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Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Memory believes before knowing remembers.

Light in August by William Faulkner

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
Light in August is a prolonged game of hide and seek. It follows Lena Groves, a (substantially) pregnant woman as she hunts for her ex-lover (aka 'baby-daddy') in the Deep South, Lucas Burch, who just Happened to conveniently disapparate from town when he heard about the baby-to-be. Lena eventually stumbles upon Jefferson, Mississippi, where she finds one Byron Bunch (who is smitten on the spot) who is not, in fact, the promised Lucas Burch (the bootlegging baby-daddy) she was searching for. Byron endeavors to 'do the right thing' and steer Lena in the direction of Lucas (who is now going by the name of Brown, not sketchy At All) but is unable to conceal from her the boatload of trouble that Brown is in (yes, aSide from the baby-to-be and the bootlegging -- we first encounter him dead drunk in a house on fire where a woman has been murdered - I know, #hehasproblems). Brown is eventually released from jail when it turns out it was his partner in crime, Christmas, who happens to be part black, which I mention only because it becomes important to the story, who in fact murdered the woman in the burning house. (To be clear, there was a murder and then an arson, not death by fire - I know, Très compliqué). When Byron finally gets Brown face to face with Lena and the now fully corporeal and delivered baby boy, Brown... bolts. SOOprize. He literally runs in the opposite direction, and then ends up leaping onto a moving train (#maybedorkotaughthim). Byron and Lena circle back to each other and end up on the move again, ostensibly seeking out Brown and his current whereabouts, but increasingly enjoying each other's company and waiting for the day when they will simply decide to stop looking. 
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

I hesitate to say that I enjoyed reading this book, as the material was extremely dark, the side plot deeply rooted in racist thinking, and the book itself riddled with thoughts and assumptions that are hard to stomach, let alone accept and process as a reader nearly a century later. That said, I enjoyed the writing, and I think I'm coming around to Faulkner. He might even make my (non-existent, but theoretical) list of favorite authors. I think As I Lay Dying is my favorite, with The Sound and the Fury next, leaving this to trail as a distant third, but if you're looking for a messy, raw, Deep South drama with a lot of intense imagery and strange and moderately unlovable characters, have at it! (I realize I may not have sold that particularly well, but whatever! I'm not hawking Faulkner here, just stating the facts! ["i only speak da truf! i only speak Da Truf!"]

If my Pale Fire blog fell into the trap/accidentally-on-purpose ended up resembling Nabokov's style, this blob may have fallen into a similar situation re:Faulkner. To be fair, though, I wrote about half of this entry at my sister's new apt, and then the interwebs decided to thwart me and delete most of what I had written, so my stream of consciousness was interrupted. Here goes nothing!

Yes, I live in Etters, PA. No, you cannot write to me there. 
  • "Then the hamlet which at its best day had borne no name listed on Postoffice Department annals would not now even be remembered by the hookwormridden heirs at large who pulled the buildings down and burned them in cookstoves and winter grates." This line reminded me of when I went to a summer music camp and my roommate told me she lived in a town that was so small it wasn't even on the map. She lived (lives? Kathy... I don't even remember her last name, idk) in Etters, PA, which in fact must utilize Goldsboro's post office, as it apparently does not warrant its own. Seems like a short story waiting to happen!
"I have Always dePended upon the Kindness of strangers!"

  • "She has been doing that now for almost four weeks. Behind her the four weeks, the evocation of far is a peaceful corridor paved with unflagging and tranquil faith and peopled with kind and nameless faces and voices: Lucas Burch? I dont know. I dont know of anybody by that name around here. This road? It goes to Pocahontas. He might be there. It's possible. Here's a wagon that's going a piece of the way. It will take you that far; backrolling now behind her a long monotonous succession of peaceful and undeviating changes from day to dark and dark to day again, through which she advanced in the identical and anonymous and deliberate wagons as though through a succession of creakwheeled and limpeared avatars, like something moving forever and without progress across an urn." Lena and her quest reminded me of Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire, minus some of Blanche's capital D-rama.
Trip-a-let, Trip-a-let, Trip-a-let

