Book review: As I Lay Dying
It is July 1913 in the Mississippi countryside. Addie Bundren, a mother of five, is on her deathbed.
The eldest child, Cash, is bevelling up planks for the coffin, while his two brothers are on an errand, hurrying to make some much-needed money, then to get the mules-driven wagon home.
Anse, their father, has given his word to bury Addie in the town where she grew up. But, by the time the family is ready to set forth on their 40-miles ride, rains and floods have washed away bridges across swollen rivers.
William Faulkner’s first chronicler of life in the fictional Yoknapatawpha County — the setting for many of his later novels — relates the tale through 15 sets of eyes: each of the Bundren family members, and their (mostly) friends and neighbours, and Addie herself. This arrangement of multiple viewpoints, in describing the treachery of their passage, takes us also on a revealing journey deep through the characters’ minds.
A private and flawed woman, Addie was overtly partial to Jewel, her third-born, whom she conceived from an affair with a church minister. On discovering this, second son Darl was so overcome by jealous fury that he took to revenge through Dewey Dell, his sister, in a way their mother never came to know.
In the author’s mastery of the stream-of-consciousness technique and his known deployment of symbolism, the narrative in As I Lay Dying, even if it describes exquisitely those innermost feelings and coping mechanisms (especially of the youngest boy Vardaman), can be bewildering.
Like, amongst other obscurities, whether 17-year-old Dewey Dell pines for their 70-year-old doctor out of affection, or that he is seen only as a solution to her unwanted pregnancy, if indeed her pining is not because he is that solution (in a wild conflation of two emotions) is equivocal.
What is unequivocal, though, is Faulkner’s scathing indictment of the religious, and, by extension, religion as a whole: he casts Cora, Addie’s fellow country-sider and self-congratulatory Christian, as irrational, a contradiction, perceptibly blind and ridiculous in pride, with the novel pulling no punches either on the squalid hypocrisy of the minister who fathered Jewel and then (probably) Dewey Dell.
“I could just remember how my father used to say the reason for living was to get ready to stay dead a long time…” Addie thinks, and we begin to appreciate her partiality and witness the materialisation of her legacy when Jewel turns out to be the one to save their mother from the jaws of water then, risking his own life, to rescue the coffin single-handedly out of enveloping flames, and meanwhile protecting the Bundrens from further indebtedness and more shame.
In Faulkner’s county, men, despite preferring women to be lesser than them, seem confused about what their wives want. Respectful in some regards, husbands are baffled by the spouses who in turn feel invariably hard-done by in the sprawling rural-scapes.
Here, where country folks harbour a life-long inferiority complex to town residents, there is as much fraternal helpfulness (begrudging or not) as there are freeloaders, like Anse.
Pervading the book, like miasma in the hilly dusk, is a sense of things ending without departure, of illusions of motion, people who are dead but do not yet know they have died, or being detached from themselves.
“It’s like there was a fellow in every man that’s done a-past the sanity or the insanity, that watches the sane and insane doings of that man with the same horror and the same astonishment.” Cash thinks, when Darl is sent away to an asylum, unconvinced anybody ought to judge what is madness, what not, questioning if Darl’s attempts to burn their decomposing mother is that crazy, after all.
Faulkner’s prose steeped in vernacular is strangely mellifluous and certain passages are utterly breathtaking. But it is his acute capacity for social observation and powers of imagination with an implacable eye for the nuanced human conduct (and blood traits) that put me under his spell.