August 22, 2008

The CCLaP 100: "The Sound and the Fury," by William Faulkner

(Over the next two years, I am writing an ongoing series of essays here that I call the "CCLaP 100," whereby I read for the first time a hundred books considered by many to be classics, and then write reports here on whether or not I think they deserve this title. For the complete list of books, as well as an explanation behind how the list was compiled, you can click here.)

The Sound and the Fury, by William Faulkner
The Sound and the Fury (1929)
By William Faulkner
Book #22 in this essay series

The story in a nutshell:
Published in 1929, right at the height of early Modernism's popularity, William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury shares many of the same traits of other cutting-edge novels from the period; like Henry Miller's and Virginia Woolf's early work, for example, it too relies heavily on the then-new literary experiment known as "stream of consciousness," while like the work from that period by Ernest Hemingway and F Scott Fitzgerald it concerns itself mostly with the youth of the so-called "Jazz Age" or "Lost Generation," and how a rapidly changing American society was suddenly starting to see itself in the 20th century. So it might be surprising, then, to learn that the actual storyline of this book is quite a bit different than any of these others; instead of it being about jaded hipsters in big cities, Faulkner's tale is actually about a genteel family in the deep South, a highly dysfunctional family that is slowly falling into ruin among the spooky confines of their old plantation, a milieu that has become so popular over the years that it's now known as its own subgenre called "Southern Gothic."

Specifically, the story concerns the badly-fated Compson family, once big muckety-mucks in Mississippi during the antebellum years (i.e. the years before the Civil War), now a loose collection of misfits and losers trying to hold on to whatever little still remains of the family's squandered fortune and dignity. There is the pessimistic, defeated patriarch, for example, the alcoholic sociopath Jason Compson III; there is the cringing nerd and traditional dandy son Quentin; there is his brother Jason, bitter and miserly and ready to screw over anyone around him in order to secure his own financial future; there is their sexually promiscuous sister Candace (or "Caddy"), mother of an illegitimate child who is eventually shunned by the dupe who had been tricked into marrying her; there is the violent, retarded man-child Benjamin, deeply autistic and prone to physical attacks whenever his daily routine is interrupted in even the slightest way; and then there is Dilsey Gibson, the black matriarch of the former-slave, now-servant family that oversees and maintains the crumbling estate, pretty much the only sane one out of the whole bunch. The book itself, then, is an experimental look at a thirty-year period of this family and all the terrible, terrible, terrible things that happen to all of them; the novel is written in four parts, each from the viewpoint of a different character, each of them freely hopping back and forth in time without letting the reader know when it's doing so.

The argument for it being a classic:
Although living a fascinating life himself*, the main argument for The Sound and the Fury being a classic seems to be the actual book, not necessarily the author; because this is yet again another one of those revered books from the early Modernist period, one of those novels that fans call an unabashed masterpiece and shining example of the best this medium has to offer. Because the fact, fans claim, is that Faulkner actually succeeds at two wildly different things here, a microcosm for why his entire ouevre is so loved in the first place; he not only tells a powerful, dark, sweeping tale of history and culture, a withering look at a defeated people in the years immediately after they were defeated, but does so using a mastery over and playfulness of language that had barely ever been seen in literature before, certainly barely ever seen again. So in other words, argue its fans, it's what we call a "seminal" project, one of the first projects in a particular artistic medium to show what exactly can be done with that medium artistically, when the artist is determined and the audience savvy enough to follow along. As a result, then, it was books like these and the others mentioned above that finally led the general public to consider the novel format capable of legitimate art, of legitimate greatness, versus it mostly being thought of before these years as primarily a medium for mindless popular entertainment. (Think of how we today perceive videogames; that gives you a good idea of how most people perceived novels before the rise of early Modernism and authors like Faulkner.)

