Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Sound And The Fury: More than a Tale Told By An Idiot

The Good: Amazing control of details, characters and incredible construction of plot
The Bad: Opens with the most difficult section
The Basics: Stick with The Sound And The Fury; despite the difficulty initially, you will find it engaging and worthy!

When James Joyce wrote Ulysses, he sent copies to over a hundred celebrities, reviewers, and personal friends. In an article in The New Yorker back in 1998 or 1999, a writer discussed how far various individuals actually got in the book before giving up or dying. It would be interesting to see a similar thing done with William Faulkner's masterpiece The Sound and the Fury. Faulkner's magnum opus is a sprawling work that challenges the reader with its lack of respect for time and its four different narrators who try to piece together the story of a family in decline.

Like a lot of Modernist novels, The Sound and the Fury is about the extinction of a family line, in this case the Southern Compson family. Why, you may ask, is the family on the verge of extinction? The youth of the novel all have very specific problems: Benjy is a mentally retarded boy who has been castrated, Quentin (the male) . . . well, read the book for him, Quentin (the female) is illegitimate, troubled and opts for running away, and the reigning man, Jason, is quite frankly one of the great villains (read "bastards") of American literature. Jason's part of the extinction is that he's just so mean as to be so unlovable that he couldn't hope to land a woman and, in the novel, he doesn't, without having a cash transaction relationship.

Like many Modernist novels, The Sound and the Fury is written with a strong sense of poetics and Faulkner richly lays out a landscape - both geographic and personal - that resonates with a strong visual sense. This is a complex family story that is told with a complex sense of language. Faulkner illustrates the difficulties of living with and understanding a mentally retarded individual by giving Benjy a voice. His section is a challenge because that particular lens is so unfamiliar to most readers.

But almost equally difficult is Quentin Compson's perspective. Americans are diligently trained to reject the mentally ill and Quentin's overwhelming melancholy is difficult for many to stomach. Here is a bright, young man going to Harvard and he can't find happiness. That's alien to most Americans obsessed with materialism, yet for someone who has all of the apparent advantages of intellect and opportunity, there is something not quite right with him. The result is a truly tragic voice and character.

Jason Compson's section is one that far too few people seem to find difficult, troubling because of how filled with hate the character is. Abusive and unloving, Jason ought to be difficult to read, not for the alien persona or the radically different emotional lens, but for the harshness that - hopefully - most readers will be unable to empathize with.

The combination of these voices makes for a complete family narrative that challenges the reader to assemble it and gain insight on what makes a family tick.

This sprawling family saga is told brilliantly in four parts, from four perspectives which creates a magical atmosphere that is unparalleled in literature since. The difficult aspect of the novel is the opening section. Faulkner begins the novel with Benjy and he writes it expertly from the retarded perspective and as such it's horribly difficult to decipher what's going on and, more importantly, when. Stick with the novel and you will be rewarded - it all comes out!

The strength of the novel is its diversity and its unrelenting realism and thematic unity. This is THE modern day tragedy and it will be for a long time to come.

For other great works of modern literature, please check out my reviews of:
Invisible Man - Ralph Ellison
The Communist Manifesto - Marx and Engel
Leaves Of Grass - Walt Whitman


For other book reviews, please check out my index page!

© 2010, 2007, 2001 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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