Title: As I Lay Dying
Author: William Faulkner
Year Of Publication: 1930
Genre: Fiction, Southern Gothic, Dark Comedy
Summary: Let me be the first to welcome you to Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi. It can be a hard land to make a living, especially when you belong to the Bundren clan and your mother is a fish.
When Addie Bundren dies, her family (husband: Anse, children: Cash, Darl, Jewel, Dewey Dell, and Vardaman) quests to give her a proper burial in her hometown of Jefferson, a few miles away. There are problems, of course. The family wagon is a hunk of junk, a recent storm washed out a time-saving bridge, and it becomes increasingly clear that most, if not all, the Bundren’s are traveling to Jefferson out of some kind of self-interest.
You’ve heard of this book. It’s consistently ranked as one of the best of the 20th Century and there’s a good chance you were assigned it in high school or college and just never read it. Not only were we all too cool to read in high school, but Faulkner’s use of pronouns can be confusing if you’re just skimming for pleasure and the use of stream of consciousness storytelling is the literary equivalent of those Seven Seconds Or Less Phoenix Suns teams. It’s a novel that requires your attention, especially considering it’s narrated, at points, by 19 different characters. But it’s a worthy, unimposing read (56,000 words…the first Harry Potter has 77,000), and is truly a masterclass in character building and dramatic structure. Chapter by chapter, and from POV to POV, we learn a little more about these characters and this world until we are so deep within their magnetic field we can do nothing but read on.
What’s tough, and what tripped me up when I first read this in college (though I recently re-read), are the character’s meditations on being. The famous line that’s oft-quoted (and I will now shamelessly quote) is thought by Vardaman soon after his mother’s passing: “My mother is a fish,” thinks the youngest Bundren, implying that after death we lose our essence of human-ness. There’s more like this and each thought builds upon the last. Miss one link in that chain and you can find yourself lost in an unfamiliar land that smells like an unembalmed eight-day-old dead body cooking in the Mississippi sun. Or, wait, no. That’s just the Bundren’s.
TL;DR: A family of crazies transports their dead matriarch through Mississippi hoping to find more than just a burial ground.
Verdict: Give this high school/ college assigned reading another shot to see why it’s considered one of the greatest written in the 20th Century.