Choosing favorite books is a daunting task for anyone who reads enough to have several favorites, and comparing them in order to decide which one is the true Favorite Book is a ridiculous task: they’re all so different. I love Pride and Prejudice and I love On the Road, but I can’t really find a comparison point between them, other than the fact that each is a series of words printed on pages and bound together in book form. So, when I’m asked what my favorite book is (and I do get asked), I usually go with something like “Oh, I have so many! This one is my favorite, and so is this one, and I can’t forget about this one, and have you read this?” It’s impossible. And yet, whenever I do this, I am keenly aware of two things:
1. It’s a cop out.
2. Holding one book as a favorite above all the rest is not actually going to hurt the other books’ feelings.
So I’m just going to come right out with it: my favorite book of all time is The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner. There.
I understand why people give up on it and declare it unreadable, and think it is an impenetrable wall of modernist “Oooh, I’m in your thoughts” blabbity blah, but the truth is that it’s not as difficult as it seems and the stuff you think you’re not understanding at first starts to make sense as you move through the novel. Perhaps that’s cold comfort for anybody who has tried to make it through the first section with Benjy and his bright shapes and Caddy smelling like trees, but it gets easier as it moves along.
The novel consists of four sections, each written from a different perspective, yet all of them come together brilliantly to tell the story of the Compson family: how things fall apart, and how life keeps moving on anyway. It’s almost audacious, the way life keeps doing that, moving on right in the face of our tragedies, as we watch everything that was supposed to be slip away. The book’s title comes from Shakespeare, Macbeth 5:5, ll. 22-31:
Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Macbeth speaks these lines right after learning of his wife’s death, when he’s at the point of knowing that all his villainy has been for naught. The Compson family’s story is different, of course, yet these lines resonate across the family’s decline from greatness, across the expectations of how things should have been yet aren’t, and all of it is distilled across the life of Benjy, the idiot, the book’s beginning and end, who is unable to express himself except by wailing and crying.
At its core, the novel is about Caddy, the rebellious daughter, and the way she affects the lives of the others in her family by conceiving a child out of wedlock and attempting to cover it up with a hasty marriage to another man (which backfires). The key moment in the book is when Caddy, with muddy drawers, climbs a tree to look in a window and see the death of Damuddy, the grandmother, while her brothers stay on the ground looking up at her. It’s a moment that’s ripe with symbolism and its implications affect each of the boys — Benjy, Quentin, Jason — who tell their stories (and hers) in turn. Even if she’s the catalyst, she doesn’t get her own voice in the novel; everything she said and did is filtered through the thoughts and memories and remarks of others, and as a result, her picture emerges, but never truly comes into focus. Yet if we look back at Shakespeare for just a minute, the line that seems to sum her up the most is, “And all our yesterdays have lighted fools/ The way to dusty death.” Of Caddy’s story, Faulkner said, “I tried first to tell it with one brother, and that wasn’t enough. That was Section One. I tried it with another brother, and that wasn’t enough. That was Section Two. I tried the third brother, because Caddy was still to me too beautiful and too moving to reduce her to telling what was going on, that it would be more passionate to see her through somebody else’s eyes, I thought. And that failed and I tried myself — the fourth section — to tell what happened, and I still failed.”
What an astoundingly beautiful series of failures. Though of course I’m not sure I agree that Faulkner failed — writing so often feels like not being able to say what you want to say anyhow — the cumulative effect of these sections is that the story of the Compson family’s decline comes through in fits and starts, fragments of thoughts and memories, comments and perceptions. That’s how stories tend to happen and get passed on. It all ends up feeling very organic somehow.
