As I Lay Dying

 As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

This is my second Faulkner, after reading The Sound and the Fury a few years ago. I greatly admire his writing, but yikes is he intense! I had to keep coming up for air, but it was worth it. His characters are mesmerizing, so real it's easy to forget you're reading fiction. And his stream-of-consciousness writing gets you so into their heads that it's calming in a way and disturbing in another. It's absolutely brilliant, but it is not light reading. 

The story is about a poor, rural family in Mississippi, the Bundrens. I want to say they're dysfunctional because they surely do have their peculiarities, I'm just not sure what "normal" means anymore and I'm not sure all families aren't dysfunctional in their own ways. 

The dying mother, Addie, lays in bed listening to the sound of hammering and sawing drift in through the window as her son, Cash, builds her coffin in the yard. This slightly unsettling picture sets the tone for the rest of the novel.

When Addie dies, her husband, Anse, sets out with their children, Cash, Darl, Jewel, Dewey Dell, and Vardaman to take Addie's body to her hometown of Jefferson, Mississippi where she has asked to be buried. They are beset with all kinds of problems on the journey, often brought on, or at least exacerbated by, their own actions or inactions. Sometimes I was deeply moved by these characters; other times I wanted to shake some sense into them. 

I found the story a little confusing in the beginning so I looked up a plot summary and made a character list to keep all the narrators - there are 15 of them - sorted out. That gave me a better idea of what was happening and a sense of where the story was going. Once I got situated, I could see how each character's personality was being revealed as the narration switched to one to the other. Faulkner's characterizations are utterly fascinating.

These are some of my favourite lines:

"I don't know if a little music ain't about the nicest thing a fellow can have."

"Cash is wet to the skin. Yet the motion of the saw has not faltered, as though it and the arm functioned in a tranquil conviction that rain was an illusion of the mind."

"I am the chosen of the Lord, for who He love, so doeth He chastiseth. But I be firm if He don't take some curious ways to show it, seems like."

To read As I Lay Dying, as with The Sound and The Fury, is to be pulled into a storm of feeling and turmoil that leaves you a little disoriented when it's over, but also leaves you astonished that the author could do all that with just words. Simply amazing.


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