Faulkner seems to have an affinity for triplet descriptors. I found it highly pleasing. It's sort of fun (and bizarrely revolutionary, grammatically) to suggest that something could be not only x and y, but x and y and z! You'll notice one triplet in the passage above and one in each passage below: 
  • "They listened to him with something cold and astonished and dubious, since he sounded like it was the town he desired to live in and not the church and the people who composed the church, that he wanted to serve."
  • "He turned into the road at that slow and ponderous gallop, the two of them man and beast, leaning a little stiffly forward as though in some juggernautish simulation of terrific speed though the actual speed itself was absent, as if in that cold and implacable and undeviating conviction of both omnipotence and clairvoyance of which they both partook known destination and speed were not necessary."
"Long sentences are the best sentences."
  • Said no one in particular. Or me. But if there were a long sentence club, Faulkner would want to be in it. As would ProustyProust, who would probably be the president, and good old V. Woolf, and Señor Steinbeck. I would attend Some of the meetings, but let's be honest, I would probably split my time with Hemingway's short sentence set. One thing I do love about Faulkner's long sentences is that they can perfectly encapsulate one moment in time - you feel as though in reading the sentence, you've actually caught up to the activity at hand, and when the sentence closes, you are finishing the action right alongside the characters. Here is un petit exemple for you to savor:
  • "Apparently he is not looking ahead either, because he does not see the woman sitting in the ditch beside the road until the wagon has almost reached the top of the hill. In the instant in which he recognises the blue dress he cannot tell if she has ever seen the wagon at all. And no one could have known that he had ever looked at her either as, without any semblance of progress in either of them, they draw slowly together as the wagon crawls terrifically toward her in its slow palpable aura of somnolence and red dust in which the steady feet of the mules move dreamlike and punctuate by the sparse jingle of harness and the limber bobbing of jackrabbit ears, the mules still neither asleep nor awake as he halts them."
"You eat like a bird."
  • Lena has very few lines in the book, and we don't get a lot from her point of view. We get a sort of 360 view of her particular problem, which is a really fantastic Faulkner effect. That said, I enjoyed when she congratulates herself happily after eating almost nothing during one of her many 'depending on kindness of strangers' moments: "Like a lady I et. Like a lady travelling." This reminded me for some reason of the line in 'Psycho' where Norman says Marion 'eats like a bird', but then points out he's heard it is a falsity because birds eat 'rather a tremendous lot'. I'm not sure why exactly it made me think of that. ANYway, after Lena leaves the kind strangers' home, she promptly pops into a shop and uses her tiny treasure trove of money to buy herself some 'sour-deens'. Yum-O, right, Mummy?
This land is your land, this land is my land, from California, to the New York island...
  • Faulkner has a way of rooting and connecting his stories so deeply in the US that they seem to become a part of its collective fabric. I guess a lot of great authors accomplish this, but it reminded me most particularly of Steinbeck and Kerouac. (And yes, I understand that listing is out of order. NBD, guys! We're not prescriptivists here!) Here's a sampling of this tied-to-the-very-earth sort of sentiment: "Because wherever he came from and wherever he had been, a man knew that he was just living on the country, like a locust. It was as though he had been doing it for so long now that all of him had become scattered and diffused and now there was nothing left but the transparent and weightless shell blown oblivious and without destination upon whatever wind."
Byron Bunch = The Original Dwight Schrute
  • When Lena first encounters Byron, he very judiciously measures the time he is taking off from work to talk to her:
"Five minutes to rest?'
  'Five minutes from when you come in. It looks like I done already started resting. I keep my own time on Saturday evenings.'
 'And every time you stop for a minute, you keep a count of it? How will they know you stopped? A few minutes wouldn't make no difference, would it?' Aaand, it made me think of this amazing scene from the office where Jim gets back at Dwight by timing every break he takes. Please watch it. Stop what you're doing and watch it. Seriously. You'll fooll off your cHayr it's soww funny.

