Thursday, March 21, 2013

#63 - "The Sound and the Fury" by William Faulkner

After reading The Lord of the Rings for so very, very long, my 63rd book from the list, The Sound and the Fury seemed like a breeze. It only took 10 days and there were days I looked forward to reading it; such a departure from #62. But there were a couple of problems; a couple of big problems.

When I finished reading this book, I have to admit I wasn't entirely sure what I had just read. The book is broken into four sections, each narrated by a different person. Well, except the fourth section which switches to third person. Of course Faulkner is hazy on the details of who is narrating and it usually takes ten pages or so to establish who 'I' now is.

In short, the book follows the Compsons, a Southern family in the early part of the 20th century. There are four grown siblings, a father who isn't around anymore (I think he's dead) and a mother who seems to be suffering from...something, maybe depression. If that seems vague, it's because so is the book.

One of the sons has a mental handicap (we're never really sure what the problem is as it's never even partially explained) so we read through his blurred sense of reality via his inner thoughts. But since this is never really explained, we actually read through a series of incoherent babble for 75 pages and wonder what the hell just happened. Later we learn about his handicap and are meant to now understand why it didn't make any sense.

Another son went to Harvard and later committed suicide. Much like the first section, we are treated to a stream of consciousness that is impossible to follow. As an added treat, Faulkner eschews all punctuation, letting us enjoy four page sentences with time shifts and location changes (all unexplained of course).

The third son, Jason, is basically an asshole who now heads the family household. This was easily the most interesting part of the book, and I actually enjoyed it. Faulkner abandons cryptic thoughts and phrases and instead tells us a story with vivid descriptions and interesting character developments. If the entire book was written in this fashion, I believe I would have a totally different opinion of it.

I found reading most of this book to be like trying to piece together a family's history by listening to them talk at the dinner table.  Unfortunately, few families rehash the details of their past, as they already know them, and they certainly aren't trying to help a silent observer understand them a little better.

The result of this is not only not understanding it, which I'm sure most don't, but also that I am left feeling as if I am somehow an inadequate reader. That this book is so highly acclaimed leads me to one of two conclusions. First, these people are smarter than I am (unlikely). Second, that they didn't really understand it either, but fearing this being discovered, they heap praise on it as a way of transferring the burden of not understanding it to anybody who doubts their praise. I think I'll go with door number two.

I am confident in my assertion that this book is impossible to understand and it has nothing to do with my skills as a reader. I make this claim because I usually understand the books I read, and because Faulkner wrote an appendix in 1945, 16 years after it was first published, to explain the family lineage and detail the events that took place. Basically, to explain the things we were unable to learn from actually reading the book in the first place. As I've said before, I don't think a novel should need an appendix, as a well written book would accomplish the same goal the first time around.

When I'm reading a book, I want to be entertained. But it is impossible to be entertained when you're spending most of your time trying to figure out what is going on. The best line about The Sound and the Fury I've found is, "Because of the staggering complexity of this section, it is often the one most extensively studied by scholars of the novel." Or to put it another way, more people didn't understand this section than any other, so they spend a lot of time trying to get something out of it, in an effort to explain why people think so highly of this book."

While I understand that every book will be different things to different people, this is a book I cannot get behind. I shudder to think how many people were turned off of reading after having been forced to read this in high school.

The good news is that like Virginia Woolf, I have now finished William Faulkner. Both had two books on the list, and all four were a struggle to read. If I were ranking the books I read (which I may do in the near future), these four would find themselves near the bottom.

My next book is going to be The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler. Along with Red Harvest, perhaps the only 'mystery' novels on the list. Should be a quick read, and one I'm looking forward to, having seen and enjoyed the Bogart movie.


  1. Why not start doing your ranking as you go through the list? It would be interesting to see how some novels are pushed by others up or down as you read along!

    I enjoy your blog btw and I've been reading it regularly for years!

