If you ever want to be really, really pleased with yourself – proud of the rapid-fire pulsations of your intelligence and the undulations of your interpretive skills – read the first third of a Faulkner novel and then stop. Because after about 175 pages of Light in August I thought I had it ALL FIGURED OUT. I had this whole theory that chapter 7 was sort of an imagistic template for the entire novel and the earlier chapters “echo” the language in that chapter (“echo” would seem to be the wrong word, unless you know that chapter 7 is a flashback that takes place well before chapters 1-5 (but not chapter 6, which is also a flashback), so chapter 7 actually contains language that foreshadows the language in chapters 1-5. Chapter 7 does a lot to explain where Joe Christmas gets his stubbornness, his inability to vocalize any emotions, and his aversion to prayer – and my theory was that just as the incidents in chapter 7 are key to understanding Joe Christmas as a character, the language and imagery in this chapter (which includes lots of references to “light” and “dark” and “August”) is key to understanding the imagery in the novel as a whole. And after reading the rest of the novel, I don’t necessarily think this theory is wrong – I just think it is enormously irrelevant. It’s like getting all the way to the end of The Grapes of Wrath and still wanting to talk about the symbolism of the turtle in chapter 2. Yes, the turtle IS a symbol of the Joad family and other poor migrants like them, but after everything that comes after it, who the hell really cares?
This novel is totally overwhelming on every level. As far as I am concerned, the fact that I was surprised when this book made our teacher throw up is proof that I didn’t read it very carefully back then. Because this is the kind of novel that can loosen sphincters. I keep thinking about those studies about how listening to music by different composers changes people’s brainwaves – and I think there’s a similar study about how reading Proust can produce measurable changes in a person’s neurology – and I’d love to see a study on how reading Faulkner impacts a person’s physiology. I have a feeling that whoever conducted the study would have to take a trip to Costco first to stock up on wet-wipes.
I do have some thoughts about the structure of this novel, though, in spite of the fact that it does everything it can to resist that kind of analysis. As I read the (extremely anticlimactic) last two chapters, I began to think of this novel as a series of embedded circles. The center of the circle is the part of the plot that contains Joe Christmas. Joe Christmas doesn’t appear in the novel until page 79 (and even then he is only incidental to the larger plot of Lena’s attempt to find Lucas Burch), and he is absent from the last two chapters. This inner circle includes the stories of the McEacherns, Bobbie and the various pimps and prostitutes in her social milieu, the dietician at the orphanage and her paramour Charley, Joanna Burden and her extended family, and the sick, twisted Doc Hines and his long-suffering wife – as well as Grimm, who shows up in chapter 19 for no reason that I can discern except to be a nutjob and to castrate Joe Christmas. All of these characters are present in the novel only because of the ways they impact the story of Joe Christmas.
Moving outward from the center, the next circle is the part of the plot that concerns Hightower. I probably never would have thought of this theory of the circles in the first place if I hadn’t spent so much time wondering why Faulkner felt he needed to provide 30 pages of exposition on the history of Hightower’s family in the second-to-last chapter of the book. Overall, Hightower is treated in some detail in chapter 3 and in chapter 20 – in the rest of the novel he mostly disappears and is, at best, mentioned occasionally. Hightower is “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma” (to quote Churchill’s famous characterization of the Russians) – and the biggest riddle at all, as far as I’m concerned, is why he’s in the novel at all. We know that he never really felt a strong calling to be a minister in Jefferson but that he only moved to Jefferson so he could buy a house that looked out over the street where his grandfather died – and that he is obsessed with the sound made by the hooves of the horses that his grandfather and his fellow Confederate soldiers rode (even though Hightower’s grandfather didn’t die on horseback or even in battle – he was shot by a woman while stealing chickens from a henhouse) – and his house provides the scene of Joe Christmas’ death. More importantly, he provides a source of advice for Byron Bunch – but more on that later.
Oh, and one more thing: Hightower is fat – as Faulkner tells us at least a hundred times in this novel, and every time with absolutely brilliant eloquence. A writer could spend an entire career trying to describe a fat person even once with as much grandiloquence as Faulkner summons in every other sentence of the chapters in which Hightower appears. I mean, let’s give credit where credit is due: the guy can describe fat people like nobody’s business.
