Choose Your Own Advent, Day 22: The Sound and the Fury

The Sound and the Fury, William FaulknerChoose Your Own Advent is a yuletide celebration of literacy. We’ll spotlight a different novel every day until Christmas, hopefully helping you find one you’d like to read in the new year.

Title: The Sound and the Fury
Author: William Faulkner
Year: 1929

It’s a fairly universal feeling to want to escape who you are. Of course, we can put a more positive spin on that: we want to do better, we want to improve ourselves, we want to achieve some level of comfort and satisfaction.

But make no mistake; we all, to varying degrees, feel the desire to escape who we are.

The Sound and the Fury is William Faulkner’s masterpiece. It’s also a masterpiece of American fiction, and one of the funniest, saddest, most astute studies anyone’s written about mankind’s driving need–and ultimate inability–to move on.

It centers on the Compson family, which, through the generations, has fallen on hard times. Mainly it centers on one group of siblings–Benjy, Caddie, Jason, and Quentin–that we watch grow up and struggle in their own ways through their own problems. But they are always stuck being themselves, always stuck being Compsons, always stuck in a world that (understandably) doesn’t quite have a place for them.

It’s a difficult novel. I need to make that clear, and it can’t be overstated. Before I left my job at the college, the senior provost and I would sometimes talk about books. He saw that I was re-reading The Sound and the Fury, and he told me he found a really nice edition and picked it up…but couldn’t finish the book. He tried multiple times but kept getting lost, putting it down, and moving on to something else.

That’s the senior provost of a major state university. An intelligent, educated, deeply patient man. He couldn’t make it through more than a few pages of The Sound and the Fury before he realized he wasn’t absorbing any of it.

I can’t blame him for setting it aside, if that’s how he felt. Nor can I blame the thousands of other readers who no doubt did–and will do–the same thing. But I can give some advice:

You won’t understand it.

Keep reading anyway.

See, The Sound and the Fury begins as a massively difficult narrative…yet slowly, gradually, gracefully resolves into a straight-forward one. It’s a modernist nightmare of clashing timelines and disconnected symbols that, perhaps without you even realizing it, literally becomes a much easier, much more familiar, much more simple book the further you go.

The novel is split into four sections, the first three of which are narrated by Compson siblings. The three narrators are successively more focused (or less unfocused) on the story they are telling, which means the most difficult passages come early, and the orientation comes much later. The fourth section is relayed in the third person, which makes it the easiest to read, as the action is no longer filtered through the very specific viewpoint of a very flawed character.

It’s actually the only novel I’ve read that becomes less complicated as you progress through it. (I’d love to hear of other examples, though, so please do share them.) Often books hover at some degree of difficulty throughout, or they become more difficult as you progress. Sometimes the difficulty fluctuates section to section, training the reader to keep going through the confusing parts with the tacit promise that clarity will return soon.

The Sound and the Fury, though, fights coherence on the first page, and embraces it on the last. It’s an odd experience, as though Faulkner was indeed weeding out readers who wouldn’t be willing to engage, to work, to struggle to understand what the characters themselves struggle to understand. Even in the easiest, final section of the book, Faulkner spells out very little. He simply presents. What you do with the information presented is up to you.

To be fair, Faulkner himself considered using some uncommon formatting that would make the text easier to parse, if not exactly understand: he toyed with the idea of using differently colored inks to identify which parts of the book were occurring in which time period.

The problem–in addition to the fact that this would be a pretty superficial gimmick that would artistically cheapen the near-perfect novel Faulkner produced–was that this would really only be helpful to the novel’s very first section, which is narrated by Benjy, a developmentally disabled adult who has difficulty keeping himself oriented.

Once the reader progressed past that section, there’d be very little use for the differently colored text. Section two, narrated by the depressed and hopeless Quentin, also drifts through time, but is far easier to keep track of, as Quentin himself is both well-read and well-spoken. What’s more, even if one does get lost a bit in Quentin’s jumbled chronology, the emotional arc of his section–his doomed pining for his sister Caddie–comes through clearly. There’s more than enough to Quentin’s section for it to register, even if certain passages slip by.

And then…that’s it. The third section is narrated by the cruel, self-important, manipulative Jason, but he’s also the most straight-forward of the Compson clan and his narrative requires almost no unraveling. After that we detach from first-person narration altogether, and we’re squarely in traditional Southern novel territory. The Sound and the Fury isn’t easy, but it definitely gets easier.

This is a I’ve wanted to cover for Fiction into Film as long as I’ve been doing the series, and I’m pretty sure I’ll get around to it. It’s a novel worth gushing about, and there’s at least one interesting adaptation floating around to cover. (I can only vouch for one, in other words; I haven’t seen the others.)

But really it’s because I want an excuse to talk about it. I want to talk about how the Compsons–major and minor–each rebel against what their family is, what their family has been, or what their family is becoming. They yearn to be both rooted and rootless. They push and pull and struggle and fight without really quite knowing what they want.

There are great conversations to be had about those things.

Unfortunately, almost everyone I know stops reading in section one.

I don’t blame them.

But I’d sure enjoy having someone else to talk to. The topic of escaping who you are could lead to some truly important conversations.

3 thoughts on “Choose Your Own Advent, Day 22: The Sound and the Fury”

  1. Great choice, Phil. This is hands-down my favorite Faulkner novel, and probably has to be in my top ten list of Excellent Novels.
    Fun fact, my undergrad degree is in English Language & Literature, and for one of my two senior seminar courses (the upper level courses required for the degree) was Faulkner. The professor was a true Southerner, probably my favorite professor throughout college (so much that i purposely took Civil War Literature as my other senior seminar course simply because he taught it), who periodically would stop talking, look out the window and say in his classy southern drawl, “God DAMN, it’s a beautiful day out there.”
    Faulker’s one of my favorite authors and i’d recommend almost anything he wrote. Though i must confess that _Absalom, Absalom!_ is an absolute slog and chore to get through, even though it is a great story. I still have vivid memories of my friend/roommate (who was also taking the Faulker class) and i getting so frustrated with that one that when we finally finished it, we simultaneously threw our copies of the book across the room, as if they were some horrible beast that we needed to flee from.
    Also, damn you Phil, because now i’ve got a stack of great books to re-read thanks to this advent feature! :)

  2. “It’s actually the only novel I’ve read that becomes less complicated as you progress through it. (I’d love to hear of other examples, though, so please do share them.)”

    I guess you know that one already (or have at least heard about it), but what imediately comes to mind ist “Clockwork Orange” from Anthony Burgess. The novel is written from the POV of the main character Alex, a teenager, who talks in an invented youth-slang. Many things have different names in that slang, which makes the beginning of the novel very hard to read – as it is intended by the author, I’m sure. I revently reread the book after more than ten years, and as I read through the novel the slang became easier and easier to understand. Simply by exposing yourself to it you get accustomed to the writing. It was fascinating to me that it worked that way.

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