Monday, January 14, 2008

William Faulkner: Comic Genius

I never much liked reading as a kid; I far preferred watching Bugs Bunny, Bewitched and lots of other mindless TV shows (check that, Bugs Bunny was brilliant).

But the day I graduated from college, when I no longer had to read, a funny thing happened: I suddenly wanted to. In the summer of 1991... a perfect summer of no responsibility, when my band gigged in Dallas and some friends and I drove all over the western United States, I dove into some of the big ones, like The Brothers Karamazov. That next year, living in a trailer park in Western New York, I continued with Moby Dick and countless other "classics." Funny thing, I loved them.

Then I realized I had to make a living, and I lost interest again. Then I went to graduate school in creative writing, and had to read again, and didn't like anything except Raymond Carver and Toni Morrison. Then I graduated and lost interest again. Then I realized that I'm really a nonfiction guy. Then, most recently, I got tired of nonfiction and decided to go back to reading all the great fiction I've never read.

So I thought I'd start with William Faulkner, and I ordered As I Lay Dying, The Sound and the Fury and Light in August.

Although I am not well read, I know that As I Lay Dying is one of the greatest books ever written. I can't add to the critical record on its cultural authenticity, its use of rotating narrators speaking in first person, its terrifying eternal quality. The only possibly original comment I can make is this: As I Lay Dying is a comedy.

This is what makes the book truly a work of genius. It's not about the Addie Bundren, the dead woman in the casket, who has had her eyes accidentally augered out, who is going through hell as her family (against all logic) tries to transport her back to her hometown to bury her, whose body is beginning to decompose to the point where buzzards are circling above the wagon. It's not about the sons and daughters, all with their neuroses and dark secrets, ranging from closeted homosexuality to hidden pregnancy.

It's about the idiot genius leading that family and its ill-fated journey: Anse Bundren... the man with no discernible talents of judgment, so incompetent that he pours cement directly on his son's broken leg to steady it, who's never worked a day in his life, who is pathologically helpless yet always finds people to help him. And who, after he has finally buried his wife after a tragic journey of epic ignorance, buys himself a new set of teeth and charms a woman blind enough to marry him.

This is the invention of dark comedy, and there is simply none darker.

1 comment:

The Wordman said...

welcome to Yoknapatawpha County, Marc!

by the way, my standard line re: Moby -Dick is, "the book is about a lot of things, but it is _not about a whale_."