Things I've done a lot of since quarantine:
Some of those activities were more valuable than others...
I actually picked up this book for the first time back in 2016, read a few pages, and thought, nope. It was super confusing and way too much work, so I read a Robert Crais novel instead.
However, in the process of researching my (still) work in progress novel, I realized that William Faulkner was born and raised in a time and place very similar to my setting, so it seemed a good idea to read something of his. And as the library was, and remains, closed, I picked the book my mom happened to have from 30+ years ago.
And wow. I need to read more Faulkner.
The four-year wait has not done miracles for my comprehension. The book is still super confusing and a lot of work. But I can assuredly say it's worth it.
The story follows the dynamics of the Mississippi-born Compson family, and is largely told from the perspective of the three brothers in the family. The first perspective we get is Benjy, who is referred to as an idiot in the book, but is what we would now call mentally handicapped. His thoughts are all over the place, jumping around in time, and with strange fixations or mental images. Through him we meet the hypochondriac matriarch of the family, the family's loyal black servants, and his two brothers and his sister. Benjy loves his sister. Matter of fact, everybody loves her, despite (or because of) all the trouble she gets into. She's essentially what the book is about, though we never get to hear directly from her, which was disappointing but also the point. Benjy's section of the book is definitely a tough read, but it's got nothing on Quentin's.
In my opinion, Quentin's portion of the book is the most convoluted. We follow him through a day in the life at Harvard, as he makes arrangements to kill himself. Unsurprisingly, Quentin's stream-of-consciousness narrative goes from logical and coherent to complete shambles from one sentence to the next, and I couldn't figure out how much of what he was saying was truth and what was metaphor. I found I had to read his portion of the story in perfect silence in order to follow it, and even then it was an ordeal.
The third segment of the book was my favorite, when we are treated to Jason's dark, selfish, manipulative beliefs. A large part of this being my favorite was that it was considerably easier to read and my brain needed the break, but I just found his character so grotesquely compelling. I could simultaneously follow his logic and understand his motivations, while also being able to take a step back and recognize him for what he is, the kind of man ladies of yesteryear might have called a chauvinistic pig. He feels (and truthfully is) largely responsible for supporting both his aging mother and his bastard niece, but the lengths he goes to in order to appease his ego are nothing short of vile. But I can appreciate how he became the way he is, and I love a good villain origin.
The final section of the book is told in third person, and primarily follows the family's long-time servant, Dilsey. The language shifts abruptly to flowery and literature-like, which creates an interesting contrast with the dialect-speak used for Dilsey and the other black characters. This part of the book didn't do much for me, aside from present a more bird's-eye perspective on what otherwise were individual neuroses. I suppose that was the intention, but it felt a little superfluous, given the way the story ended.
What I loved about the book was the immediacy we got with all the first-person narration, and the incredible technical skill needed to pull off such different voices and narrative styles. To call it ambitious is an understatement, and it's the kind of trick that can really fall flat if it's not fully delivered. I think it was delivered. Well done, Mr. Faulkner.
I'm taking off a star because of the appendix included at the back of the book, which essentially provided more story than we got in the actual book. It felt a little like a comedian trying to explain a joke, which undermines the whole endeavour. I'd rather read the book again and try to understand the story contained within the craftsmanship than have it explained at the end, but maybe that's just me.