This book is making me wonder why I’ve spent so many hours of my life reading silliness. And not only that, but why I’ve spent so many hours doing things that are silly or mundane: knitting, cleaning the house, meeting friends for lunch, teaching classes, earning money. All of these pursuits seem awfully trivial when I think of what I could have been doing instead: sitting under a tree somewhere, eating locusts and wild honey and reading Faulkner.
Yet at the same time, I can’t read this novel in more than small doses. It pushes me away just as fiercely as it pulls me in. I read it in intense flurries of intellect and emotion, annotating wildly and writing things like HOLY SHIT in the margins. But every hour or so, I have to get up and walk away in the direction of the mundane. I start roaming the world looking for dishes to wash, coffee to drink, a car to take to the mechanic. Surely there’s a Harry Potter marathon on some channel or other.
In my fairly limited experience with the truly great literature of the world, it seems to me that this, more than anything else, is the quality that the Nobel committee seems to reward: fierce, uncompromising language that pulls us in with one hand while pushing us away with the other, like some kind of wise mystical creature from mythology that gives us one last chance to escape before telling us truths that we are not certain we want to hear.
Or like the snake in the Garden of Eden: You can be wise like God, this novel says, or you can just stay here in your little garden and read The Friday Night Knitting Club. It’s entirely up to you.
So here, in no particular order, are some thoughts:
• I mentioned already that I think the name “Joe Christmas” in and of itself earned Faulkner his Nobel Prize, and I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about why. Seeing “Christmas” in print and recognizing that it’s a name and not a holiday is jarring and offputting – much like the character of Joe Christmas himself. It almost sounds like one of those “substitute” swear words that people use when they don’t want to really swear: “Then I kicked the Joe Christmas out of him,” etc. But of course what this name primarily does is to take something sacred and make it profane. When McEachern is in the final stages of adopting Christmas, he tells the matron at the orphanage, “Christmas. A heathenish name. Sacrilege. I will change that” (144). And of course, Christmas is a holiday celebrating birth – celebrating the long, slow process that leads to the possibility of redemption.
• It is no accident that this novel begins with a wandering pregnant woman. Lena is biologically pregnant, but the novel’s opening chapters are “pregnant” in more figurative ways: about to explode with tension, with violence, with secrets; parturient. I’m surprised there aren’t more thunderstorms in this novel. They would fit right in.
• The pace of the opening chapters is extremely slow – not in a way that harms the novel’s momentum (I had no problem turning pages) but in a ways that draws my attention to the painfully slow pace of human progress. Consider this passage, when a group of local men are contemplating Lena’s arrival near Jefferson: “The woman went on. She had not looked back. She went out of sight up the road: swollen, slow, deliberate, unhurried and tireless as augmenting afternoon itself. She walked out of their talking too; perhaps out of their minds too. Because after a while Armstid said what he had come to say. He had already made two previous trips, coming in his wagon five miles and squatting and spitting for three hours beneath the shady wall of Winterbottom’s barn with the timeless unhaste and indirection of his kind, in order to say it. It was to make Winterbottom an offer for the cultivator which Winterbottom wanted to sell. At last Armstid looked at the sun and offered the price which he had decided to offer while lying in bed three nights ago” (10). And this one, later in the same scene: “He drove on, the wagon beginning to fall into its slow and mileconsuming clatter. Neither does he look back. Apparently he is not looking ahead either, because he does not see the woman sitting in the ditch beside the road until the wagon has almost reached the top of the hill… And no one could have known that he had ever looked at her either, as, without any semblance of progress in either of them, they draw slowly together as the wagon crawls terrifically toward her in its slow palpable aura of somnolence and red dust in which the steady feet of the mules move dreamlike and punctuate by the sparse jingle of harness and the limber bobbing of the jackrabbit ears, the mules still neither asleep nor awake as he halts them” (11).
Faulkner is an absolute master at using long sentences to build tension. In school I learned that the way to write fast-paced prose is to use short sentences and the way to write slow prose is to use long sentences. The passages above do a great job of illustrating why. I mean, is anybody besides me worried that Lena is about to drop her baby RIGHT HERE, in the middle of the palpable aura of somnolence and red dust? These guys certainly aren’t.