  • So, I don't have anything mind-blowing to say here other than, remember how prohibition happened? Well not like, remember remember, as I'm guessing my average blob reader wasn't alive and cognizant in the 1920s, but wow. Thirteen years! (it takes ElEven Jyears!) That's a long time to wait for a legal margarita, or a legal dark porter, or a legal G and T. Mmm, now I just want all of the above. 
Repeats are OK (Repeats are OK)
  • Along with his affinity for long sentences and his triplet descriptors, Faulkner likes the occasional word re-use. I feel like word repetition in close succession is generally frowned upon when we're taught how to write, so I found it refreshing to see the occasional twofer. I always say, reduce, reuse, recycle! Here's one for you: "The clean, spartan room was redolent of Sunday. In the windows the clean, darned curtains stirred faintly in a breeze smelling of turned earth and crabapple." See, it's ok for the room AND the curtains to be clean! It made me think of this norm we had at Breakthrough during orientation, "Repeats are OK (repeats are OK)" - it was supposed to reinforce the idea that since we're all processing and digesting the material together, it's fine (and in fact encouraged) to state the same thing twice or reiterate an idea. I used to love every time Jess read this norm and said in her booming teacher voice, "Repeats are OK (repeats are OK)" and then burst into raucous laughter while the fresh little teaching fellows giggled nervously and avoided eye contact.
And the peepers keep on peeping, showing no signs that they are sleeping!
  • Those in my intimate circle know the story of the peepers - suffice it to say that there are some boisterous frogs who cohabitate this stretch of the great state of NH with me, and I'm still coming around to their screeching song dulcet tones. I was reminded of the peepers by this line:
  • "When he came in sight of home all light had departed from the west. In the pasture behind the barn there was a spring: a clump of willows in the darkness smelt and heard but not seen. When he approached the fluting of young frogs ceased like so many strings cut with simultaneous scissors." Doesn't fluting sound so pretty and delicate? Maybe there are different frogs in MS. 
Secrets secrets are no fun, secrets aren't for everyone

Byron has a great line when he's telling his buddy the ex-Reverend (Loooong story) about Lena and how he just kept this one thing from her her so far: "Except that I have kept it from her that it was the man she is hunting for that told on the murderer and that he is in jail now except when he is out running with dogs the man that took him up and befriended him. I have kept that from her." Just THat. Does that even Count? Oh, Byron.

Some things will never change
  • I've mentioned this before, but sometimes what strikes me most in novels are the moments where an action or a description is so completely one with the present, despite the stretching expanse of years that separate the reader from the novel's time of origin. There's a fantastic (and bizarre) scene where Christmas is rejecting an assortment of prepared plates that Miss Burden (the murder victim/Christmas's lover/LONGSTORYDON'TASK) has left out for him and shattering them against the wall in the dark. This line stood out to me:
  • "Potatoes', he said at last, with judicial finality. 'Yes, it's potatoes,' he said, in the preoccupied and oblivious tone of a child playing alone." I loved this whole scene, but particularly this description, because I realized that children will have a preoccupied and oblivious tone for a very long time, and perhaps for ever. It just seemed so markedly precise in its sameness to today. 
- Racism and race relations
I saved this for last because I thought maybe something more brilliant or meaningful would strike me as I pondered how to address this in relation to the book. Needless to say, it didn't. But not having exactly the right words is a terrible excuse not to address it at all. So here are a few of my thoughts:
  • The n-word: It's everywhere in this novel. Which feels very jarring, as it's so taboo/verboten for white people to say. I've talked about this before on this blog, and I still think it's right not to censor it out of books from back then, but I also think it's important to note the discomfort and process it as it happens. So there. I said it. I don't like reading it, and I don't like seeing it over and over and over. I can only begin to imagine the way I would feel about it were I a black person, and were this hateful designation for my very person permanently carved into 'classics' revered by generations and guaranteed to last for lifetimes.
  • Racism and authors: I struggle constantly with the idea of how accountable to hold an author to what seem to be blatantly racist sentiments. Granted, we have to recognize that an author is a product of his/her era, but does this give them carte blanche to say the worst accepted things of the time? Or can we not use their writing as an accurate barometer because they are fictions and therefore potentially ironic or hyperbolic representations of that time? I was really lost on this one. There's an extended passage that's beautifully written but despicably racist about Christmas and his internal battle between his 'black blood and his white blood' and I finished reading it and thought, how am I supposed to feel about this? Do I respect the writing craft? Am I wrong to want to hold Faulkner accountable? Is that unfair? 
  • Police brutality/treatment of black people: I read some of the lines and interactions in this novel and thought, WOW. Have we come anywhere since 1930? Anywhere at all? But I know that's offensive to all the brilliant and dedicated people who have fought to move the needle forward since then, so I won't be that defeatist. Still, read this line and tell me you don't think of Freddie Gray:
Brown, speaking to an elderly black woman and asking her if anyone is willing to send a message to the sheriff to get his money brought to him (so he can run away in peace): 'Aint there somebody here that wants to make a dollar? Some of the boys?'
    The old woman smokes, watching him. With an aged and inscrutable midnight face she seems to contemplate him with a detachment almost godlike but not at all benign.
  'I just want somebody that can take a note to the sheriff in a hurry and --'
'The sheriff? Then you come to the wrong place. I aing ghy have none of mine monkeying around no sheriff. I done had one n* that thought he knowed a sheriff well enough to go and visit with him. He aint never come back, neither. You look somewhere else."

