Faulkner, William Entries

The Sound and the Fury


Theoretically, my latest journey through Faulkner's southern Gothic epic was a re-read. I knew I'd read it before, long ago, but I wasn't sure exactly how long ago until I riffled through it and discovered, nestled between the pages, a three-day visitor pass for the New Orleans public transportation system. I've only been to New Orleans once, which means I last read The Sound and the Fury at the tender age of fourteen, over a chilly January weekend in a hotel in the French Quarter. You have to admire my sense of effective setting. The ironwork grilles, pedestrian arcades and melancholy street performers must have made an evocative backdrop to this tale of familial disintegration in the American South.

Needless to say, however, considering my former youth and relative lack of familiarity with modernist literature, I remembered almost nothing about the novel before picking it up again this time. In fact, I remembered SO little about it that I actually made a list before I started re-reading. This is literally every single thing I could bring to mind about the novel, besides my assumption that, being Faulkner, it would be set in Mississippi:

  • Four sections told from different perspectives;
  • Siblings/family saga
  • First section is from the perspective of the mentally retarded brother;
  • Brother/sister incest (?);
  • A scene where a young girl climbs a tree and a boy (her brother?) can see her underwear.

As you can see, my grasp of the finer plot points was incomplete. Although my question mark in "Brother/sister incest (?)" turned out to be surprisingly accurate, I think the last item actually conflates three different scenes, two in this book and one in Vladimir Nabokov's Ada (in which the girl in question is actually not wearing any underwear! Salacious!). And while the first three items are true as far as they go, they don't exactly add up to the most memorable reading experience.

This time around, though, I thoroughly appreciated The Sound and the Fury. Having read other Faulkner since (most recently Absalom! Absalom!), I was prepared for consistently ponderous, florid-seeming prose, but Faulkner really carries off four distinct narrative voices in his four different sections. We get Benjy's jumpy, grief-stricken stream of consciousness, in which past, present and future are compressed into a single pane of existence; Quentin's obsessive, impotent gallantry and inability to reconcile his past with his present; Jason's flinty-cold, self-justifying righteousness; and the final section, the only one told in what I think of as "Faulknerian" prose, which is told in the third person and focuses on the inexplicably faithful servants in the Compson house. In each section, the same basic story is refracted through a different sensibility, revealing a new set of separate but overlapping facets, until the reader gradually pieces together what happened to the Compson family: how they loved each other, hated each other, and tore themselves to pieces.

If we could have just done something so dreadful and Father said That's sad too, people cannot do anything that dreadful they cannot do anything very dreadful at all they cannot even remember tomorrow what seemed dreadful today and I said, You can shirk all things and he said, Ah can you. And I will look down and see my murmuring bones and the deep water like wind, like a roof of wind, and after a long time they cannot distinguish even bones upon the lonely and inviolate sand.

This is one of those books, so many of them modernist, which are sometimes charged with "ruining the literary scene" and "turning literature into an exclusionary, unreadable mess." Forget that I think such claims are a big pile of poop; I'd still like to talk about why I think Faulkner's decisions here are so effective. Because basically, my opinion is this: while the style of the novel is indeed challenging at times, it's all in the service of something that's the OPPOSITE of exclusionary. To me, The Sound and the Fury operates on the same set of audience-baiting techniques that fuel the public's perpetual interest in crime novels. As a reader, Faulkner feeds me just enough information to whet my appetite about what's happened in the Compson house, yet denies me complete understanding until the very end. This doesn't seem to me obnoxiously elitist; it seems like good, solid storytelling technique.

The Sound and the Fury takes, no doubt, more effort on the reader's part than a more standard, whodunit-style story. But there are also many more levels on which the mysteries unfold, and all of those levels are interrelated, making it also much more interesting, at least to me. A reader beginning Faulkner's novel must first ascertain what's going on with the narrating voice: being thrown into Benjy's world, which isn't separated into past, present, and future, is disconcerting, a melange of jerky transitions, italics and effects without causes. As I began to get my bearings, I realized that italicized text signaled that Benjy was beginning to experience something, a scene from the past that had been triggered in his mind by the thoughts or events just preceding in the narrative (often themselves things that happened in the past). He relives these scenes with such vivid feeling that they're indistinguishable from the present, and, as his story progresses, the implied "triggers" that cause him to transition from one scene to another provide intriguing clues about the family's past and present. Why does Benjy cry when he looks at himself in a mirror? Why does Quentin seem sometimes to be male and at other times female? Why are certain places - the basement, the tree by the window - so packed with triggers for Benjy? How did the family decide that saying a certain name is taboo? Moving from one's first impressions to the point of asking questions like these is a bit like emerging from an atmospheric fog bank, and watching the landscape take its gradual shape.

With the transitions from one section to the next, Faulkner even creates cliffhangers: at the end of Benjy's section we share Benjy's priorities, and want to learn the answers to the questions he raises. Instead, we're spirited eighteen years back in time to Quentin's narrative, which introduces us to a whole new set of obsessions and motivations. By the time we're done meandering with the morose Harvard student around the Italian slums of Boston, we feel tenderly frustrated with him, and invested in his ominous trajectory - but we're suddenly yanked back to the day before Benjy's section, where we encounter the thoroughly unpleasant Jason. Every section helps to fit more pieces into place regarding plot, causes, and effects, but the author entices his audience masterfully in the meantime, and lets us swim in the stream of each character's thoughts and associations. It's not only a beautiful example of the old writing-class chestnut "Show, don't tell," but it allows the gaps and jumps in each narrative to reveal as much as the words that surround them. The prose takes on the texture of a canyon landscape, whose real substance is contained in yawning chasms not immediately visible from the ground.

(As a side-note, the sections in the Italian slums around Boston in 1910 were particularly intriguing to me because my partner David's paternal family are Italian-Americans from the greater Boston area. His grandmother was born in 1916, but the area in which she lived would have been very similar to that around which Quentin leads the little girl he meets in the bread shop.)

My point is that Faulkner's difficult prose serves a concrete function in terms of the narrative, and I think it performs that function extremely well. The Sound and the Fury felt more taut and well-controlled to me than Absalom, Absalom!. I think the structural challenges Faulkner set himself in this novel really brought out the best in him, and made for a gorgeous and suspenseful reading experience for me.

(The Sound and the Fury was my eighth book for the Decades '09 Challenge, representing the 1920s.)

June 2012

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography