***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***
One-Sentence Summary: I labored over this short book, wondered whether it was the product of genius, or arrogance and pretension, but ultimately felt enriched by reading it.
Really, this is the most difficult book I've ever read. I had to pore over many sentences several times. Several times. Like difficult poetry, I could sometimes glean the impression Faulkner was trying to leave me with, without understanding the specifics of what he was saying. It's a fascinating, disconcerting experience to understand each of the words but not figure out exactly what they mean! For instance:
How do our lives ravel out into the no-wind, no-sound, the weary gestures wearily recapitulant: echoes of old compulsions with no-hand on no-strings: in sunset we fall into furious attitudes, dead gestures of dolls. (Darl, p. 207)
After a few readings I could palpably feel Darl's exhaustion, and the sensation of being a puppet with no master (which I believe ultimately leads Darl to a desperate act), but when the imagery is this dense throughout the whole book, it's like a workout for your brain.
Characters speak their chapters in a sort of stream-of-consciousness, but with language and vocabulary that they couldn't possess in real life. Darl, in particular, who voices the most chapters, uses words I had to look up, like "proscenium," and some constructed words that aren't in the dictionary, like "uninferant." Vardaman, who is a neglected country child no older than ten, who mostly speaks in half-completed sentences, at one point bursts forth with:
It is as though the dark were resolving [Jewel's horse] out of his integrity, into an unrelated scattering of components--snuffings and stampings; smells of cooling flesh and ammoniac hair; an illusion of a coordinated whole of splotched hide and strong bones within which, detached and secret and familiar, an is different from my is. (Vardaman, p. 56)
Of course Faulkner knew that the boy not only couldn't speak like that, he couldn't think like that. So why is it there? In this case, after struggling with it, I decided that either I'm not smart enough to know or Faulkner made a tactical error--one or the other.
Even descriptions were elusive:
...it is as though the space between us were time: an irrevocable quality. It is as though time, no longer running straight before us in a diminishing line, now runs parallel between us like a looping string, the distance being the doubling accretion of the thread and not the interval between. (Darl, p. 146)
And some things just don't add up, but I wasn't sure I figured out why. Addie has four children by Anse: Cash, Darl, Dewey Dell, and Vardaman. She has one child by Minister Whitfield, Jewel. She explains that after she had Jewel:
I gave Anse Dewey Dell to negative [i.e. negate the bastard] Jewel. Then I gave him Vardaman to replace the child I had robbed him of [which is slippery logic, and implicitly assumes--or informs us--she never otherwise would have slept with Anse again]. And now he has three children that are his and not mine. (Addie, p. 176)
So, Miss Addie, which exactly are the three children? Cash, Darl, and Vardaman? Is this a way of showing us that Dewey Dell, the girl, means nothing to her father, she may as well not exist? Or does it mean that Dewey Dell, the girl, is always her mother's daughter and thus belongs to Addie?
Addie and Anse. Addie Bundren requested pretty early in her marriage to be buried with the rest of her extended family in the town of Jefferson. Her motives are not familial loyalty (her family is all dead)--she makes the request after her second child is born and she is feeling both alone and violated: "...my revenge would be that he would never know I was taking revenge." Anse Bundren, her husband, is determined to honor her burial wish--in fact, uncharacteristically determined, according to all of his neighbors, who think of him as a lazy sumnabitch. His own son Darl says, "I have never seen a sweat stain on his shirt." (p. 17) And then we discover, in a cruel twist, that Anse has used Addie's burial journey to secure his second wife.
