Chat Write Man Woman

Dear Bill

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Once upon a time, I think I was about 13, I picked up a copy of your Great American Classic, The Sound and the Fury. It is probably pertinent to note that I found this particular copy of your Great American Classic in an abandoned house that my mother and her then-husband had decided to buy and renovate. The previous owners had left the house one evening after dinner two years earlier and never returned. They left their clothes, their furniture, the crap in their kitchen, their cut crystal glasses, and their odd, odd library. Trees had grown up through the roof of this house, allowing rain to fall from the ceiling, turning the shag carpet on the steps into a kind of moldy, green waterfall and making all the books smell musty and look gross. But I LOVE books, and I knew that you, Bill, were a Great American Author. So I picked up The Sound and the Fury. I imagine I put it back down after about 4 pages. I generally like to finish what I start, but my 13-year-old self was not up to Faulkner.

Fast forward twenty-some years and again, I have an aging, though not moldy, copy of The Sound and the Fury in my hands. My friend swears she LOVES this book and I will, too. Evidently, her 16-year-old self grooved to the stream-of-consciousness narration and was thrilled by the sultry, honeysuckle-laden atmosphere of the decaying Old South. Evidently, I picked up the book three years too soon. Dammit. I’ve mentioned that I have a difficult time caring about these people and their decaying, decrepit, isolated little Southern world. But I try, really I do, to keep an open mind.

On vacation, where I did not, dear Bill, make your book available for bear toilet paper, I spent some time with a friend. I mentioned to her that I was struggling through The Sound and the Fury. She exclaims (and that is the only appropriate verb here): I LOVE that book!

Oh no! What on earth is wrong with me, Bill? How come I do not LOVE your book? Am I deficient in some glandular substance that would make it all seem terribly relevant and interesting? Come on! I read 19th-century German fiction and I CARE about it. I identify with the struggles of the characters whose lives I immerse myself in. Why not with you, Bill? Why not???

Then the friend goes on: I read it in high school. I thought it was the most extraordinary thing I’d ever read. The stream-of-consciousness, the sister, who we never really get to see, etc. etc.

Ah HAH! Again with the high school thing. Perhaps I am vindicated. Perhaps I am merely Too Old to appreciate you, Bill. Perhaps you are, like Mommie Dearest, a specific moment in adolescent time that I glossed over when I went to Germany. (I didn’t read Moby Dick, either. Shoot me.)

But, to your novel. I have to admit that I truly enjoyed (!) the puzzle aspect of the story. Starting with Ben’s perspective, which is not only non-linear, but totally garbled and out-of-sequence and, well, told by a simpleton, one gets pieces of what’s going on. The reader gets introduced to the characters and quickly figures out who the black ones are and who is a member of the family. By the time you get the story from Quentin’s perspective, some things are cleared up–the reader gets confirmation of what s/he has supposed but not known for sure. Reader participation in the narration is always fun.

But, here’s the deal. I appreciate the fact that Ben is a stand-in, of sorts, for the end of both the mother and father’s family lines, representing the degeneracy of the Compsons and their inability to succeed in the world. He’s an idiot. He is at the mercy of the black servants, he is loved, but is unable to make his own voice heard. He’s a great symbol but not an especially great literary character. Quentin, on the other hand, is vile. He kills himself because he is so wedded to an outdated notion of family honor that he can’t bear his sister’s sluttiness. Give. Me. A. Break. I realize I’m conflating my real world, Bill, and your literary one, but I have so little patience for people who lose their shit. Unless they can make it funny. Quentin is not funny. And what he wants from Caddy isn’t very funny, either. I mean, come on–banish them both to hell so that she can’t sleep around anymore. Very Old Testament of you, Quentin, and hard to justify in any world.

I was expecting–and I don’t know why–that after Ben, Quentin, and Jason, we’d finally get to hear the horrible family tragedy from Caddy’s perspective. She gets knocked up. Her father sells the Last Bit of Land to finance her shotgun wedding and Quentin’s stint at Harvard. Quentin drowns himself over the lack of honor of it all. Her husband throws her and her bastard daughter, whom she names Quentin, out of the house. But no. We get to see what happens of Quentin II (like mother like daughter, the little slut) but we don’t see Caddy again. Rumor has it she’s off in Europe, married and divorced again and living the life of a courtesan in Paris, carousing with the Germans.

Caddy was the smart one. She saw that it was time to get out when the getting was good. The Compsons were never going to make another go of it. They were soooo Old South that they still had slaves. And, she knew that the idea of community and belonging that characterized the Old South she grew up in were too confining for her and going out of style in a big way. So, she split. Good for her. Go, Caddy, Go!

I wonder whether Jason gets it, too. He, like his mother and like Quentin in his time, is wedded to certain notions of family name and honor that he simply cannot let go of. But he does see that the family structure as it existed in their childhood–family manor, sponging uncle, cabins on the property full of black folks at the beck and call of the Compsons (sort of)–is no longer tenable. He is a modern man in the financial sense of the word, at any rate, though a thief and a liar and a hypocrite.

So, Caddy and Quentin II, the girls, flee Jefferson, Mississippi for the great beyond. I wish them well. I’d pick a place with less humidity, myself. Dilsey, whom you, Bill, said was one of your favorite characters, never gets farther away than Memphis and chooses not to see the changes in society that happen around her. I can see how this is as much her story as it is the Compsons, since she was the glue that held the manor together. When she’s gone, the Compsons, as a concept, are gone, too.

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Written by Jennifer

August 6, 2007 at 5:37 pm

Posted in summer reading

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