“The Dixie Limited,” Part One
It comes in at #6 on The 100 Best Novels list compiled by the Modern Library, yet it doesn’t appear at all in the 100 Greatest Novels of All Time list compiled by the Guardian in the UK. It also appears in the un-numbered 100 Best Books of All Time on Wikipedia . . . but who really cares what it says on Wikipedia, right? Time magazine’s un-numbered All-Time 100 Novels list (from 2005) calls it a “brutally moving epic of love, lust and endurance.” Yet, despite all that high praise – except from the Brits at the Guardian, who instead included As I Lay Dying, which is a great novel, at #52 – I had never read The Sound and The Fury by William Faulkner. While I’m being honest, I’ve never read Absalom! Absalom! either. (However, in an utterly defensive attempt at Southern literary redemption, I have to add here that “Barn Burning” is probably my favorite short story of all time.)
According to critic Lev Grossman’s short piece on The Sound and the Fury for that aforementioned Time list, Flannery O’Connor used to half-jokingly call Faulkner “the Dixie Limited,” which partially implied that he was “a literary freight train that other southern writers had to dodge.” I’ve been dodging him for a long time, too. I read As I Lay Dying eight or ten years ago, mainly because two friends, Karren Pell and Tom House, do a country music show that is an adaptation of the novel, and I was curious because of that; I read almost the whole novel in one sitting in Chicago’s O’Hare Airport during a long layover. I was so enthralled by the story and the style that I couldn’t put it down. Yet, unlike books by others writers that I liked intensely and immediately — DH Lawrence was one, Henry Miller another – I didn’t follow-up with Faulkner, I didn’t go devour his whole catalog as I have been prone to do with those other writers. So earlier this year I put both The Sound and the Fury and Absalom! Absalom! on my New Year’s resolution list.
I started reading The Sound and the Fury in mid-May with about three weeks left in the school year, with twelfth graders begging for their blogs to be graded as fast as possible, and with a stack of Creative Writing students’ screenplays languishing without my red marks on them . . . but I was at that point that I had to read something other than student papers. I got about fifty pages into the novel, about two-thirds of the way through the first section, “April Seventh, 1928,” and had no clue what in the hell was going on. After a couple-dozen pages, I figured out that the narrator was the mentally challenged brother Benjy and that the time lapses were drastic and discontinuous. Unwilling to start back over from the beginning, I kept on trudging through. By about page fifty, nearing the end of section one, I had no choice but to resort to SparkNotes— Oh, so that’s what’s going on . . . now I get it! In graduate school, I was assigned to read works by Lacan and de Saussure, but this . . . I was volunteering to stumble through this quagmire.
Sitting on my in-laws’ lake house porch at Lake Martin on the Sunday morning of Memorial Day weekend, I looked up from page 68 of the 75-page first section and said to my wife, who had come out to have a cigarette, “If something doesn’t change soon, I’m not going to be able to keep reading this shit,” waving my copy in the air. I tried to explain my frustration, she grimaced and said, “I’m sorry . . .” then went back inside. I had ruined her attempt at taking a break from our kids with my rant about the barely comprehensible narration of Benjy/Maury, but I had only about seven pages to go to finish that section and move on, thankfully to a new part told by another narrator. Although I will admit that when I saw that the second section moved eighteen years backwards in time, I sighed and dove in with a pessimistic resolve to read a few more pages before giving up, just to be able to say honestly that I tried. I have quit Joyce’s Ulysses several times now, so I have some experience with the literary “fuck it.”
But my goodness, those first few pages of “June Second, 1910” contain some of the best writing I have ever read! From the opening paragraph:
It was my Grandfather’s [watch] and when Father gave it to me he said I give you the mausoleum of all hope and desire; it’s rather excruciating-ly apt that you will use it to gain the reducto absurdum of all human experience which can fit your individual needs no better than it fitted his or his father’s. I give it to you not that you may remember time but that you may forget it now and then for a moment and not spend all your breath trying to conquer it. (76)
After a dismal experience with a thirty-three-year-old autistic man’s version of the great Southern family saga, once Quentin Compson took over, I understood immediately why this novel is “great,” why Faulkner is a genius, and why I should continue reading. The setting this time is Harvard, not Mississippi— well, sort of. The setting would have been Harvard if Quentin Compson mind wasn’t constantly wandering back to Mississippi, back to his home and family, back to his distraught feelings about his promiscuous sister who he may or may not have had an incestuous affair with, back to his father whose disdain for modern conceptions of time and for the concept of virginity are startlingly pervasive to Quentin . . . who has a lot on his mind.
Then I began to really feel bad for this poor sap. If it weren’t enough to be sorting out those feelings, Quentin gets followed out of a bakery by a silent and somewhat stalker-ish little Italian girl, who he tries to help find her home and who eventually gets him assaulted (by her brother) and arrested (by the constable he was looking for to get help) because they they think he was trying to kidnap the child. Deus ex machina and a carload of his friends arrive just in time to pay a seven-dollar fine (bribe?) – back in 1910, a lot of money – and Quentin is free again, this time to go with his friends and few girls to a get-together where he punches one of them, Gerald Bland the braggart-womanizer, and gets his ass kicked for starting the fight. I guess when you’re so distraught over your sister’s unplanned pregnancy and subsequent marriage that you will blurt out to your father that you committed incest with her, hearing some pompous jerk, a la Barney Stinson, brag about all the girls he has had might rub you the wrong way. Our anti-hero goes home with a black eye, with strangers on a train staring at him, and thus ends section two with Quentin Compson all alone, using gasoline to get the blood stains out of clothes.
Faulkner has managed through this first half of The Sound and the Fury to develop an array of styles that carry the reader through standard narration and a variety of reminiscences and back-stories, some of which is confusing, all of which is shadowy. The lack of punctuation in parts of the story has made some passages particularly difficult, but not impossible, to read and understand. Although understand isn’t the right word— I don’t think Faulkner wants us to understand fully what is going on here, any more than we understand things like the effects of time or the significance of virginity or the intense love some siblings have for each other.
When I start reading again, Faulkner picks it up back in April 1928, back in Mississippi, one day before the events in the first section. It’ll probably take a minute to wrap my head around jumping back forward almost to the point in time when the novel began. It’ll take some effort to fuse the 1928 Benjy narrative with the 1910 Quentin narrative, and then add in whatever is coming next . . . I have to finish it, after all, since everyone knows that, if you make a New Year’s resolution to do something, you have do it.