What I love about literature are the little insights and mantras a reader can gain from a particularly striking piece. You know: Love prevails, nice guys finish last (or, hopefully, first), everything turns out all right in the end, and then my personal, most recent favorite: don’t wait a minute to bury your dead, especially if you lack embalming fluid and a skilled undertaker. For, if you do, you may end up dragging a stinking corpse across the country in a wooden box surrounded by hungry buzzards, stirring up havoc for everyone who encounters you. Blech. I love As I Lay Dying because it is an ironic, almost inverted quest, a grand journey to a hole that could be dug, almost anywhere, to deposit a body nine-days rotten that has no knowledge of where it’s being dispensed anyway…maybe. Maybe the body has more life than we think? That’s possible. But the beauty of this tragi-comedy of errors is that the body is, in a way, the focal point of the book; the entire book’s plot is structured around hauling a decaying body across townships to bury it in a town called Jefferson.
The text is morbid and macabre; parts of this post would be easily as suited for my other blog, Just Dread-Full, as they would be suited for a general blog about reading and literature. The book begins with the ailing, dying Addie Bundren, who lives in the dirty south with her husband, Anse, and their five children, around the turn of the century (late 1800’s, early 1900’s). Addie, though technically alive, is immobile and practically dead in bed, while her son, Cash, outside her window, assiduously carves her coffin, pausing to hold planks of wood up to the window for her approval. WTF Faulkner?! Who thinks of things like that. And he consistently refers to her bones, even as she’s alive, as “rotting,” or “rotting sticks” to amplify the disgusting, unpleasant nature of death and throw it in our indignant faces, knowing, as he does, that we’d prefer to look away, but laughing – at least, I imagine he did – because we can’t. I believe the “bad car wreck” would be a cliché metaphor to employ here: reading As I Lay Dying is like looking at a bad car wreck that you can’t turn away from. As the Beatles say in “A Day in the Life Of” But I just had to look, having read the book.
Anse Bundren is an absurd, unlovable anti-hero, a veritable caricature, if that, of anyone you’ve ever met. I used to joke with my dad – tell him that he was lazy and call him Anse Bundren – but that was all in good fun; my dad is no Anse Bundren, and nobody I know is. Anse Bundren believes he will die if he sweats; you can imagine how this mentality is problematic in the bucolic south for someone who sustains himself off a farm and wishes to transport his wife’s corpse to Jefferson through strange towns, farmland, and unmerciful river rapids. Despite the trouble he causes others, though he claims to be “beholden” to no man, he’s intent on transporting Addie’s corpse to Jefferson, while the family’s onlookers kind of just throw up their hands and help where they can. As William Butler Yeats says in his poem “The Second Coming,”: The best lack all conviction / and the worst are full of passionate intensity. As readers we imagine Anse has cared about little in his life, but he certainly wants to bury Addie with her family in Jefferson. About this unlikely maneuver, he has marked conviction. Here lies, presumably, his passionate intensity.
Anse’s actions, on the one hand, are ludicrous, but on the other hand, as I read, I thought, despite the problems that Anse causes his family and others, isn’t part of him right? There is something sacred about death – specifically, about the wishes of the dying. Everyone who we perceive to be rational in the story tells him to bury Addie at the closer New Hope cemetery. I doubt Anse is driven by integrity itself, but by some sort of fear, even superstition (combined with obstinate pride) of not adhering to Addie’s wishes. If you promise your dying wife you’ll do something, doesn’t it follow that you try to do it? The crux of Anse’s problem, then, is that in the early 1900’s, in a sparsely populated Southern area, with unreliable roads and bridges and without the money to buy a car, his task is too daunting, virtually insurmountable. Perhaps, we may go so far as to say, Addie asks too much. And anyway, why doesn’t she want to be buried, ultimately, with Anse and the kids? Of course, Addie gets her chance to talk in the book, and we might surmise why she wants to be buried with her original family from her sometimes shockingly honest words.
In one of my anthropology classes in college the professor presented us with a quote by Gananath Obeyesekere about our culture’s tendency to dodge from the realities of death – to clean it up and make it seem neat and antiseptic, instead of embracing it for the formidable process of disgusting, excrement-producing decay that it is. (I tried to find the quote online, but could not, and I took the class over ten years ago). Faulkner loves alarming us. If the so-called classics are partially classics because of their abilities to create stark, often luminous worlds that pull us into the text, Faulkner’s world is clearly defined by its emaciated, stinking morbidity. Faulkner simultaneously shocks and gags us as he peers into the minds of onlookers and lets them tell us about the pervasive stink, the inability to un-smell the smell of Addie’s corpse as it’s being transported across country, the looming, treacherous notion that the stench is still present, long after the buzzard-infested casket has passed. These then, are the unpleasant realities with which Faulkner bombards us, though there is assuredly much symbolic potential in such unapologetic depictions of raw sickness and decay. Those of a darker reading persuasion should definitely read As I Lay Dying.