Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Sound and the Fury: Reading Difficult Books

I finished reading Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury yesterday, a task that was not as challenging as I first imagined it to be. Other than proximity, I have not really come into contact with Faulkner, other than As I Lay Dying, and “A Rose for Emily,” both of which I read in high school and enjoyed. Living in Memphis, I would say that Faulkner is this region’s literary equivalent to Elvis. I get so accustomed to hearing about Elvis that it is easy to forget he was an actual artist, and not the cartoon that gets paraded around the city on a daily basis. Faulkner is the looming figure over this region. His works are celebrated and referenced, taught in courses dedicated solely to his name. His house is a tourist attraction in Oxford. Several local bookstores even have an entire Faulkner section. But I would question if more people know of Faulkner than have actually read Faulkner. While there are tons of references in the area pointing to the Nobel Prize winner, his actual works are small, challenging, and difficult to navigate, none more so than the opening chapter of The Sound and the Fury.

As has been well documented, Benjy, whom the back cover calls a “manchild”, narrates the first chapter of the novel. What the blurb fails to mention is that Benjy is severely mentally handicapped, and his narration is a direct reflection of that mental state. Faulker uses a variety of techniques to reflect this state, none of which make it easy for a reader to follow. The narration starts, stops, jumps back and forth in time. There are no visual clues to help us follow these jumps. While it first appears that italics punctuate each shift in time, Faulkner does not stick with this style. He ignores punctuation, does not identify speakers, and even worse, packs the opening with so much of the novel’s history that it is nearly impossible for the reader to fully comprehend what is taking place in the narrative with extensive rereading. Faulkner is not for the weak, and this first chapter, which I could not navigate without consulting a reference work, is not for the casual reader.

I will easily admit that I shy away from difficult books. My reading time is limited as it is, and I do not want to spend all of it struggling through a work I may or may not enjoy. I read Faulkner as a part of a book club, and I am glad that I did. However, I am not sure that I would call the book pleasurable; I could admire, even marvel, at the book’s style, but found myself so worked up on the simple level of content (what is happening?) that I could not take much enjoyment out of it. The book demands a second or even third reading, and this is not something I am interested in doing. I don’t think of this as a sign of weakness, however. For me, Faulkner failed not in his style, but in his content. The plot of the novel does not hold up to the style. The tragedy of the Compsons, if you can call it that, is not so grand as it is…(please don’t hate me) dull. I can invest in difficult books if I am rewarded on some level, but I could not find myself caring about any of the characters or their conflicts. A difficult book needs not only to challenge, but engage and reward, and in this regard, The Sound and the Fury underwhelms.

I remember feeling the same way the first time I read As I Lay Dying. The shifting perspective fascinated me, and I admired the way Faulkner was able to use a metaphor so distinctly (“My mother is a fish.”). But in the end, I did not care about the Bundren family. It was not until I reread the novel that I was able to appreciate its humor, its style, and its tragedy. I think of that novel and I want to reread it. Perhaps it is not my time with The Sound and the Fury.

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