I also felt like a real book stud when I caught the Keats allusion on page 7: “[the wagon] will take you that far; backrolling now behind her a long monotonous succession of peaceful and undeviating changes from day to dark to day again, through which she advanced in identical and anonymous and deliberate wagons as though through a succession of creakwheeled and limpeared avatars, like something moving forever and without progress across an urn” (7). An URN – get it? In other words, Faulkner is alluding to Keats’ great poem about circular time, about the way human history has a way of bringing us right up to great moments of confrontation or achievement or transcendence and then stopping.
Just a few paragraphs after the reference to the urn, Faulkner’s language seems almost to allude to relativistic notions of time: “Though the mules plod in a steady and unflagging hypnosis, the vehicle does not seem to progress. It seems to hang suspended in the middle distance forever and forever, so infinitesimal is its progress, like a shabby bead upon the mild red string of road. So much so is this that in the watching of it the eye loses it as sight and sense drowsily merge and blend, like the road itself, with all the peaceful and monotonous changes between darkness and day, like already measured thread being rewound onto a spool… as though it were a ghost traveling a half mile ahead of its own shape… Then it will be as if I were riding for half a day before I even got into the wagon, before the wagon even got to where I was waiting, and that when the wagon is empty of me again it will go on for a half mile with me still in it” (8). I’d love to know just how much Faulkner understood of quantum theory and the theory of relativity – my guess is that he probably knew a lot. I know I could run a Google search on this topic and get my answer quickly, but I don’t want to – I’d rather wonder.
While I haven’t caught any direct allusions, I also keep hearing in the back of my mind Yeats’ famous lines “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, / slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?”
• The slow pace of human movement in these chapters becomes downright comic when Miss Burden’s house begins to burn down. The “pillar of smoke” (53 – like the pillar of fire and the pillar of cloud in Exodus – physical manifestations of the presence of God) first appears around 8 am on the day Lena arrives in Jefferson. Lena sees it when she is riding into town, and she and Byron Bunch notice it again later that day when they are talking at the planing mill. No one seems alarmed or determined to fight the fire; some notice it only in passing, and others are curious, treating the burning house as an opportunity for free entertainment. No event, no matter how catastrophic, seems able to make these characters move at anything more than a snail’s pace.
• All of the major characters in this novel are so stubborn: Lena in her refusal to accept the urgency to find a safe place to have her baby and to accept that the baby’s father isn’t going to be willing to marry her; Hightower in his refusal to leave town after his disgrace; Byron Bunch in his rigid morality, timing his breaks down to the last second when he works alone on Saturday afternoons; McEachern in the rigid morality with which he raises Joe Christmas; Joe Christmas in, well, everything he does. Rigid morality is clearly a theme in this novel, and it is clear to me that Faulkner wants us to see Byron Bunch’s moral code as “good” and McEachern’s as “bad,” even though they are fundamentally the same thing. I can’t yet see how Joe Christmas will figure into this theme: he has all of his adopted father’ stubbornness and pride, but he also seems to operate a bit more relativistically when it comes to morality, given the way he seems to justify his killing of Miss Burden.
Well, drat. I’m starting to feel that pull again, that sense of being sucked as if by a tide away from the undulations of Faulkner’s language and the deep dark badness of his characters. Which is too bad, because there’s so much more I wanted to write about. Here’s the rest of the outline I put together as I was reading:
• Faulkner is a master of describing faces and bodies.
• Women in this novel
• Legitimacy – what does it mean to “deserve” something?
• Chapter 4 – Reversal of the usual device of foreshadowing
• In Faulkner, crazy people talk like the King James Bible
• Dissociation, distraction, and denial from violence and strong emotion
• Hightower as Buddha (and the significance of his name)
• Joe Christmas as Melville’s Bartleby
• The role of community – small towns, gossip – isolation vs. being smothered
• the image of the shut-up house in southern fiction
• Constant focus on shoes and fire – burning bush?
And I really would love to write several paragraphs on each item in this list. But what do you know? There IS a Harry Potter marathon on right now – and The Half-Blood Prince is about to begin.
Over and out.