When we read, we tend to expect certain things out of a narrative, especially that it moves forward and we can follow its events — this happened and then this and then this — but with this novel, Faulkner dashes this expectation right from the beginning. Books are supposed to have expository moments, and we’re supposed to be able to read and look around the world of the narrative and have a general idea where (and when) things are and what’s happening, but the opening section of The Sound and the Fury (the most difficult section and the place where people are most likely to give up) does not do this. April Seventh, 1928 is told from the perspective of Benjy, who is, as the back cover of my copy of the book puts it, a “manchild.” He doesn’t talk and his brain doesn’t think in a linear way, so in the space of a few sentences, it’s possible to slip from the present action to sometime years and years in the past, without any sort of warning at all. Add on top of this the fact that Benjy experiences the world in details and not in the larger picture expository way that characters in novels often do (which allows readers to situate themselves within the world of the narrative) and what ends up happening is that it’s hard to know what’s going on at all. It’s frustrating because it doesn’t follow any sort of rules, and we’re left scrambling to keep up (or tossing the book across the room in a fit of irritation). I understand this frustration, and I understand the impulse to want to untangle all the knots of language and lay them out in straight, easy-to-follow threads, but I also know that Benjy’s section of the novel is written the way it is exactly on purpose and it’s less important to figure everything out than it is to pick up on the details that Benjy hands us. We’ll need those details later.
While most of the book takes place on different days in the same week in April, 1928, the second section dips into the past. It’s written from the perspective of Quentin on the last day of his life, June Second, 1910. After making it through Benjy’s section, you might expect a reprieve, and you get one, to a degree. It’s not the most easy reading in the world, but there is a definite chain of events here, and though Quentin also deals in frequent flashbacks, at least his are easier to spot, since his present is clearly at Harvard and his past is clearly in Mississippi. Through Quentin’s memories, the pieces of Caddy’s story start falling into place; the images we saw as we remembered along with Benjy begin to fit into context. This one section of this one novel may in fact be the finest distillation of many of the themes that show up in Faulkner’s other work. We have the big ones: race, class, gender, and the South that was and will never be again, the South that may have just been a daydream in the first place, all of it coming through poor, tortured Quentin whose thoughts are as thick and strangling as the heavy scent of honeysuckle that torments him.
In comparison to the first two sections of the novel, the back half of The Sound and the Fury is easy like Sunday morning. As soon as you get to “Once a bitch always a bitch, what I say,” you know you’re in the clear. Oh sure, you still have to deal with Jason’s section (April Sixth, 1928), which is long and full of seething anger and kind of whiny to be honest, but it’s also got some of that humor that Faulkner does so well, the kind that makes you wonder if you’re supposed to think something is funny. (I honestly don’t know if it’s funny in places or if there’s just something wrong with me.) And finally, April Eighth, 1928 is written in the third person. It follows Dilsey, the Compson family’s servant, as she works in the house and takes Benjy to church. She’s the one who cooks the meals and has mostly raised the children, and she seems to be suffering from arthritis, yet she continues working hard, climbing slowly and painfully up and down the stairs in the family home while the family seems to remain clueless. It also follows Jason as he deals with Caddy’s daughter (also named Quentin) as she carries on her mother’s legacy and pushes it further, signaling a deeper shift away from the way things were. The Sound and the Fury is always referred to as a tragedy, and it is one, but the ending always feels hopeful to me. It takes place on Easter Sunday, a day that’s all about living again, and as the book winds to a close, life just keeps happening.
In the end, The Sound and the Fury is a beautiful book not just because the writing will blow your mind if you let it (provided you’re the kind of person to love a book solely on the grounds of the writer’s use of language, and if you are, you’re my kind of person), but because it is about human beings. It’s not all cold intellect and verbal manipulation, and it’s not just an empty pile of dazzling, frustrating, confounding words. It’s a book about life written from inside people’s heads, not only capturing the how of thought, but also giving us the why. It’s because of this that the book is touching and funny and sad and gorgeous, easily deserving its place as one of the greatest achievements in American literature. It’s unfortunate that it gets dismissed as being unreadable because parts of it are difficult; it’s got heart, man, and that is why it is worth the love.