Finally, the outer circle is the story of Lena’s search for Lucas Burch (who is known for most of the novel by his alias, Joe Brown). In chapters 1 and 2, Lena walks from Alabama to Jefferson, Mississippi while in the late stages of pregnancy, finally ending her journey at the planing mill where Brown works and where Byron Bunch meets Lena and promptly falls in love with her. At the end of the novel, Lena’s baby has been born and she has taken to the road again to look for Brown – this time with Byron following haplessly along. Just to make things even more baffling, the last chapter of the novel is narrated by a traveling furniture salesman who appears out of nowhere to narrate the final chapter. He gave Bunch and Lena a ride in his wagon and camped with them overnight, and in the last chapter he is home again and is trying to entertain his wife (and also entice her into bed with some kind of weird foreplay) by telling her about how Lena thwarted Byron’s sexual advances during the night when they were all camping together. The fact that the novel ends where it begins is obviously relevant. So much has happened – fires, beheadings, whippings, kidnappings, castrations, murdering people with chairs – yet at the same time nothing has happened, since the novel ends on the same central reality on which it begins: that of a woman and her child (unborn at the beginning, born at the end) roaming the country blithely and optimistically searching for the child’s father.
The unifying element of these three plots (or circles) is the idea of generations. Joe Christmas is supposedly an “isolato,” but in fact he is not isolated at all: on the contrary, his grandmother has grieved his loss for over thirty years, and his grandfather was so obsessed with his hatred for Joe’s African-American blood that he spent five years of his life working as a janitor in an orphanage just so he could make sure that Joe learned of his ancestry in time to grow up knowing of his mixed-race origins (otherwise, presumably, he would have been relatively happy and lacking in a conflicted identity – or at least as far as a child in an orphanage can ever be these things – and that, according to his crazy grandfather, would be too good a fate for him).
Almost every character in this novel is obsessed with either his/her ancestors or with his/her progeny. The exception, of course, is Byron Bunch. While Faulkner gifts us with extensive backstory on even the most insignificant characters, he gives us nothing on Byron Bunch. We don’t know where he comes from (only that he is not native to Jefferson), and he has very little connection to anyone in town, except Hightower, whom he visits once a week. He rents a room in the boarding house, and until Lena arrives in town the most interesting thing he ever does is work overtime at the mill every Saturday afternoon. We don’t know anything about his ancestry, and at the end of the novel he is “in love with” Lena and determined to follow her everywhere she goes, in spite of the fact that she rebuffs his attempts to have sex with her – indicating that he is likely to go forward without progeny as well.
So in other words, the real “isolato” of this novel is not Joe Christmas – it’s Byron Bunch.
Byron Bunch is also the only character who intersects in meaningful ways with all three circles of the plot. He is the stage-manager of this novel. He takes an immediate interest (romantic and otherwise) in Lena when she arrives. He has a weekly routine of visiting Hightower on Sundays for reasons that Faulkner never really reveals to us. He works with Christmas at the mill and seems to view him relatively objectively and fairly, and he tries (unsuccessfully) to conspire to save Christmas by persuading Hightower to lie to the sheriff to give him an alibi. Alone among the characters in this novel, he seems to be motivated by neither hate, prejudice, nor insanity. I’m even cautiously willing to say that he’s motivated by love – not just the romantic love that he claims to feel for Lena but by a generous, Christian-style love of humanity that is otherwise profoundly lacking in the world of this novel.
If the novel is a solar system, Byron is a comet. He’s a pattern-breaker and a boundary-crosser. If the novel is an atom, then Byron is a rogue electron that hops from one energy level to the other at will.
But scratch that – because Byron Bunch is way too boring to ever be a rogue electron.