In this way, the book was painful, thematically, for me. Addie Bundren is an isolated, miserable woman who has agreed to marry Anse perhaps as a way of escape, only to find herself imprisoned, and not understanding the implications of her confinement ahead of time. She's not likable--she's stunted and withdrawn and mean--so that you're both repulsed by her and pitying. Meanwhile Anse is a quiet man who has a squicky underbelly: he somehow induces other people to take care of him, and we're to presume that his wife, his neighbors, and his sons and daughter have allowed him to never break a sweat. Despite Anse's frequent mantra in the book, "God knows, I wouldn't be beholden. God knows" (p. 206), and his avowal that he will pay for every emergency item they need along the way because he doesn't "begrudge it" of Addie, he in fact takes advantage of everyone around him, and he has already put Addie firmly in his past. Addie's secret punishment was to be this horrific journey to Jefferson--so beautifully disastrous--and yet Anse comes out of it with a new wife and new teeth, ready to start over. Darl has been discarded. Cash will be permanently impaired by it. Jewel's beloved horse has been sold. Dewey Dell has the future birth of an unwanted child to deal with. And Anse? The head of this whole mess? Well, Anse has a new, duck-shaped wife to take care of him.
Characterization. This fascinating book unraveled the personalities of the players in short chapters told in first person by fifteen different characters--some of them only brief observers of the harrowing trek the Bundren family took to the cemetery. And man, is the Bundren family dysfunctional. Jewel, Addie's overt favorite, cares only about the horse that he secretly bought himself (though we get a peek, in his single chapter, of his desire to be alone with his mother, in a way that makes her doting on him seem as if it damaged him); Anse has his own selfish agenda, as we learn by the end; Dewey Dell has an agenda of her own (to abort her fetus) and a self-hatred that manifests itself in a hatred of Darl for having figured out her affair with Lafe; Cash is pliant to the point of giving up a limb; Vardaman is a young boy adrift, with no support or stability from the others, sometimes appearing nearly feral.
Richness of emotion. There were moments that were simply horrifying, as when Anse, Darl, and Jewel pour concrete on Cash's broken leg to stabilize it for the rest of the trip, despite being warned by the hardware store owner DO NOT DO THIS. There were deep commentaries on the darkness of people's internal thoughts, as when Addie talks about hating the children she taught in school, and preferring Jewel to the children fathered by Anse, and the neighbors uncharitable thoughts about Cash's obsession with building the coffin (an obsession I understood and found profoundly moving), Anse's laziness, and Darl's oddness. In fact, how hellishly people can treat each other--even people who are family--creates a chronic feeling of alarm and discomfort throughout the book. Addie's using the switch on her "dirty snuffling nose" students, perhaps until they bled; Anse's theft of Jewel's horse and Dewey Dell's ten dollars for his own purposes; Lafe coldly giving Dewey Dell the ten dollars for an abortion; Dewey Dell turning Darl in for starting the barn fire; the drugstore worker coercing/exploiting Dewey Dell into having sex with him; Whitfield, the minister, relieved that Addie died without giving him away. It's saying something that the shrill, Bible-thumping Cora Tull is one of the more sensible characters in the book. So many people are so horrible, you sort of empathize with Darl setting the barn on fire, perhaps in a desperate attempt to insert change into his life, to stick a wrench in the mechanics of the out-of-control merry go-round.
At the end, the doctor who is treating Cash's infected leg sums up the Bundren dilemma: "God almighty, why didn't Anse carry you to the nearest sawmill and stick your leg in the saw? That would have cured it. Then you all could have stuck his head into the saw and cured a whole family..." (Peabody, p. 240)
Existentialism. There were also difficult existential meditations, perhaps de rigueur in a book about death, but sometimes so hard to understand. For instance, Vardaman's near chant that "my mother is a fish." The fish is dead, and his mother is dead, ergo his mother is a fish. It's such an abstract thought--beautifully young, but also ancient and philosophical and slightly unreachable for the reader.
Darl's explanation of his mother's absence and how it reflects on his own being echoes these questions of the meaning of life:
"Then what is your ma, Darl?" I said.
"I haven't got ere one," Darl said. "Because if I had one, it is was. And if it was, it can't be is. Can it?"
"No," I said.
"Then I am not," Darl said. "Am I?" (Vardaman, p. 101)
Phew! No sir, this is not an uplifting book. It's difficult to understand, line by line, and painful to comprehend, emotionally. Perhaps Addie's father's expression sums up the tone of the book perfectly: "the reason for living was to get ready to stay dead a long time." Addie, in her misery, never experienced the positive spin on that expression: the fact of dying makes living something sweet, to be savored.