My girlfriend, Laurel, said that this was one of her favorite novels, and the first paragraph was one of her favorite paragraphs to appear in a novel. So I got on Amaz*n.com and ordered it, along with Invisible Man, Anatomy of a Murder, and a bunch of CDs. For a week I felt like it was Christmas Eve, and I would hurriedly hie my professorial bulk to the mailroom every day to see if my package arrived. For some reason, I couldn't wait to read The Sound and the Fury.
All I knew about the book was that its title was given as an example of a hendiadys in
my book of rhetorical figures - "the sound and the fury" instead of "the
furious sound." I also knew that Faulkner wrote it, and he's a Great Author.
It finally came in a bigish box, which was dropped off right at my office door, because the secretaries at UNI are totally cool and they knew that I would be very happy to get my package. The stack of books and CD's were blisterpacked with thick plastic on a piece of firm cardboard. A tower of joy. I sliced the plastic with the Swiss army knife that my brother Al got me for my Bar-Mitzvah, and then I...
...got back to work. I'm a busy guy.
But I took the books home with me, and started Sound on my trek home. It freaks Laurel out that I read novels while walking home. She's afraid I'll bump into something. This is Cedar Falls; there is nothing for me to walk into. The real danger is that I'll overshoot my apartment and find myself miles away, with no idea where I am, bleating like a lamb for its mother's teat. So I started reading the book, and the first paragraph was quite a good first paragraph, but by the time I hit page 15, I was pretty depressed. "Shit," thought I, "This is going to be one of those books" and I checked to see how many pages there were. I had no idea what was going on, there were all these italics parts, and jumping around in time and place, and more characters than you could picture, etc. etc. Why does a book have to be confusing as all hell to be called "Great?"
"I am cursed," thought I. There are people who want to read classic works of literature, and smart enough to understand them when they read them. And there are people who have no interest in classic literature. But I'm in the third category: I really want to read and enjoy this stuff, but am clearly not smart enough for it. In fact, almost not smart enough to avoid the pole that I almost walked in to. But then again, it could be like the story of the Emperor's New Clothes, that people all pretend to like books that are hard to understand so other people think them smart. And I was like the little boy in the story, only I was not quite brave enough to admit to myself that the emperor was naked.
But then I started to relax, and got into the flow of the story. Once I realized that it was being told from the perspective of a retarded man, I understood why it was the way it was, and I started over, and was enjoying it. I put it down when I got home, but looked forward to picking it up again. Yay. I was "getting it" and liking it as well.
And then I got to Part 2, and DAMMIT. The perspective changes, and I spent most of the damn chapter trying to figure out who the new narrator was, and when the hell it was taking place. (Yes, the chapter is titled with a date, but the thing jumps around so much, what does that mean? Nothing. Picture a naked emperor, marching down the street with his genitals shriveled from the cold.) But I figured out it was Quentin, who was talking like a male, except she was a female in the previous chapter. So was some transgender action going on so Quentin could get to Harvard?
For the benefit of any future authors who want to be Great someday, and yet want to get three s from me, learn these rules:
How to be a better writer than William Faulkner
If you are writing a story that jumps around a lot in time and space, do NOT give two different characters the same name.
If you are writing a story that jumps around a lot in time and space, with a very subjective narrative that doesn't clearly delineate who is who, do NOT name a female character Quentin.
If you insist on writing a story that jumps around a lot in time and space, with a very subjective narrative that doesn't clearly delineate who is who, that has a female character named Quentin, do NOT then give a different, male character the same name.
If you somehow think it is a good idea to write a story that jumps around a lot in time and space, with a very subjective narrative that doesn't clearly delineate who is who, that has a female character named Quentin, and a male character named Quentin, do NOT then give the retarded narrator of the first quarter of the book TWO different names like Maury and Benjy.
If you are a complete bastard and go and write a story that jumps around a lot in time and space, with a very subjective narrative that doesn't clearly delineate who is who, that has a female character named Quentin, and a male character named Quentin, and a retarded narrator of the first quarter of the book who is named Maury, and also named Benjy, do NOT, in the name of Somerset Maugham, do NOT then name the UNCLE Maury as well. What's wrong with you?
So I didn't like Chapter Two very much, although I think if I reread the book, I will enjoy it more, now that I know who is who in this family. And then we hit Chapter Three.
Jason is the hero of the book. We are supposed to feel sorry for him, and think of him as a pathetic jerk, but I didn't. I loved him. Why? BECAUSE HE THINKS LINEARLY. He may be a bigot, he may be a thief, he may be abusive, but he makes it very clear who in his family he is mad at, who he is talking to, and the relationship he has with them. Seriously, he is one of the most interesting characters I've ever read about; a total jerk, but you can understand why he is that way. He really got a raw deal from his family, and now he is trapped supporting them. There was a time when I stumbled into an analagous situation. I was not as bad off as he was, but I could relate to him. I've also been a jerk at times, even though I think of myself as a really nice person. So I could identify with what he became, and was able to take it as a warning as to what I could become.
I was really enjoying the book during Chapter 3. But then Laurel's mom visited, and I left the book in my office, so I picked up Robert Traver's Anatomy of a Murder. Now THIS was some book! All of a sudden, my rationalizations went away. This was a book I didn't have to try to like AT ALL. Why didn't the fucking "Modern Library" include it on its list of bestsellers? Was it too easy to enjoy? I haven't finished it yet, but I'm looking at some king-hell characters, plot, theme, etc. What is that extra something that makes a book Great?
Please don't get me wrong. I don't dislike books that jump around in time and space. In fact, that is a wonderful way to tell certain stories, and some of my favorite stories use that technique. My quibble with Sound and some other books I've read is that they are gratuitiously hard to understand. I loathe obscurity for obscurity's sake, and if that makes me an uneducated slob, then I'll just have to deal with it as I bang the flints together to try to make fire.
Usually I hate spoilers. But for this book, I wish someone had told me (before I read it) that:
I'm going to read it again within the next week or two, and now that I know the above, I'm sure I'm going to enjoy it much more. But overall, this was a fine read, and worth the effort.
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