Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Sound and the Fury

The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

Quite good overall, despite a long opening that's intentionally alienating and disjointing. I've previously hear of Faulkner mostly through his legendarily ornate and drawn out prose, but I found that much less alienating than I was expecting. It's slow, grim, features largely unsympathetic characters and on a sentence to sentence level I did find the prose less than fully compelling. Yet, once I struggled in past the first fifty pages I found it quite engaging and interesting. There's a type of momentum inscribed in it that made it very compelling to follow through, a way the character viewpoints and their myriad failings became fascianting to follow through.

It was kind of a strange experience, and helped break down some preconceptions I had about the "Great Literature". I expect to find this kind of effect--not loving any single part of a book but feel compelled to keep going by the sheer energy of the pace and je ne sais quoi readability--in things trashier or "lower brow". Stephen King practically defines this element for me--in his good stuff there's still lots of plot holes and problems in characterization that I would rip apart in isolation, but while reading I have no desire to do anything but keep going through to follow up on what happens. It's not exactly the same effect here with Faulkner, but somehow it's not entirely dissimilar--amidst a dense and often confusing process of bitter character conflicts it made a very intense experience that ultimately qualified as a page turner.

One element the story benefited from was its ruthlessness, the way it put on the consquences to its relationships, characters and larger society of existential dysfunctions. It benefits from being intimate but also unsympathetic to its cast, giving a sort of tragic fallout that feels cold and yet not sadistic by the author. For all that the story was hardly perfect--the sort of Stylistic Suck of the opening ninety pages clearly played a point yet seemed to outrun its purpose, and I found the ending drifted away from my investment in the situation. Nevertheless, it stands as a major creative accomplishment on Faulkner's part.

As for the larger insights gained from the work--I'm not entirely sure how much that's new and in depth there is. The corrosive environment of racism over multiple generations, the way idealistic naivete and brutal realism both prove unworkable, the slow decline of physical position subsequent to lose of grandeur and belief in oneself. Fairly interesting concepts but not breathtakingly new, and I think most of any specific theme I've seen done more effectively elsewhere. In terms of the book teaching anything substantially new about the human condition or its specific faded American south embodiment I can't commit to that, but it's a text that I'll need to think through, cross-examine and possibly reread at some point before I'll come to a sweeping judgement. It does make me interested in reading more of Faulkner's other works, and gives a bit of renewed appreciation for the value of some of the 'great Western canon' which after Jane Eyre and Moby Dick was flagging a little.

Similar to and better than: The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Similar to and worse than: Beloved by Toni Morrison

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