Expectations are double-edged swords. We usually associate them with fodder for disappointment, our hopes dashed to bitters and salt, our valuable time frittered to ashes for the wind to scatter. When I picked up my first sample of William Faulkner, THE SOUND AND THE FURY, I expected his incomparable reputation to welcome me with a fanfare of trumpets and rose petals on the ground. But the book’s southern fried stream of consciousness frustrated me and left me cold. LIGHT IN AUGUST largely moved me but also stretched beyond my tolerance.
But our expectation of disappointment is also an invitation to surprise, to sumptuous, revelatory surprise that collects, builds, and blooms into unforeseeable joy that makes us over anew. When I picked up AS I LAY DYING a week ago, I expected it to be more of a travail, one that would reinforce my respect for Faulkner but little more. I did not expect to read one of the best novels I’ve ever read, to have a transformative experience that would challenge my expectations of what a novel could be and what people are.
The book’s skin is little more than the journey of the Bundrens, a family of uneducated farmers in Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, to bury Addie Bundren, the family matriarch, in her hometown, several miles away. That’s it. Simple. But the Bundrens largely embrace simplicity, require it. It allows them to deal with a crushing existence of uncontrollable complexities. They can’t hope to grasp the political, economic, and cultural vicissitudes that conspire to cast them among the downtrodden. But they still want answers, answers to the Big Questions we all wrestle with. And they want answers they can hold in their hands. The simplest, easiest to hold is god. Some, like Cora Tull, cleave too strongly. Some, like Whitfield, not nearly enough. Some, like Cash, turn to personal integrity with steadfast, uncomplicated purity. Some, like his father Anse, pay integrity plenty of lip service while playing the victim to the hilt.
Faulkner doesn’t paint the struggle for purpose and meaning in soft, pliant pastels. Even its depiction is complex, with no set consequences for specific patterns of conduct. Anse cons the pious Addie into marrying him, only then revealing himself to be lazy, selfish, and vain. Meanwhile, Addie falls from her own lofty heights of grace and goes to her grave wracked with guilt. Darl’s wisdom exceeds his actual intellect. He recognizes the multifaceted anarchy of his life, but is undone by his inability to cope with it. Jewel is equally incapacitated within a metaphysical silence, but he resorts to action without contemplation. Thinking about it is just too frustrating, too frightening, yet he survives. Dewey Dell is blessed with a preternatural intuition she cannot rationalize. She knows, perhaps more than any other character, but cannot understand. Yet, you finish the book feeling that she too will survive, despite the hole that asshole Anse has unwittingly dug for her.
Faulkner reveals deep sympathy and empathy for his characters. He structures the book so that each chapter tells a part of the story from one character’s unique perspective (Think A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE, younger readers). But Faulkner also grants those characters the agency to speak in their own voice. The care he takes, crafting each voice with an individual patois and sensibility that we are quick to recognize, speaks to the respect he has for even the villainous Anse and Whitfield. They are as much a product of their hard, indecipherable world as the blameless Cash and Dewey Dell or the more problematic Darl and Jewel.
Faulkner respects these people and so many people like them that he elevates their story to a mythic scope. The text is peppered with small allusions to the Bible and Greek mythology, but the story itself is a medley of religious highlights. Death itself is the motivator of countless myths and legends. Addie’s death causes a downpour of diluvian proportions, and the Bundrens must at one point ford a torrential river straight out of the Old Testament. Even the crime Darl commits toward the end of the book can be seen as a misguided recasting of the Prometheus myth, and like Prometheus Darl is damned for nothing short of blasphemy. Hell, the family’s journey itself is part Exodus, part Xenophon’s march of ten thousand. Raising the story to eschatological heights is not only appropriately metaphorical. It lends great and edifying value to the lives and struggles of people some of us could easily dismiss.
I finished the book two days ago, and I am still reeling. I simply did not expect, could not have expected the experience of reading it. Maybe that’s what the novel comes down to. Expectations. The reader’s, the characters’, ours in general. To expect is to assume you have worked out the elusive order underpinning all of existence. But as we all know, life will constantly surprise you, sometimes pleasantly, sometimes violently. Sometimes it will do both and leave you beside yourself, feeling a fool for daring to predict the path it is leading you down, but also feeling enervated, alive, enraptured by the unknowable possibilities that lay before you. AS I LAY DYING did not simply exceed my expectations. It ground them into powder and blew them into my face.