    1. Thanks!

      Yeah, I've been thinking about a ranking, as so many people ask me, what's your favorite and least favorite. To tell the truth, I've never really thought about it that much, but I am going to try and put something together soon. (And I do know what my least favorite is....!)

  2. Wow, you really didn't like it! Can you believe that this book was on the Oprah book club? She had three of them: The Sound and the Fury, Light in August, and As I Lay Dying. On her site there is a guide on how to read Faulkner:

    I think the comparison of the reader as a jury member is particularly apt.

    One beef about your review: I don't agree with the assertion that my enjoyment of the book is out of a fear that others may find out that I didn't understand it. In fact, my enjoyment of the book is because I didn't understand it! I am not embarrased by it. The difficulty and method by which the story is told gives the novel re-readability. That is why I think Absalom! Absalom! is my favorite because it is not only hard to understand, but it is difficult to read in general- there are sentences that go for pages with clauses within clauses within clauses. The story is of Thomas Sutpen told to Quentin Compson by different people with varying degrees of actual involvement in the story- there are so many conflicting accounts that at the end of the book, you know a lot about the story, but don't really know what was true and what was not.

    I have only read Absalom! Absalom! once, but I know I will reread it at some point when I am ready, but it might not be for a long time. It was ten years between my readings of The Sound and the Fury. On the second reading, I understood more, but I still didn't understand all. I remember the first time reading it being so confused on why Quentin was sometimes a male and sometimes a female. At the beginning of the novel on the first read, you don't get why Benjy is getting so upset watching the golfers (and it might even take a while to realize they are playing golf) because you haven't been introduced to Caddy (or even Benjy) yet.

    Faulkner is difficult, but it is not difficult in the sense that William Gaddis is difficult. In The Recognitions, there were so many damn obscure references and name dropping that you would need to be well versed in the esoterica to understand the novel completely. Faulkner is not like that. You don't have to study other books on a range of subjects from art to occultism to understand it, you just need to read the book. It is all in there (at least the important parts) if you are willing to go mining. And the parts that aren't there or are incomplete- that is just part of the fun- fill in the blanks yourself or just enjoy the mystery. Kind of like LOST.

    Here is an interesting essay/paper exploring whether Benjy had autism:

    Of course, back when the Faulkner wrote the book, autism was not a term, so of course he couldn't call him autistic in the book.


    1. That is a great point, comparing to Gaddis. And I can see many positives to this book, even though I was quite harsh about it in my review.

      I think that this is a book I might take a lot more from if I read it a second time. Especially since I am much more familiar with what was really going on, than I ever was while reading it.

      Thanks for the links...I'll take a look at them tonight. I imagine a lot of Oprah followers didn't finish this one. (Or if they did, had NO idea what they had just read!)

    2. Gravity's Rainbow is difficult, but it is more Gaddis than Faulkner. It will be interesting to see what you think of it because most of the obscure references are around and about WWII, which you have an interest in, instead of Mithraic mythology.


    3. PS: I am waiting on you to start reading that one (Gravity's Rainbow) before I try to tackle it again (but I am not in a rush!). I think it helped me get through The Recognitions reading it at the same time as you.


    4. That was an interesting read, from the Oprah site. I enjoy and think it is probably very accurate, that Faulkner needs to be read several times. While this at first seems as if it shouldn't be, the author points out that we take in other art forms over and over again (listening to a song, watching a movie, or looking at art), so why not do that with a book.

      Especially good was Faulkner's response to somebody who didn't understand his book after reading it three times: "read it four times." !

      I've also noticed that past couple of days, that the more I think about this book, the more I didn't mind much of it. Jason Compson is a very complex and interesting characters, and I did find myself quite wrapped up in his story.

      I guess this means I'll be reading Faulkner again sometime (but not until I finish this list!).

      I'll keep you posted on when I plan on reading Gravity's Rainbow, which I think along with A Dance to the Music of Time, I am most intimidated by, of the books I have left.