As I Lay Dying
Earlier this year I attended a company-wide event intended to help a geographically dispersed staff function better. Similar events probably take place all over the world daily.
With the best of intentions, the meeting organizer invited all present to introduce themselves, talk about their role and tell everyone what book(s) they were reading. And so just like that, an event meant to engender unity began by dividing those present into two groups.
Sadly, it was the readers who seemed not to notice.
I bring all this up not because in a noble moment I alone noticed the error, but because I failed miserably at trying to fix it. The only thing worse than dividing people is a bad joke and I’m now certain that wordplay with the titles of novels won’t make non-readers feel suddenly well-read. Lesson learned.
If you’re interested, the novels dragooned into the service of failed humor were the Fitzgerald we recently talked about and this short masterpiece. While I am immersed in filling in gaps in my reading, this is a repeat. At some point before I completed college I went on a Faulkner tear, attacking his novels as a plow would the deep rich soil of Yoknapatawpha County
And then I stopped, although that was less about Faulkner and more about fiction.
So here I am, back again with the Bundren family and while I failed to notice a few of their misadventures the first time around, they remain a singular bunch. At the outset, Addie Bundren is on her deathbed, while her oldest son, Cash, works on building her coffin. The rest of the family is caught in the twilight state that marks a death watch.
Although death has been a regular visitor since I was a tot, I had not yet buried a parent when I first read this novel. And so I read without recognizing how uncannily accurate the mood was. The tension, the sadness, the fear, the withdrawal, as if a wholesale retreat into oneself can spare one from the unique pain of a mother’s (and wife’s) departure from this life.
There are lots of Bundrens and the narration shifts between them. All five children–in addition to Cash there are three other boys (Darl , Jewel and Vardaman) and one girl, Dewey Dell–have their say, as does Anse, the soon-to-be widower. Over the course of the novel a number of secondary players pipe in, but mostly we hear from the Bundrens.
Isn’t that always how it is? The family collapses in on itself but no one notices at first. The distracting urgency of funeral arrangements and funerary rituals consumes everyone’s emotional energy. Action occurs without thinking, or feeling, until the time for activity has passed and all you are left with is each other, your pain and the hole in your lives. I don’t think it matters whether your family is picture-perfect or a mess the void is the same.
The Bundrens, it’s obvious from the outset, are far from picture-perfect. Jewel is forever on the cusp of disappearing, the un-Bundren who in reality is the bastard offspring of Addie’s affair with Reverend Whitfield, a secret she takes to her grave. Darl is, in the vernacular of the time, crazy and going more insane over the nine days the book describes event though his voice appears most often.
Vardaman is a child (he is the youngest Bundren) trying to make sense of his world and the violent disruption he’s experiencing. Dewey Dell is the remaining source of maternal energy who harbors a terrible secret of her own. Anse presents as a man so single-minded that if the word didn’t already exist they’d invent ‘stubborn’ to describe him. Anse, I’m certain, would prefer dutiful.
The tale itself is concerned more with the aftermath of death than dying. Anse has promised to take Addie home to Jefferson to be buried with her people. What should be a trip of a day or so turns into a mini-Odyssey. Their homeland seems to be actively conspiring to deny the Bundren family their final duty and remaining dignity.
With bridges washed out by flood waters and roads impassable from the same risen waters, the Bundrens push forward. As they go, they prove impervious to advice and even, at times, hospitality. Horror and high comedy make common cause as the Bundrens ford a flooded river, briefly losing Addie’s coffin and Cash’s tools to the floodwaters. (Those tools mean something I’m certain, but I’m too dim to understand what.) Cash himself ends up riding in the wagon next to and sometimes atop the coffin he’s built for his mother, his leg broken and ultimately cast in concrete.
All this takes time and what should be a relatively quick journey of a day or so ends up taking nine days. Addie’s essence, shall we say, precedes her. In the countryside, that leads to tongue-wagging. By the time they get to Jefferson the perfume makes the rural-urban divide tangible, even if that divide in early 20th century Mississippi constitutes a smaller gap than that between, say, Mississippi and Manhattan.
It would be too easy, and wrong I think, to assign roles, motivations and significance to every narrator. I think the art here lies in telling this story from so many angles, from leaving in the ambiguities, from the very idea that there isn’t just a story but that there are multiple stories and these stories intersect with even more stories and so on.
As a younger reader, I recognized what made this novel different. Some decades on I recognize its quiet power and artistic mastery. And that is a lesson worth learning.
READER BONUS: The Vintage paperback edition contains the corrected text found in the Library of America edition.