The argument against:
Of course, as I've mentioned here before, this entire series of developments can be flipped on its head if you want; you could argue, for example, that it was precisely authors like Faulkner and precisely books like The Sound and the Fury that ultimately ruined the novel format, that turned it into the elitist artsy-fartsy academically-obsessed pursuit it now is. It was these exact authors who first stood up in public and said that novels could be works of art too, just like any painting or epic poem; but the necessary second half of such a statement, of course, is, "And oh yeah, you're going to have to go to college and academically study these books, if you want to understand what we're arguing. That's what we mean, after all, when we say these books are legitimate works of art -- we mean that they're deep and complex enough that college students can actually analyze them, that professors can actually base entire classes off them." And thus slowly over the next 50 years, along with such things as the rise in popularity of literary awards, the explosive growth of American college graduates and the like, did all this morph into what's been the reality of the literary world since the rise of postmodernism in the '70s; a world where you must own a Masters of Fine Arts before most publishing companies will even take you seriously, a world where novels are becoming less and less relevant to the general population by the day.

My verdict:
So let me admit, I have a terrible confession to make today; that out of the 22 books I've now reviewed for this essay series, this is only the second I wasn't able to actually finish (the other being the 2,200-year-old Republic by Plato). And the reason I couldn't finish it, frankly, is exactly for the Modernist stream-of-consciousness style that it's so well-known for -- because frankly, although I think the style has its strengths when used with a light touch, I also think it's a hacky unreadable mess when delved into with too much gusto, exactly what so many of the early Modernists did in their misguided zeal to just do anything new they possibly could. For example, take this paragraph from the book that I picked out just a moment ago, literally by flipping to a random page:

"Tell and be damned then see what it gets you if you were not a damned fool you'd have seen that I've got them too tight for any half-baked Galahad of a brother your mother's told me about your sort with your head swelled up come in oh come in dear Quentin and I were just getting acquainted talking about Harvard did you want me cant stay away from the old man can she..."

Yeah, now imagine 300 pages of that. Although I applaud the early Modernists for embracing all the experimental things they did, for wanting so passionately to break out of that flowery, narrative mindset that so dominated the Victorian era right before theirs, I think it's also important to admit that many of these experiments have turned out to be clunkers over time, that the 75 years that have passed since that time period have given us lots and lots and lots of chances to hone and refine such literature. Now, I can see why some people go so nuts for this book like they do, because let's remember that there are still a ton of people who love Faulkner's work with the burning glare of a thousand suns; for example, I loved quite a bit just part 1 of The Sound and the Fury, narrated from the viewpoint of the violently autistic Benjy, because in that case his disability mixed with this experimental writing style meshes really well. A little of this stuff goes a long way, though, which is possibly why Faulkner is actually a lot more well-known for his short stories than his full-length novels; I could see this style, for example, being exactly perfect for a 30- or 40-page story, especially while imagining Faulkner later in life and more on top of his form**. This is just not the case, though, with The Sound and the Fury, or at least in my opinion; it's definitely a historically important work, and Faulkner definitely an author any smart book-lover should be acquainted with, but I'm just not sure I would call this particular novel a must-read for the entire general population. Although the author gets a "yes" from me today regarding the question of classics, the book itself unfortunately does not.

Is it a classic? No

The next four books scheduled to be read:
Next Friday: Beloved, by Toni Morrison
In two Fridays: Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh
In three Fridays: The Secret Agent, by Joseph Conrad
In four Fridays: Ivanhoe, Sir Walter Scott

Read even more: Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

*For those who don't know, Faulkner had one of those personal lives that have since become synonymous with romantically tragic artists; lifelong alcoholic, bitter screenwriter in 1940s Hollywood, tortured genius whose talent was not generally recognized until well into his later years. Also for those who don't know, the prestigious PEN/Faulkner Award is not just named for him, but was actually founded and funded by him, using the money he received in 1949 for winning the Nobel Prize. It's for all these reasons and more that Faulkner's personal life is as famous and studied as his actual work.

**It's important to remember, of course, that The Sound and the Fury was one of the first novels of Faulkner's career; in fact, it was part of a whole series of early experimental novels that remained mostly obscure until 1931, when publishing the dumbed-down yet popular bestseller Sanctuary, basically as a naked ploy to finally make some decent money as a writer. As with any artist with a long career, it's important to remember that Faulkner's work changed over the course of his life; and this is unfortunately where I simply come up short as a critic today, in that I've never read any of Faulkner's late work so cannot compare it today with this earlier novel. It's a situation I hope to remedy in the coming years, which of course is what this essay series is all about in the first place.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 1:47 PM, August 22, 2008. Filed under: CCLaP 100 | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |