Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
As I Lay Dying is the story of a family's ill-fated attempt to bury their matriarch, Addie. In what feels a bit like a blighted game of Oregon Trail, the Bundren family tries their level best to transport Addie's body ("just produce a corpse, roll er old bones down to the office") to Jefferson, Mississippi, to be buried near her ancestors. The trip includes (but is by no means limited to) a broken leg, a barn fire, stalking buzzards, failed abortion attempts, a couple of drownded mules, an unsuccessful attempt to ford a stream, and quite a few confused and confounded neighbors who are Just Trying to Help, OK Bundrens? In the end, Addie is successfully planted six feet under and Anse Bundren, her husband, happily purchases himself a brand spankin' new set of teeth. Oh, and he seems to find himself a new lady in no time flat. SOOPRIZE! Please feel free to review the complex notes that I've included below for your perusing pleasure.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here
My attempt at a Bundren family tree -->
Here are some of my favorite tidbits:
"Addie - titular corpse"
"Anse - no teeth"
"Cash - broken leg - same one twice"
"Jewel - different dad?"
"Dewey Dell - preggo; asked for abortion meds; no dice"
"Lafe - DD's baby daddy?"
"Dewey Dell - girl"
"Jewel - boy"
This was an interesting reading experience. I'm not sure I would say that I enjoyed the book, although I am glad I read it. I found it more coherent than The Sound and the Fury, and in reading the plot summary online after writing mine, was pleased to see that I had, in fact, captured all the salient points. That said, I consider myself a smart reader and rather a literary detective (86 classics in, fankuberymuch), and I was still only about 75% sure about what happened. So I feel for the less experienced/less dedicated reader who may feel only 25% sure of the sequence of events! The story is told in semi-stream of consciousness (which we all know is my FAVE) and each chapter features a different narrator (keeps you Guessing!). The one thing it has going for it is that the order is pretty much chronological, so at least we keep moving forward for most of the novel, rather than jumping about (and bursting into song). At least the Bundrens, unlike Billy Pilgrim, have not come unstuck in time.
Here are a few of my thoughts, in no real order...
The title is apparently a reference to Homer's (or you know, whoever Homer was or wasn't, or whatever collection of people constitute 'Homer') Odyssey. How (or whether) exactly we're supposed to know that is unclear. That said, I think the title is misleading - Addie, the titular corpse, is dead for 95% of the book. So I'd like to vote for a name change to As I Lay Dead. Who's with me?
First of all, let's just take a moment and mourn the fact that the name Anse hasn't lasted through the ages. OK, moment over. Anse was my favorite character because he's a 'love to hate' kind of guy. He's basically worse than useless without his wife, which is simultaneously adorable and infuriating. Here are a few snippets to paint the picture of Anse:
- "Pa leans above the bed in the twilight, his humped silhouette partaking of that owl-like quality of awry-feathered, disgruntled outrage within which lurks a wisdom too profound or too inert for even thought." Whenever someone is described as humped, I'm reminded of a time when my best friend Dennis and I went to Boathouse Row together. We got separated, and I didn't have my phone, so as twilight set in, I frantically planned how I would provide a description of Dennis to the authorities. In telling him this story later, he said he did the same thing. Here's how our recap went:
Dennis: So how were you going to describe me?
Me: Tall, about 5'11, with tight capri jeans, sandals, and short dredlocks, African-American, with a tight T-shirt. How would you describe me?
Dennis: Well, I was going to say you have glasses, you're wearing running clothes, and you hunch a little.
Me: Oh, awesome. So they would be looking for a stylish gay dude and a HUNCHBACK.
- "He touches the quilt as he saw Dewey Dell do, trying to smoothe it up to the chin, but disarranging it instead. He tries to smoothe it again, clumsily, his hand awkward as a claw, smoothing at the wrinkles which he made and which continue to emerge beneath his hand with perverse ubiquity, so that at last he desists, his hand falling to his side and stroking itself again, palm and back, on his thigh." I loved this image, particularly the depiction of Anse's hand as a claw. It's simultaneously tender and amusing, which is basically the book in a nutshell.
-"Anse meets us at the door. He has shaved, but not good. There is a long cut on his jaw, and he is wearing his Sunday pants and a white shirt with the neck-band buttoned." Whenever I read older books, I am struck by how similar things are after decades of difference. If a man's wife died today, we still might expect him to show up clumsily shaved with a cut on his face.
-"'If ever was such a misfortunate man,' pa says. He looms tall above us as we squat; he looks like a figure carved clumsily from tough wood by a drunken caricaturist."
- Upon finally arriving in Jefferson with the body: "We forgot our spade, too."
- Peabody, the doctor, when he finally treats Cash's broken leg:
"God amighty, why didn't Anse carry you to the nearest sawmill and stick your leg in the saw? That would have cured it. Then you all could have stuck his head into the saw and cured a whole family...Where is Anse, anyway? What's he up to now?
'He's takin back them spades he borrowed.'
'That's right. Of course he'd have to borrow a spade to bury his wife with. Unless he could borrow a hole in the ground. Too bad you all didn't put him in it too." Haghaghahgah. This was my favorite line in the book, because it encapsulates everyone in the community (and likely the reader)'s feelings about Anse and his attitude toward his family.
Let's do it Miss Havisham style
Addie is buried in her wedding dress, which made me think of crazy old Miss Havisham in Great Expectations. Granted, it was probably common to be buried in your wedding dress, as it was likely the nicest piece of clothing many people owned. It still just felt delightfully dramatic. In Addie's only chapter, she shares this snippet of her father's philosophy: "The reason for living was to get ready to stay dead a long time." Charming, right? Dad of the year!
My mother is a fish.
"Pa shaves every day now because my mother is a fish." Vardaman, the youngest child, starts saying his mother is a fish because he kills a fish the same day his mother dies. I think (big emphasis here on I think, not I know) that this is a metaphor for death; that the boy processes death in the only way he knows how, which is to compare a once living thing (his mother) to a now dead thing (the fish). I could be WAY off base here, though, so don't quote me. ;) If you've read this one and you have other ideas, please share!
More sayings I want to add to my vocabulary:
- "We wouldn't discommode you." The Bundrens love to say this to the neighbors. As in, we're traveling around with this rotting corpse and it stinks and we don't have any money and we're pennypinchers anyway but PLEASE, REally, we're OK, we don't need your help. I wouldn't want to discommode you!
- At one point, we flash back to Jewel falling asleep all the time at work on the farm. His brother's suspect that "rutting" is the cause. After he is gone many nights for very long periods of time, Darl says, "She's sure a stayer. I used to admire her, but I downright respect her now." I found this hilarious and gross all at once. That said, I think we should all start guessing that 'rutting' is the problem whenever anyone is gone too long. Oh, Bob didn't come back from the grocery store yet? Rutting. Definitely rutting. ;)
The novel opens with Cash constructing his mother's coffin as she is passing away. There are many different depictions of the sound and the bizarreness of him working on it right outside her window. This is one of my favorites lines: "Pa goes to the house. The rain rushes suddenly down, without thunder, without warning of any sort; he is swept onto the porch upon the edge of it and in an instant Cash is wet to the skin. Yet the motion of the saw has not faltered, as though it and the arm functioned in a tranquil conviction that rain was an illusion of the mind."
When a word is just a word
Addie's chapter includes some philosophizing on words and their meanings. I liked this piece on the relevance (or irrelevance) of naming: "He had a word, too. Love, he called it. But I had been used to words for a long time. I knew that that word was like the others: just a shape to fill a lack; that when the right time came, you wouldn't need a word for that anymore than for pride or fear. Cash did not need to say it to me nor I to him, and I would say, Let Anse use it, if he wants to. So that it was Anse or love; love or Anse: it didn't matter." What do you think? Do we need the word love to feel love?
The Literary Detective is On The Case!
As I mentioned previously (and as my sister can attest) this book involved a good deal of guesswork. I was particularly proud of myself for figuring out Addie's affair, and was struck by this sentence describing its end: "Then it was over. Over in the sense that he was gone and I knew that, see him again though I would, I would never again see him coming swift and secret to me in the woods dressed in sin like a gallant garment already blowing aside with the speed of his secret coming."
Mildly mystifying maternal math
At one point, Addie says, "I gave Anse Dewey Dell to negative Jewel." I know that means she was trying to make up for having an illegitimate child, but I'm Prrettty sure that's not how it works, Addie. ;)
The foot that was once purple has now turned a sort of blackish in color...
"Cash's leg and foot turned black." Poor Cash gets the raw end of the deal with his broken leg to begin with (during the ford-streaming - btw did I mention Cash can't swim? I know, #brilliantplan) but then his super smart family decides it's a great idea to try to set his leg by whipping up some homemade cement. How could that plan possibly go wrong?
In Which We Learn Some New Words:
brogans - a course, stout leather shoe reaching to the ankle [As in, do my brogans go with this prom dress, or should I have gone for the wedges?]
peakling - jkidding - I just looked this up and it's a Faulknerian fantasy word. Don't bother adding it to your vocabulary!
hale - (of a person, esp. an elder one) strong and healthy [As in, Gandalf is such a hale fellow that he can still take down a Balrog now and again! haghaghagh #tolkiennerd]
scoriation - a sloppily cut groove, furrow, or trench, characterized by the presence of refuse material from which it was cut [As in, did you see the scoriation on that tree in Fern Gully? The Hexus must be coming!]
reeves - ropes threaded through a ring or other aperture [As in, not even the reeves on the fence could keep Rocinante from galloping away from Don Quixote!]
stanchion - an upright bar, post, or frame forming a support or barrier [As in, maybe a stanchion would have helped that miserable attempt to ford the stream.]
proscenium - the part of a theater stage in front of the curtain [As in, Judy should stop leaving her cupcakes on the proscenium or the actors will all trip when the show starts!]
Passages I Found Particularly Pleasing:
- "Her eyes are like two candles when you watch them gutter down into the sockets of iron candle-sticks."
- "He spits with decorous and deliberate precision into the pocked dust below the porch."
- "I enter the hall, hearing the voices before I reach the door. Tilting a little down the hill, as our house does, a breeze draws through the hall all the time, upslanting. A feather dropped near the front door will rise and brush along the ceiling, slanting backward, until it reaches the down-turning current at the back door: so with voices. As you enter the hall, they sound as though they were speaking out of the air about your head."
- "The sun, an hour above the horizon, is poised like a bloody egg upon a crest of thunderheads; the light has turned copper: in the eye portentous, in the nose sulphurous, smelling of lightning."
- "Before us the thick dark current runs. It talks up to us in a murmur become ceaseless and myriad, the yellow surface dimpled monstrously into fading swirls travelling along the surface for an instant, silent, impermanent and profoundly significant, as though just beneath the surface something huge and alive waked for a moment of lazy alertness out of and into light slumber again."