The Avid Reader: Helen Schulman on As I Lay Dying
Discovering Faulkner in College Can Very Much Change Your Life
The year was 1981. I was living in idyllic Ithaca, a crazy-beautiful upstate New York university town, rocky and hilly, furrowed by waterfalls and gorges, and anchored to the magnificent blue stage of a lake. I was a college junior at Cornell, in my first advanced literary seminar, a small classroom filled with both undergrads and grad students eager to read the stories and novels of Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner. (The dazzling poet Alice Fulton, then an MFA candidate, was often sitting directly across from me, my first writer crush!) I remember feeling both intimidated and somewhat guilty, like I was getting over on somebody; due to the magical touch of the provost’s wand, we were receiving three credits each to sit around a table and talk about great books. And all this under the deep and gentle guidance of a wonderful Faulkner scholar, the late Walter Slatoff, who celebrated wholly the pure pleasure factor of the endeavor.
Until the weather turned, hippie-girl me wore no shoes those autumn days under her long-flowing patchwork skirts. Footwear was not required then in the university’s halls, or libraries, or even the cafes lodged in various lecture halls, including The Temple of Zeus, in the humanities building, where I went every morning to get my coffee and whole wheat carob chip cookies. Dogs roamed freely throughout much of campus, and in many of our creative writing workshops we drank wine and smoked cigarettes alongside our professors. It was a different time; and for me a heady one. That classroom, Professor Slatoff, the books we studied, all gave me the proof I had so secretly longed for, that reading could become the basis of a life’s work. In this case, mine.
The spur to this revelation came when we were assigned Faulkner’s novel As I Lay Dying at the beginning of the term. I still remember the physical sensation I felt when I picked up the book and first began to read. It was as if water were rushing throughout my body, enlivening me in some new and profound way, satisfying something that had never been satisfied before. I don’t know if it was the gusts of sheer lyricism in Faulkner’s sentences, or my own nose-dive into the interiority of his characters, but I felt as if I’d been launched into outer space and thrillingly stumbled upon the planet with the atmosphere in which I was meant to live. On Faulkner’s pages, everyone spoke my language even though of course they didn’t—his characters were uneducated rural Southerners and I was a hardboiled Jewish New Yorker in a college English class. Still I felt paradoxically as if I was floating above myself and more a part of myself than I had ever felt before while reading.
Briefly, the novel’s narrative action is about the death of a matriarch of a poor farming family, Addie Bundren, and the insane, quixotic, self-serving trip her widower, Anse, takes their five children on. Their quest: to deliver Addie’s casketed, unembalmed body to Jackson, a town a day’s ride away, where she was born and wanted to be buried. In a biblical vein, both fire and flood mar the journey. There is calamity from the very start, and tragedy strikes throughout with a brutal, almost comic regularity. Because of Anse’s lack of judgement, his cheapness, his inhumane treatment of his offspring, and his idiotic obduracy, the trip takes nine full days by mule-drawn wagon. The casket has had holes bored into it, it has fallen into a rushing river, and an ever-growing pestilent trail of buzzards follows in the wagon’s odiferous wake.
Formally, As I Lay Dying was a revelation for me. It is comprised of 59 brief chapters—one as short as a single sentence, “My mother is a fish,” from the point of view of five-year-old Vardaman, Addie’s youngest, bewildered and deprived son—narrated by 15 different characters in a series of interior monologues using stream of consciousness, which in this case could be renamed “spike in the veins,” because that is how I read them, as if each character’s blood were now coursing through mine.
More astonishing to me was that in mining his characters’ thoughts and private struggles, Faulkner used elevated maximalist language, the poetic and truest manifestation of these poor country people’s psyches and souls—and not the inarticulate staccato utterances that we hear realistically employed in active dialogue in scenes. This lashing together of characters and readers, through the tongues of the angels, is I think the most brilliant of all his moves. I felt as if knew each one to the marrow, their secrets and their sorrows, and most intriguingly to me their selfish inner motivations, the motors that made them run.
