anse died in me. This is a man who is willing to sacrifice anything, so long as it doesn’t actually cost him anything to do so. So Jewel tearfully, angrily sells his horse (which, by the way, he worked his ASS off to buy in the first place) and buys new mules to finish the journey.

So now we’ve got a rotting mother, one son with a broken leg, two sons losing their marbles, one angry son, one daughter who could care less, and a very self satisfied father. So far so good? OK, onwards.

Somewhere around here, Addie starts monologuing from within her coffin. She confesses that Jewel is not Anse’s son, and oh, how she has been suffering for that, but after she made it up to him by giving him two more kids, she realized that she’d done her life’s work, and could just go ahead and die.

As the weather worsens, they are eventually forced to stay the night in someone’s barn. Poor Addie has been dead nine days by this point and is stinking to high heaven. Everyone outside of the family is mortified. They’re being followed by a pack of buzzards, which have captured Vardaman’s attention away from thoughts of fish mothers, and he vows to go see where they roost at night. This is rather fortunate, for while he’s off buzzard hunting, he happens to see his brother Darl setting fire to the barn. Good ol’ Darl, always looking for a solution to life’s little problems.

Obviously this doesn’t sit well with the man who owns the barn, but thankfully Jewel has a soft spot for animals and with super human strength hefts up the pimp coffin and his (presumably oozing) mother, and carries it out on his back. He then busts back into the barn, and into every single stall there to lead the animals out of the blaze, one by one.

So now we’ve got a rotting mother, one son with a broken leg, one criminal son, one son who’s lost his damn mind, one angry, burnt son, one daughter carrying multiple secrets, and a very self satisfied father. Still with me?

So without laying blame to anyone, even though everyone knows damn well who burnt down the barn, they set out again. Jewel, who is obviously pissed right the fuck off, refuses to ride in the wagon with Darl. I’m sure Cash wishes he had that option, because by this time, his leg is getting much, much worse. Obviously they need a doctor, and quick, but Anse is in a bit of a hurry by now, so any old doctor will do. Hell, what about a veterinarian?

When they finally get into town, everyone’s temper is a little frazzled. Jewel picks a fight with a random passerby, who dares to speak ill of his decomposing mother in the wagon, and is nearly knifed for it. Dewey Dell tries to buy her abortion with the $10 her lover gave her, but the first pharmacist she sees refuses her.

They decide to set Cash’s leg in cement, because cement on unprotected skin never hurt anyone. Predictably, Cash’s leg turns black, and they become in desperate need of a real doctor.

Next, Jewel and Dewey Dell jump Darl and have him arrested for arson, which messes with Vardaman even more. Dewey Dell tries another pharmacist, but gets hoodwinked by the assistant instead, who gives Dewey Dell a shot of turpentine, a bunch of capsules filled with talcum powder and a roll in the sack to ‘cure’ her. Presumably he kicks her in the ass and laughs at her on her way out.

Somewhere in this jumble, Addie is buried in a footnote.

Yup.

Cash’s leg is then cracked out of its cement cast which sounds about as pleasant as the book explained it, and Anse, upon discovering that Dewey Dell has been hoarding ten whole dollars, all to herself when poor Anse has been surviving oh these last few years without any teeth, declares her the worst daughter in the world, and steals her abortion money. This he uses to go get himself cleaned up, get new teeth and get remarried, all while his broken family waits for him on the wagon that still smells like dead mom.

The end.

Now, I realize that there’s a lot more going on in this book than what is presented on the surface, but the book went to such pains to hide those meanings that I find myself disinclined to care. For a book that details the trials involved in burying one’s mother, The Stranger is better. For a book that tries to make its point in the least possible sense, Slaughterhouse Five is better. For a book that tries to relate what life is like in the South, To Kill a Mockingbird is better. This book was a very frustrating read, and I’m glad it was as short as it was. Honestly, I don’t think I could have read it to the end of it was over three hundred pages. If you’d like a more academic analysis of the book, pop on over to Alex’s blog here, where she reviews As I Lay Dying with bigger words and less swearing.

The next book on my reading list was going to be Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart, but the first five chapters were such a tremendous disappointment that I abandoned it to read Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe instead.

 

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16 thoughts on “As I Lay Dying: Afterthoughts

  1. Pingback: As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner: A Review | Alex Hurst

  2. I totally forgot to mention this: “OK, so Faulkner apparently wrote this book over six weeks between midnight and 4am, and pretentiously did not change a word of his original draft.” in my draft… Good thing I just directed people here. XD

  3. I love your review. I read this tale of woe and idiots 8 years ago. I’m still angry about it. Maybe it’s a sign of Faulkner’s skill that I wasn’t indifferent to the characters. It was the first book by him that I read. Thankfully I didn’t take it on as a touchstone and abandon him as an overrated author. Instead, angered by Addie and bloody minded in my quest to understand why Faulkner is highly regarded, I read everything else by him. Absalom! Absalom!, Light In August and Pylon are my favourites.

    • It might take me a while to pick up something by Faulkner again, but maybe my reading group will come by another of his books in the near future. We shall see. I’ll take your recommendations into consideration, thanks! 8D

  4. Excellent review of a mind boggling often too-twisted-for-even-me-to-believe tale of Southern values and culture. You got far more than I ever got out of the book. I only managed to remain brain active through the reading once. Good insights as well. May I suggest that whoever suggested this amazing work of genius to you be given extra consideration for their present this coming birthday. Surely you will agree that they have earned such consideration with poetic honors.

    • It was really hard to keep up with the plot when it was intentionally written so that every character has a different account of events. That coupled with the dialect was too much for my limited capacities. If it had just been one or the other it would have been fine.

      I read this one for a book club. Maybe when it’s my turn to select a book, I’ll give them Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White. It’s a good book, but so, so, SO long.

  5. Oh my god, I nearly fell out of my chair with your synopsis! This has got to be my favorite blow by blow of the story. I’m sending this to all my English lit friends. But I think I may hide it from my sixteen-year old who has to read it this year for his American Studies course. After he’s finished, I will certainly provide your enlightening – and much approved – opinions.

    • Woohoo! I’m so glad you liked it. Reviewing the classics is sort of hit or miss for me. I always feel like I’m doing the text a disservice for reviewing it outside of an academic context, but at the same time, books shouldn’t need to come with a university course to be accessible. In the end. I don’t review professionally, so I suppose just blasting my thoughts out on my blog is acceptable enough. And hey, if people enjoy reading them, more the better 🙂

  6. Wonderful review of the content of this book from your point of view, and I think your humor is biting. I have often wondered why some writers are considered to have authored American classics when in fact the writing is seriously flawed. I happen to like the Sound and the Fury by Faulkner but not much of anything else.

    • I prefer biting humor for the simple fact that the world is a madhouse, and you’ve got to be able to laugh at it to stay sane. I think people like Faulkner and Mary Shelley are lauded, not perhaps because the writing makes sense, but because whatever techniques they employed, they were the first to do it. These days writing and expectations for writing have evolved so much that I don’t think a story like As I Lay Dying would stand much of a chance being published (traditionally, anyway).

      I’ve heard good things about Sound and Fury, but as I said, it may be a while before I test the waters of Faulkner again. 😛

  7. This review actually made me laugh. While I enjoyed Alex’s insightful analysis, I can certainly relate to yours as well. I had no idea that Faulkner chose not to revise a single word of this book. When I read that, I thought to myself, “Well, that explains a lot.” And one of the main parts of the novel I remember is when Addie starts her monologue after dying. That was more jolting than anything else in the story. I recall being struck how even after her death, Addie is more and more dehumanized as the family’s journey goes on. Good for you for slogging through this one. It’s definitely a challenge, and I agree-Faulkner should have eliminated a lot of excess verbiage.

    • Addie’s monologue confused me at first. For a while I thought we’d gone back in time. When I figured out that no, the dead, decomposing body was sighing away in her coffin, my thought was “Faulkner, go to bed and get some sleep!” It’s a strange story, not very satisfying, with characters that aren’t very relatable, but it is what it is, I guess. This is one more classic author I can cross off my list.

  8. Okay, I feel you. BUT, it does have that line from Dewey Dell: “I feel like a wet seed wild in the hot blind earth.” HOLY JESUS I LOVE THAT. I also just love their wonderful, weird, Southern names. Cash? Jewel? Vardaman? As a Kentuckian with relatives named things like Thurston, Larkin, Lawson, and Tiny, I loved it.

    Also it might help that I read The Sound and the Fury right beforehand, which is so much less intelligible and accessible that As I Lay Dying totally felt like a break.

    • You’re right, the book does have some utterly incredible lines in it. There were times when I really did love the way the words were placed together and the images they evoked. But there were also places where I wanted to kick the characters in the butt to make them do something interesting. Alex grew up in Louisiana, and she said that the voices were really authentic and, to her, perfectly understandable. Perhaps I’m too Northern to enjoy it as fully as it could be.

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