That’s the irony of Faulkner, isn’t it? There is exactly one character in this novel who is both decent and sane, and Faulkner manages to make him the most unappealing character in the book. Goodness in this novel is plodding and boring and the color of dust; it works overtime when everyone else goes off to play poker and doesn’t dawdle on the job even when there’s no one around to notice. But I do think that the fact that he intersects with each of the three main plots is significant. Lena (who is good but completely divorced from reality – we get the impression that at some point after the novel ends she’ll probably be eaten by a wolf) drifts in a form of Brownian motion. Joe Christmas drifts for a while too, but he also nests; we know that he lives “as husband and wife” for a while with Joanna Burden and also with at least one other woman. Lucas Burch moves as if he’s been shot out of a cannon: first to get as far away from Lena as possible, and later, in pursuit of the thousand-dollar reward he thinks he can win for proving Christmas guilty of the murder of Joanna Burden. Doc Hines and Hightower are burrowers; they curl up into fetal positions of their own hate (Hines) and insanity (Hightower) as if their bodies were self-contained magnets. Only Byron Bunch – dowdy, boring Byron Bunch – seems to possess the ability to move forward with purpose, dignity, and courage in a direction that makes any kind of sense.
So those are my thoughts about how the various plots of this novel fit together. There is SO much more I could say – I haven’t even begun to mine the riches of Faulkner’s language (“mine the riches” – did you hear that? PAT CONROY MONTH! is just around the corner, people!) or his Biblical allusions or his use of doubling or how he manages to define marriage as “two shadows chained together by the shadow of a chain” (480) and get away with it. If I had the patience, I could go through the novel and simply copy down every passage that I marked with a star or with words WOW or SHEESH or HOLY SHIT – and this chain of loosely connected bursts of language would still be more worth reading than 99% of the books that are on the shelves of your local Barnes and Noble. But instead I think I’ll loop around in the direction that my posts about the AP English Challenge always seem to take: teaching and learning.
There is absolutely no way that a seventeen year-old is ready for this book. (I have met seventeen year-olds who have appreciated Faulkner, by the way – but not many.) However, I do understand why it’s worth putting on an AP syllabus – even though just the idea of teaching this novel makes me want to vomit and makes me wonder how Fr. Murphy managed to restrain himself to only throwing up once – and, for me, this novel is worth teaching for the way that it talks back and forth with so many other major works that I have taught in the past and would want to teach in an A.P. course. For me, this novel belongs on a syllabus side by side with Invisible Man and Song of Solomon – not only because all three of them concern race (and I am not 100% convinced that Light in August “concerns race” as much as we all think it does – race seems very much beside the point throughout much of this novel, for the same reasons that race has always seemed irrelevant in Othello) but also because of the way both Ellison and Morrison take the raw materials of Faulkner’s language and circular narration and trust-me-we’ll-get-there exposition and both pay homage to it and reinvent it for their own purposes. As far as I can remember, I never had a teacher who talked to me about the way authors influence one another until I was in graduate school (although I encountered the idea of influence on my own – reading articles by John Irving about his love for Dickens, etc). In fact, I had a question on my comps in grad school asking me to explain Hemingway’s statement that “all of American literature flows out of Huckleberry Finn,” and I remember thinking that the process of explaining this statement thoroughly could take up a person’s entire literary education (or at least 75% of it – the remainder could be reserved for Shakespeare and a few other token Brits). In my own teaching I’ve found that students respond extremely well to discussions of how authors talk back and forth to one another – I don’t think the topic is too advanced for high school students at all; in fact, I have a feeling that the reason some teachers don’t teach students about influence is because they think it’s too obvious – but it isn’t, not at all.
Inside the front cover of my copy of Light in August, I wrote, “Why, why, WHY didn’t we study this novel side-by-side with The House of the Spirits?” Because the focus on the lingering effects of hatred and violence upon successive generations of a single family is all over the place in Allende’s novel, and while I’ve never read anything Allende has written about her influences, I know that Gabriel Garcia Marquez has said that he would never have written at all if it hadn’t been for what he learned from Faulkner about how to tell stories using circular time. On the contrary, I am pretty sure that our A.P. English course packed this novel right smack between Great Expectations and Paradise Lost.
WHAT?? you ask. I know.
And for lack of anything wiser to say next: THE END. And by all means, read this book, but don’t be surprised if midway through you start sucking your thumb.