Introducing the first installment of Lit Is Lit, a new sub-blog of Dusting Off the Classics
His books are older than my grandparents, but that hasn’t stopped me, a Gen Z-er, from falling in love with the works of Southern Gothic writer William Faulkner, one of the most influential American authors of all-time and winner of the Nobel Prize for literature. In this very first installment of Lit Is Lit–which is probably going to end up in some unexpected directions–I want to give a personal ranking of the four Faulkner novels I’ve read; they also *happen* to be the ones critics have lavished with the most praise. (The idea that I would only pick up a book because of how well-received it is or isn’t shocks me!) So, without any further dragging out, here is my ranking:
#4. Light in August (1932)
Aka the novel where Faulkner takes all his favorite themes–race relations, incest, the transition of the South to the modern world–and makes them, at times, a bit too melodramatic in parts and mundane in others. Make no mistake, this is still a fantastic novel. Joe Christmas’s character is one of Faulkner’s most fascinating, but he has to do a lot of heavy-lifting of the plot for this novel to come off well. In addition, Faulkner is nowhere near as adventurous with his style or language as he is in the works mentioned below, which made Light in August kinda disappointing for me.
#3. Absalom, Absalom! (1936)
Besides featuring one of the longest sentences in written English, this novel is Faulkner’s most daring in terms of pushing stylistic limits. I understand maybe 40% of what happens in Absalom–although Faulkner’s weird incest motif rears its head AGAIN–but the bold language carried me on, as did the lack of too much proper punctuation, considering that most of the sentences found in this book are run-on.
The Biblical parallels I’ve found to be quite fascinating–hence the title–and this is also where Faulkner seems to have nothing to lose when it comes to experimentation (there are moments in The Sound and the Fury when I do feel he holds back for the sake of convention), so big kudos to him for not caring about what sells.
#2. As I Lay Dying (1930)
Yes, there’s the landmark quote-that-is-a-chapter-and-a-metaphor-all-in-one about a mom being a fish, but there’s a lot more to As I Lay Dying that gets it here at the #2 spot. First, the structure, where a host of characters get to tell events from their various POVs, is one of the best in literature if done right, and the way Faulkner gives each person a distinct voice ensures he pulls it off. Second, there’s the bizarre similarities to the common journey/odyssey tropes that are at the foundation of conventional literature. It’s almost as if this novel is a parody more than anything else. Finally, there’s the narrative tension throughout this work that gives it an attention-sucking power only the best books can create without resorting to melodrama.
#1. The Sound and the Fury (1929)
Speaking of melodrama . . . well, I’ll be honest and say The Sound and the Fury, besides being Faulkner’s gutsiest, most ground-breaking, and, yes, greatest work, is also his most high-strung and soap operatic. For instance, Quentin Compson spends his entire time on the Shakespearean stage Faulkner deliberately crafted for this novel fretting about his younger sister’s sexual behavior before throwing himself off a bridge.
Which isn’t to say that that doesn’t belong in a novel, it’s just that it takes some getting used-to, as does, yet again, the structure: Faulkner refuses to give Caddy Compson (hot take: she’s the protagonist) a voice but rather lends it to her three incoherent brothers and his own rambling third-person narrative. What makes The Sound and the Fury #1 for me is that it is, without doubt, the one novel that doesn’t care at all about what happens more than how it’s told. For me, that’s the ultimate story.
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