As I mentioned previously, all I remember about Light in August from 1994 is that I enjoyed it and actually finished it. The plot was lost in the intervening eighteen years, replaced with various other memories, books, drug doses, etc. I am definitely enjoying this book the second time around, but it is taking forever to get through. Now I don’t know if that’s because I’m trying to read it while working full time in the midst of the worst heat wave Sacramento has had in recent memory, or if I’m just taking my time because I want to actually absorb what I’m reading, or something else. All I know is that I’m falling off pace for reading sixty books in 2012, and it’s making me mad (and causing a small amount of uncalled for stress on my part). After this book is done, you are going to be seeing reviews for some plot heavy fast paced books. So I can catch up on my book count. And so I can mock them on the blog, of course.
I read on a goodreads.com review that Light in August gets more complex as the story goes on—more “Faulknerian” as it were. And that’s definitely true. Other than a few sentences that are confusing in the first seven chapters, it’s pretty linear and plot-driven. When the part of the book centered on Joe Christmas’ past starts, things get progressively less linear and more character-driven. Why is Joe such a mess? He’s been that way since we meet him as a five year old in an orphanage. It’s almost unbelievable he would be so stoic as a small child. But then I don’t know very many kids, not really. Are some kids like this? Or is there just something wrong with him from the start? I think that’s probably what Faulkner is trying to illustrate. It’s not just that McEachern treated him badly. Because that guy was both awful and not so bad. Yes, he’s a bible-thumper, but all he wanted Joe to do was learn his catechism, which is something I believe most children in the early twentieth century had to do. A day of whipping for not learning it, granted, is a bit excessive, but the demand to learn it is likely something Joe’s contemporaries were also doing at home. The weird thing about McEachern is that he’s just so emotionless about everything. He never seems to get angry at Joe, or his wife. The violence he inflicts is not out of anger. He is not an angry person. He has a very strict sense of order. The mother is the typical overwrought wife of a hard, abusive man, trying to get Joe on her side. The thing is, Joe seems to identify more with McEachern than he does with the woman who is trying to love and protect him. Further proof that there is something wrong with Joe Christmas. But what? Why? Are we ever going to find out? Or does it remain ever a mystery?
Joanna Burden is the granddaughter of an abolitionist whose grandfather and brother were both killed for their beliefs in the Reconstruction-era South. She is hated by the whites in Jefferson, Mississippi, and yet she stays, in her house out in the country, doing her family’s work of helping blacks rise above their circumstances. We know at the beginning of the novel that her house burns down, likely with her in it. We know that Joe Christmas is responsible. (Or do we?) The interesting thing about Joanna Burden is that thus far in the novel, she seems to be the only person with whom Joe Christmas forms any sort of significant attachment, the only person with whom he has a conversation. This conversation comes, of course, several months after he beats and rapes her, “[making] a woman of her at last…. Now she hates me. I have taught her that, at least (p. 236).” He got the violence from McEachern, but where does the anger come from? Is it as simple as his mixed ancestry? Or is there more to it? He seems compelled to destroy that which would make him whole. Joanna Burden could maybe make him a complete person. She doesn’t care that he could be part black. She was taught from a young age that her relatives were “murdered not by one white man but by the curse which God put on a whole race before your grandfather or your brother or me or you were even thought of…. The curse of every white child that ever was born and that ever will be born…. The curse of the white race is the black man who will be forever God’s chosen own because He once cursed him (pp. 252-3).”
My thoughts as I continue on with Light in August are swirling with ideas about the nature of memory and time. I hope when I’m done I’ll be able to put them together into a cohesive essay for the blog. I hope I don’t get bored and move on to something easier. I wish I could find my papers from AP English; I’d love to see what I said about this book back then. The passages about memory are the ones I marked in the book then, and they’re the ones that resonate with me the most now. The Book of Jonas was all about memory too. I wonder if Stephen Dau was influenced by Faulkner. The more I read of Light in August, the more I begin to think that he was.
One more quote, before I get back to reading:
“’Why do you spend your Saturday afternoons working at the mill while other men are taking pleasure down town?’ Hightower said.
“’I don’t know,’ Byron said. ‘I reckon that’s just my life.’
“’And I reckon this is just my life, too,’ the other said. ‘But I know why it is,’ Byron thinks. ‘It is because a fellow is more afraid of the trouble he might have than he ever is of the trouble he’s already got. He’ll cling to trouble he’s used to before he’ll risk a change. Yes. A man will talk about how he’d like to escape from living folks. But it’s the dead folks that do him the damage. It’s the dead ones that lay quiet in one place and don’t try to hold him, that he can’t escape from.’” (p. 75)
And that, my friends is why Faulkner won a Nobel Prize. He finds truths, and writes them down, and makes them beautiful and weird and Southern.