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Fishing for the Eternal

November 6, 2008
The Sound and the Fury

The Sound and the Fury

The Sound and the Fury

By William Faulkner

“Because Father said clocks slay time. He said time is dead as long as it is being clicked off by little wheels; only when the clock stops does time come to life.”

 

Time is an anchor for a novel; without a strong sense of time, the whole story unravels. Or… does it? Faulkner seems to have been testing this theory with The Sound and the Fury, his pet favorite of all his novels. He claimed to have been possessed by these characters, the troubled Compson children, in an “experience of ecstasy” as he wrote it. And so here is a novel that teases time and its formerly rigid structures. The Sound and the Fury refuses to conform to expectations of narrative structure, and so Faulkner is heralded as a modernist hero and giant of Southern literature. And he gives us a novel where time blows in and out like wind through an open door. He is stopping the clock, and then he is suddenly starting it again; slaying time and then resurrecting it. Back and forth in a dizzying march with no end in sight. It is a very difficult book, much more difficult than I expected it to be.

 

And so it is perhaps a dangerous thing to review a book when you are still unsure what you think of it. But as I sit down and look back over my notes in The Sound and the Fury, and ruminate over some of these passages, I realize that it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was. I think, and I have gathered from the wisdom of my other literate friends, that Faulkner is just one of those writers who gets better the second or third time around. Re-reading some of these passages makes me appreciate this violent waterfall of consciousness more than I previously did. I think it’s all redeemed in the end.

I would have liked more time to actually digest this book. It’s dark and difficult and frustrating and it’s certainly not the kind of thing to have to read under a class deadline. But I finished it a few days ago, left with a feeling of muted confusion and general uncertainty as to how I should talk about it.

I’m still not sure how to talk about it, so this will be a short collection of disjointed thoughts that are even more disjointed than usual.

Quentin’s part, June Second, 1910, was my favorite. He was the most accessible of the characters, while simultaneously being one of the darkest and most complicated. It’s an unlikely combination. But when your other candidates for Best Narrator are Benjy, mentally challenged man-child with no sense of time, and Jason, the Most Racist and Sexist Character I’ve Ever Met, you don’t have many options. And yet for all of his Harvard-attending astuteness, Quentin actually has more in common with Benjy than he’d like to realize. Both share a crippling obsession with their sister, Caddy; both can’t get a firm grasp on the present and the past; both are haunted by fear.

Still, Quentin generates sympathy and horror, almost at the same time. I won’t even pretend to understand the depths of his psyche (did he really commit incest with his sister? Or was it just a recurring fantasy? And if he didn’t, why would he tell his father that he did?) and I still don’t understand most of the facts of the narrative (Faulkner holds facts with very loose fingers). Yet I liked Quentin. Probably because a large portion of his narrative just reminded me of Woolf, what with all of the slanting sunlight and shadows and bees in orchards and fish in streams.

I’ll close, perhaps prematurely, with one of my favorite passages. It’s from Quentin’s narrative, as he watches the boys fishing for that eternal fish that will never be caught.

“I could not see the bottom, but I could see a long way into the motion of the water before the eye gave out, and then I saw a shadow hanging like a fat arrow stemming into the current. Mayflies skimmed in and out of the shadow of the bridge just above the surface. If it could just be a hell beyond that: the clean flame the two of us more than dead. Then you will have only me then only me then the two of us amid the pointing and the horror beyond the clean flame The arrow increased without motion, then in a quick swirl the trout lipped a fly beneath the surface with that sort of gigantic delicacy of an elephant picking up a peanut. The fading vortex drifted away down stream and then I saw the arrow again, nose into the current, wavering delicately to the motion of the water above which the May flies slanted and poised. Only you and me then amid the pointing and the horror walled by the clean flame”

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