Anyone who is considering what to read next, and is looking for a nice easy, pleasant, not too demanding summer holiday kind of book… should absolutely stay clear of William Faulkner’s novels!

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

This is the third of his novels that I have read (the other two being The Sounds and the Fury and Light in August) and they are all pretty challenging reads.

What makes me say this? Well, here are few facts about this particular novel, which might give you some idea.

Firstly, the novel is narrated by not one, not two, not three, but fifteen (yes, 15!) different characters. With this number it becomes difficult to remember who they all are and what their relation to one another is. (This is made even more difficult by the unusual names the characters have – names such as Addie, Anse, Armstid, Cash, Cora, Darl, Dewey Dell, Vardaman, and Vernon.)

Secondly, here, as elsewhere, Faulkner experiments with his own form of stream-of-consciousness writing, which is at times brilliant – but can also be quite difficult to follow. Often you can be bombarded with many different and often not terribly related thoughts in a single paragraph.

Thirdly, this novel, like most of his work, is set in the Deep South at the turn of the twentieth century, and so you have to train your ear to the dialect and its unique words and phrases.

Finally, the entire novel is about the death of one woman and the efforts of her family to get her buried. Yes, seriously.

Here is a sample extract to give you a flavour of the prose:

And now them others sitting there, like buzzards. Waiting, fanning themselves. Because I said If you wouldn’t keep on sawing and nailing at it until a man cant sleep even and her hands laying on the quilt like two of them roots dug up and tried to wash and you couldn’t get them clean. I can see the fan and Dewey Dell’s arm. I said if you’d just let her alone. Sawing and knocking, and keeping the air always moving so fast on her face that when you’re tired you cant breathe it, and that goddamn adze going One lick less. One lick less. One lick less until everybody that passes in the road will have to stop and see it and say what a fine carpenter he is. If it had just been me when Cash fell off of that church and if it had just been me when pa laid sick with that load of wood fell on him, it would not be happening with every bastard in the country coming in to stare at her because if there is a God what the hell is He for. It would just be me and her on a high hill and me rolling the rocks down the hill at their faces, picking them up and throwing them down the hill faces and teeth and all by God until she was quiet and not that goddamn adze going One lick less. One lick less and we could be quiet.

At this stage, you might be wondering why anyone would read, let alone enjoy reading As I Lay Dying.  However, like Faulkner’s other books, it is a rich and complex text, that does have much to offer. Ultimately, it is a study of one family and how each member reacts to the death of Addie in different ways.

Throughout the narrative, we learn of the conflicting desires, the fears, and the rivalries that exist amongst the clan. Whilst at times it is quite harrowing, at other points it is more like reading a black comedy. It is also very successful at creating a vivid, memorable landscape.

So, it’s one of those novels that I am glad that I’ve read, and one that I will remember. However, I think I’ll go for a somewhat easier read next!

Finally, a piece of trivia: Faulkner claimed that he wrote the novel from midnight to 4:00am over the course of six weeks while working at a power plant, and that he did not change a word of it. I doubt that this is the absolute strict truth, but even if it is broadly true it is an astonishing achievement. (Note to self: Perhaps I should get night work in a power plant…)

If you liked this, you might enjoy Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury or Light in August.