Reviewing the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century
by Annette Ferran
As I Lay Dying
To me, one of the most satisfying novels on the Modern Library’s list and one my favorites from its prolific author, William Faulkner, is As I Lay Dying (#35). Its chief appeals are its black humor and modernist experimental style. “As I lay dying,” you can hear the unfortunate Addie Bundren say, “Just look what all these idiots around me were doing.” In the seriousness of their endeavors, they succumb to ludicrous situations. And in their ridiculousness they unveil a great world.
The story is told as first-person narrative from a rotating cast of about 15 characters. Their intellectual acumen is varied. Some are very young. Some have a loose grip on sanity. Some are obsessive. Some are fairly wise and grounded at moments. Some are selfish. Some are always striving to do the right thing. Some have big secrets. Some have a marvelous way with words. Many of the characters we learn about through others before hearing from them directly.
The dying woman, though the story pivots around her, appears in her own voice in only one passage more than halfway through the book. Her passage is, among other things, a meditation on words. It is a poetical articulation of what Faulkner does in this novel through strings of words, dialect, punctuation and italics that add up to repeated immersions into other people’s consciousnesses – like mind-melding sometimes, or like half-drowning in psychology, and sometimes like sensory overload, or like watching a high-rise being built or a sculpture emerge from a lump of clay. The story builds persistently. Understanding grows and blossoms. It comes back around to that note of black humor: after everything everyone has been through, the father shows up at the end (I won’t say in what circumstance) and you want to say on their behalf, “Are you kidding me?!”
The basic outline of the plot can be gathered only after a full reading of the book. Addie married Anse years ago and had several children. She lived with them away from where she grew up, and they understand that she wants to be buried back where she came from. So once she dies, they undertake to transport her body in a casket one of the sons made, in a wagon pulled by mules across some miles of landscape, including wild waters. They make it after several days, with the decaying body still in the wagon in the casket. What they’ve lost in the journey, and what they’ve contended with during it and before it are the juicy meat of the story.
Faulkner was a virtuoso and became a cultural icon. As cultural icon, later in his life, he was critiqued for not knowing personally enough of the actual people from whom the Civil Rights movement grew and around whom it swung. His astoundingly profound understanding of people, and his equally astounding ability to bring that understanding to life through words earned him that stature and with it the unreasonable expectations not bestowed on other writers. He wrote of the South; therefore, he should have been, in his writing, a political activist – like Steinbeck, perhaps. He fell short, in some eyes, of the obligation of a cultural contributor.
Faulkner as novelist is obliged only to know his own characters. In this aspect of the duties of novel-writing, Faulkner is the ultimate role-model. He has no peer in American literature thus far. His novels are fundamentally character studies, and this one is the prime example. The world is created by individual people and their individual stories meshing together even where the characters themselves pass each other by in communication and comprehension. It is, as an added bonus, funny and poignant and stylistically magical. It has a rhythm that rushes and slows and turns back on itself and rushes again. Each word, and each missing word, paints the landscape in which these people dwell. Each expression serves to fill out their living portraits.
Faulkner wrote to write, and this novel should be read to be read.
Annette Ferran lives in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, and works in Philadelphia as an editor for a medical publisher. She is also the Associate Editor for 10,000 Tons of Black Ink, a Literary Writers Network publication. She has a degree of dubious practical use, in German, and is a lifelong avid reader of fiction and lover of lists. She has had a few short stories published, most recently in RE:AL.