Until I read As I Lay Dying, I didn’t know one could write this way—itty bitty chapters, voices emanating from the marrow of people’s bones, characters narrating scenes they weren’t privy to, as if their deeper understanding of the people around them allowed them some kind of holy vision from afar, with even poor Addie finally speaking her mind after she has died. I didn’t know a novelist could fracture the whole narrative like a broken plate, and then give every shard its own distinct life—each character out for themselves, each determined to go to Jackson out of their own selfish needs and wants—and still dare to wrap up the many story-threads like an ouroboros, Anse’s desires the only ones being met. I read the novel only once, back in the day, but I’ve thought about it endlessly in the 30-odd-years since, and I can even still see some of the passages in the “mind-pictures” I took during the first reading; that is, I can still see some of the type on the page in my head.
Faulkner said he wrote the novel in six weeks (some places I’ve read eight) and that he never rewrote a word, and although I’ve also read that that’s not quite true, there are places in the novel where he repeats his language and images in a way that seems either organic or accidental. He has been quoted as being less interested in technique then soul. So the prose though gorgeous, feels ecstatic rather than pored over and crafted. He wrote As I Lay Dying, from midnight to 4 am, on top of a wheelbarrow that he used as a desk during his job as a night watchman and it was published in 1930. When asked about the novel, he said he’d set out to write a “tour de force.” I love that, because he motherfucking did.
Cut from Ithaca in the early 80s to now. 2018. Six novels later for me, four of which have multiple narrators (my latest, Come With Me, has eight.) I have had characters narrate scenes they could not possibly have lived through (for example, a parental courtship in my first novel, Out of Time, recounted by their youngest son, who has AIDS.) I often employ what I think of as stream-of-consciousness lite: I don’t try to capture the torrent as vividly as my heroes Faulkner or Virginia Woolf, but my narrators are still buffeted by their swirling inner thoughts. Their voices are often more elemental than actual in that I try to give my characters some of the language of their bones and still keep them sounding colloquial.I felt myself to be a much more fearful and tender reader at 57 than I was at 20, not quite so keen to eat the world of someone else’s pain.
And so, this fall I reread As I Lay Dying to calculate my debt to this book—which is immense—and to see if the book would still affect me in the same soul-shaking way, now that I have lived so much more of my life. The answer is, of course, yes and no. I had written no books when I first read this one, and I had not read anything like it; even the experience of reading Woolf came on its heels. As well, I have now been influenced by a lifetime of reading other writers, and of stealing from them, too. And I’ve experienced rather than just read about many of the emotions As I Lay Dying braves: love, familial and romantic, attachment, loneliness, loss, the feeling of being so lost you cannot even imagine ever feeling found.
And so, I felt myself to be a much more fearful and tender reader at 57 than I was at 20, not quite so keen to eat the world of someone else’s pain. The confusion and fear young Vardaman feels while witnessing his own mother’s death was enough to put me to bed for the afternoon, thinking of what might have happened to my own children had I not been able to survive a dangerous illness I had when they were small. The rising tide of the Bundren family’s misfortune at times overwhelmed me, while as a young woman I had eagerly opened my heart to the characters, their agonies notwithstanding. Bring it on!
In one of the chapters told by Dewey Dell, Anse and Addie’s 17-year-old daughter, we learn that she is pregnant and alone and desperate to find an abortionist. This was another predicament that was far from the passions and anguishes that were consuming me in college. But didn’t I feel her nail it on the head when she summed up her own essence at the end of her chapter?
Dewey Dell said, “I feel like a wet seed wild in the hot blind earth.”
If someone had asked me back then to sum up where I was, in 1981, in beautiful, bohemian Ithaca, if I’d have had Faulkner’s genius, those would have been the exact words that would have tumbled out of my own mouth. The connection I felt was so personal, it was almost umbilical. I’m happy to report that I still experience those intense connections to books. The difference I find now as a middle-aged reader rather than a crushingly young one is that I don’t want to read about myself. I often shy away from books that feel too close to home—I’m thinking of something like The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen’s breakthrough book, where I had to skip the pages surrounding the father’s Alzheimer’s because at the time I was living that life with my own father, as he lay dying. For me, at any age it seems, the imagined world, the one I encounter as a reader (and a writer) can feel as real as the one I live in with all of you.
Helen Schulman’s new novel, Come With Me, is available now from Harper.