When in doubt, think of Atticus Finch
But with all that talk about race and whether we've moved the needle, I feel obligated to say that I am an optimist at heart, and a fighter to the end, so I'll encourage us all to take a page out of Atticus's book. I thought of this exchange between Scout and Atticus when Byron decides to go after Brown/Burch when he runs out on the baby (the second time):

TKAM scene --
Scout: 'Atticus, are we going to win it?'
Atticus: 'No, honey.'
Scout: 'Then why-'
Atticus: 'Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win."

LiA scene -- 
"The desire of this moment is more than desire: it is conviction quiet and assured; before he is aware that his brain has telegraphed his hand he has turned the mule from the road and is galloping along the ridge which parallels the running man's course when he entered the woods...
"'You're bigger than me,' Byron thought. 'But I don't care. You've had every other advantage of me. And I dont care about that neither. You've done throwed away twice inside of nine months what I aint had in thirtyfive years. And now I'm going to get the hell beat out of me and I dont care about that, neither."

Faulkner's Vocab Lesson:

- melodeon - a small organ popular in the 19th century, similar to the harmonium [isn't it cute? don't you just want to sit down and try to play it?]

- larkspur - an annual Mediterranean plant of the buttercup family that bears spikes of spurred flowers; closely related to the delphiniums [ah, yes, the delphiniums cousin plant! sounds familiar...]

- tagend - miscellaneous or random bit [surely you don't require a picture for this one]

- galluses - suspenders for trousers [I found a picture, but it doesn't fit very nicely, and I think you can muster up an image yourself ;)]

A few passages I particularly liked:
  • "From a distance, quite faint though quite clear, he can hear the sonorous waves of massed voices from the church: a sound at once austere and rich, abject and proud, swelling and falling in the quiet summer darkness like a harmonic tide." I used to love walking around in West Philly on Sunday mornings, because you could always catch the strains of hymns drifting from various churches out to the street.
  • "The house squatted in the moonlight, dark, profound, a little treacherous." This made me think of '124 was spiteful.' Maybe there's an 'upset houses' club they can join together!
  • "Lena on the cot watched the white scar beside his mouth vanish completely, as if the ebb of blood behind it had snatched the scar in passing like a rag from a clothesline." Isn't this a great line? Probably my favorite line in the book.
  • "Sometimes it would seem to Hightower that he would actually hale Byron into the house by a judicious application of pure breath, as though Byron wore a sail." Okay, I lied. This is my favorite line.
  • "As though each time they returned to the orderly room they dressed themselves anew in suave and austerely splendid scraps of his dream."
I'll leave you with a few of my favorite summer-related passages. I have written this post in the fading heat of Memorial Day, to the accompaniment of blaze-less (or rather, blaze-invisible-to-me) fireworks (which, for the record, simply sound like oddly spaced cannon booms) thumping in the darkness. 
  • Christmas, upon arriving back 'home' at his adoptive parents' farm:"The grass was aloud, alive with crickets. Against the dewgray earth and the dark bands of trees fireflies drifted and faded, erratic and random. A mockingbird sang in a tree beside the house. Behind him, in the woods beyond the spring, two whippoorwills whistled. Beyond them, as though beyond some ultimate horizon of summer, a hound howled."
  • Reverend Hightower: "He hears now only the myriad and interminable insects, leaning in the window, breathing the hot still rich maculate smell of the earth, thinking of how when he was young, a youth, he had loved darkness, of walking or sitting alone among trees at night."
There's a great line in the novel about 'the week and its whatever disasters, the next week and its whatever disasters'. It had a sort of lighthearted cynicism that I enjoyed. As though yes, every week is not without its little disasters, but then the next week comes, and the week after that, and we move past them, and learn from them, and mitigate them when and where we can. So happy Memorial Day, readers, and best of luck with this week and its whatever disasters - tackle them as best you can! 

I'm moving onwards to Demons and Angels. Just three more on this list to tackle! (repeats are OK) (repeats are OK)

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