I am currently reading the novel As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner. I read this book in high school–over twenty years ago–and since I am engaged in the work of creating my own novel, I decided over the summer to revisit some of the authors who inspired me to pen my own tale. Faulkner is a novelist I revere above most others.
If you don’t know Faulkner, I will give you a brief synopsis of his writing style. He employed creative use of stream of consciousness. His novels are broken into short chapters, each told from the perspective of a different character, although he does rotate through them as the plot mounts, providing alternate perspectives of the same events as they occur over time. The style of writing shifts from chapter to chapter, along with perspective, weaving an intricate storytelling tapestry, highlighting complex issues, while honoring the full spectrum of human emotions in response to the events as they occur within his fictional world.
With that said, I recently read a chapter–told from the perspective of the character Darl–which moved me so thoroughly that I had to re-read it several times–not for lack of concentration, but because I wanted to indulge in the euphoria of the reading experience without ceasing. Darl is one of several siblings recounting the experience of their mother’s death. The family is transporting their matriarch’s corpse across several towns, to honor her dying wish of a burial with her family of origin. Darl is “the one folks talk about.” He is queer. He is also the voice of empathy, insight, and intuition.
In this particular scene, Darl and his brother, Jewel, have traveled outside of town to make a delivery and earn a small sum of money. While away, their mother dies, and the family wait for their return to embark on the arduous journey to bury her. Darl is not present with his brother, Cash, as he completes the chore of constructing their mother’s coffin; nevertheless, the entire account of Cash’s final efforts is told from his perspective. How can a character who is not present, provide an account of events he did not witness? I have been pondering this over the past few days. My theory is that Darl, far from clairvoyent, having a sensitive soul and analytical mind, is able to imagine the events, without knowing for sure, with a clarity of insight. He knows his brother and his father well, and it is for this reason that he can envision the scene without attendance.
Darl is the heart of the story. He is a desire for truth and understanding, and as such, he perceives. Below you will find a selection from the scene in question. As you read, keep in mind that the narrator is not actually present; thus, he did not actually witness the scene. It occurs in the plane of his imagination, yet it occurs with detailed precision, as experienced by the actors themselves.
“He saws again, his elbow flashing slowly, a thin thread of fire running along the edge of the saw, lost and recovered at the top and bottom of each stroke in unbroken elongation, so that the saw appears to be six feet long, into and out of pa’s shabby and aimless silouette…It begins to rain. The first harsh, sparse, swift drops rush through the leaves and across the ground in a long sigh, as though of relief from intolerable suspense. They are big as buckshot, warm as though fired from a gun; they sweep across the lantern in a vicious hissing. Pa lifts his face, slack-mouthed, the wet black rim of snuff plastered close along the base of his gums…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.”William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying
Through Darl, Faulkner illustrates Cash’s diligent utility, be it to honor his mother, his craft or both. Likewise, he exposes the helplessness of Pa, in grief and in impotence. This is one tiny reason why Faulkner was and is one of the greatest American writers of all time!
I can only hope to have a fraction of the talent endowed in William Faulkner. If you would like to partner with me as I develop my own novel, please find me on Patreon.