Mystery/suspense has been for most of my life the predominant ingredient in my reading diet, but recently I realized that I was—temporarily, I’m sure—satiated with that sort of tale. Thus, I took a break to read some mainstream and literary fiction.

William Faulkner has been a literary hero of mine since I first discovered his work when I was in my late teens, more years ago than I like to think about. It occurred to me that I hadn’t read a Faulkner novel in over thirty years. I’ve had a copy of As I Lay Dying languishing on my bookshelf for longer than that. It was time to read it.

Consisting of very short chapters and told in the first person by multiple narrators, it tells the story of the Bundren family, the kind of quirky brood—to put it charitably—common in Faulkner’s work. The matriarch, Addie, is dying, and has exacted a promise from her shiftless, self-seeking  husband Anse to bury her at her family’s plot in Jefferson, Mississippi.

There are five Bundren children, four boys and one girl. Cash is the serene, acceptant,  industrious one. Darl has the greatest clarity about the world which his siblings may never achieve, but that very clarity is what eventually drives him over the edge. Jewel is intense, angry, ready to lash out at almost anyone, but probably not certain why. Vardaman is the youngest, a child incapable of fully understanding death and unable to confront it rationally. The daughter, Dewey Dell, old enough for sexual activity but fearful of its consequences, is more concerned about finding an abortifacient than in mourning her mother.

The trip from the Bundren homestead to Jefferson is not a short one, and it’s complicated by torrential rains that cause rivers to overflow and bridges to collapse—bridges the Bundrens must cross to reach their ultimate destination.

Most of Faulkner’s work was somber and grave, but he could be very funny when he wanted to be. As I Lay Dying is tonally very dark, as befits its characters and their situations. But though related with grim seriousness, some of its incidents will strike readers as comical because they’re absurd or verge on the absurd. (In different hands they might well have been described in a slapstick manner.) Some readers may not see the humor in the events while they’re experiencing them; they’ll realize them retrospectively. Ultimately, they’ll come to understand that in this novel, Faulkner melded thematic sobriety with dark comedy.

Considered among Faulkner’s finest novels, As I Lay Dying is—typical of this author—a demanding read, most notably in the chapters narrated by Darl and Vardaman, but also in chapters related by others, who sound as if they were speaking directly and intimately to readers who’d immediately comprehend what they’re describing, whether it’s an event, a sensation, or a reaction. It is not, however, as difficult a read as The Sound and the Fury (my personal candidate for the great American novel of the 20th Century) or Absalom, Absalom! (which years ago I read a little more than half of before deciding it was turgid melodrama I didn’t care about and gave up on). I first discovered Faulkner in the short story “Dry September,” the style of which captivated me—blew me away, actually, and got me hooked on the author. (It’s a brilliant, classic short story I urge you to seek out and read if you haven’t done so.) Although Faulkner wrote several more straightforward novels, As I Lay Dying might very well be the most accessible of his acknowledged great works. If you’re new to Faulkner, this is the major novel to start with.

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