Tuesday, March 15, 2011


Book Reviewed: Light in August, by William Faulkner

Whenever I think about the three most famous and beloved American writers of the 20th century - Hemingway, Faulkner, and Fitzgerald - I have to remind myself that they were all writing at basically the same time. The writings of these three men have nothing but the concerns of time and place in common. Their styles are as different as could be, their characters could never reach across books to be friends, and their personal lives were just as disparate. Fitzgerald's books are concerned with class and couplings; his style has a perfected, shiny gloss to it that at its best results in a lovely and poetic energy and at its worse is near-impossible to take seriously (and I say that as a major fan). Hemingway is all about the modern man, and his revolutionary prose is famous for its brevity and neatness. Faulkner is a completely different beast altogether. His style is as wordy as Fitzgerald's, but it also has the more modern feel of Hemingway's directness. His subject matter lies in his own deep-South upbringing, with many of his characters being the impoverished and disenfranchised that Hemingway and Fitzgerald never did like to deal with in their work. He also uses something that Fitzgerald and Hemingway never would've thought about utilizing: stream-of-consciousness prose.

For years, it was this last point that I thought kept me from liking Faulkner. I read a couple Faulkner novels in my first few years of high school, and I strongly disliked them. The style was confusing, and I hated the characters. Now, I realize that I was simply too young to be reading those books in the first place. What you read when you're a teenager has a surprisingly big impact on the rest of your reading life. The same year I claimed I'd never read Faulkner for fun was the same year I declared Fitzgerald as my favorite writer ever. I was fifteen.

But Faulkner is one of the "important" writers out there, and I always felt guilty for disliking him. So I decided that as an adult and college graduate, I might change my mind about the man and his books. As a Virginia Woolf fan, I even have a higher tolerance for stream-of-consciousnes now. With that idea in mind, I tackled what many consider his best work, the novel Light in August. And I came to two conclusions upon finishing the book. One, Faulkner is a genius. Two, I still don't like reading his work.

Light in August begins with a young woman on the road. She's very pregnant and looking for the baby's father, who left her in Alabama with lots of sweet and meaningless promises. Eventually, she makes her way to a small Mississippi mill town, where she meets Byron Bunch, an all around good guy who works hard and never makes trouble. Byron promises to help her find the man, who at this time has taken up the name of Joe Brown and lives in a cabin with another mysterious man named Joe Christmas. The book then goes on to explore the life of Joe Christmas, who is mixed-race but has no proof of his own ancestry. He spent his early years in an orphanage, was adopted by a super-religious man and his weird wife, then turned into a drifter and eventual criminal. Christmas is responsible for the death of Ms. Burden, a wealthy town outcast who becomes his much-older lover. While Christmas is on the run from the law, other parts of the story play out, including the relationship between Byron Bunch and a disgraced minister named Gail Hightower, the birth of Lena's child, and the discovery of Christmas's parentage and remaining family. The book gets fairly bloody and brutal in the end (what else would you expect from Southern lit), but it ends in a nice circular fashion with Lena on the road again, her circumstances only marginally changed.

There is a lot going on in this book. There's some pretty heavy Christian themes, with Christmas set up to be a kind of Christ-like figure (admittedly, I had trouble with this whole thread, as I didn't get all the parallels others have made in regards to this). There's a pretty strong thread of misogyny, and I haven't decided whether or not its intentional. Issues of race and race relations are probably the most important aspects of this book, and the ones that were the most obvious to me as I was reading it. Faulkner writes about race in a way that's very honest and rare even to this day. Despite Light in August being published in 1932, there's some very contemporary ideas still at play here.

Faulkner is an important writer, and I would definitely go out on a limb and say that he might be the smartest of the Fitzgerald/Hemingway/Faulkner smartfest. He deserved that Nobel Prize and more. While reading this book, I was often reminded of Tolstoy (my second-favorite novelist after Fitzgerald). Tolstoy is often credited with revolutionizing the format of the novel into what we know it as today. Faulkner is definitely the American version of that revolutionary spirit. The book goes back and forth in time and doles out histories when they are needed, which means we get a main character's backstory in the final pages. I really love and admire the way Light in August is structured. More importantly, there were sentences in this book that wowed me with their simple and descriptive grace. Without a doubt, Faulkner is a master of the form.

That being said, I can't say I particularly enjoyed reading this book. It gave me a lot to think about, and it showed me just how wonderful Faulker is as a writer and thinker. But I disliked all the characters and felt bogged down by the oppressiveness of it all. I like a tragedy as much as the next person, if not more. But this book was not fun to read at all. If I want to think and admire what writing can do, I might go back to Faulkner (and I'm sure I'll read more of his work in the future). If I want to enjoy myself and want to get stuck in a story, I'm going to stick with my man Fitzgerald.

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