A Light in August

Book by William Faulkner

Annotation by Kate Maruyama

When I was twelve years old, my father handed me William Faulkner’s The Reivers. “You’ll like it,” he said, “it has a horse.” He was coming from that place all enthusiastic Dads do when they hand their children a football, shotgun, comic book, movie, peculiar food, whatever is their favorite thing, wanting to share their joy with their progeny. Only often the item is given a few years too early, with a bit too much enthusiasm. And I, like all reticent children at the receiving end of such a burden, took up the book and proceeded to plough through it.

Thus began my long, complicated relationship with William Faulkner. I started reading as if I were going through a foreign language and, the deeper I got into the book, the more baffled, frustrated and confused I became. The prose was too dense, too backward, the world too dark and foreboding. I believe I “finished” it, which at that age meant skimmed for the parts about the horse, noticed some fun descriptions of the whorehouse and had done with it.

In college I was made to read a few Faulkner short stories and a few sentences into reading, that cloud of incomprehension acquired in childhood rose again. I felt bogged down by the words, the language, the what-the-hell-was-going-on. I mastered what I could from what the teacher had to offer and was grateful it wasn’t on the final exam.

But twenty years later, in graduate school for writing, I asked my Dad for a book that was creepy and used different points of view. He recommended As I Lay Dying. I believe I rolled my eyes again, but a few pages in, I was hooked. I felt like I had been given a magic potion by which the words not only made sense, but they came to life on the page and when I got to Addie’s chapter, in first person as she rages free form with all of the life and power that she lacks in the events of the novel thus far, I had an epiphany. Guilt ridden, I realized my father’s passion for Faulkner (expressed in his books, Faulkner’s Narrative, 1973 and Three American Originals, Faulkner, Ford and Ives, 1984) was a far cry from a misunderstood hobby or enthusiasm. He was onto something.

So with a great deal less trepidation and some actual enthusiasm, I sat down to read A Light in August. The language now clear, I was able to marvel at the sheer mastery Faulkner had over the English language, character, mood and, in so many ways, time and space. It is like sitting close to a magician, certain you will see all of the tricks only to find things manipulated right under your nose that have no reason for working. Faulkner broke all of the rules, he switches point of view mid-paragraph, he goes back and forward in layers through a story, running through a narrative full speed and then stopping to drop back a few steps to fill us in on what was going on over there. Much of his narrative is hearsay told in stories so rich that we forget someone is speaking to tell it to us. After several chapters I had to stop trying to catch these movements and changes, for I realized it was as futile as trying to catch single bars of notes out of a symphony.

But just when I got into the rhythm of the story I was stopped, by two sentences I have only just learned are well known among English majors. Sometimes it’s nice to be ill-read in some areas, to find these treasures on your own without a teacher pointing it out. At the beginning of Chapter Six:

“Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders.”

How the hell did he manage that?

Another move that struck me was Faulkner’s telling stories through characters recounting them. It’s a southern tradition, as rural areas existed on stories retold, particularly in areas where many didn’t read. He blurs the edges a bit, so the stories, while being told, take on their own life and when we come back to the speakers we sometimes forget they were standing there. This is a style and pattern he uses throughout the book, but what’s most striking is toward the end in Chapter 19 where he has an incongruous character, Gavin Stevens (a recurring character in Faulkner’s work based on a friend of his) tell the story of Mrs. Hines visit with her grandson, Joe Christmas, in jail. For the first time in the novel, Faulkner steps out of the narrative by expressing the Gavin’s inability to capture the story, “But of course, I dont know what she told him. I dont believe that any man could reconstruct that scene.”(423) A part of me yelled, “Oh yes you could, you’ve done it before.” But I stopped. Maybe Faulkner wrote the scene, but it sounded corny. Maybe he was giving more weight to the scene by keeping us out of it. But what Faulkner had succeeded in doing was creating a scene in the reader’s head: an unforgettable character (Joe) with whom we’re intimately familiar in a closed room with an enormous, tragic old woman in a purple dress and a white plume whose heart was broken when he’d been taken from her as a baby. A grandmother confronting her murderer grandson, whose fate for which she felt responsible. Maybe the scene held more power for its not having been written.

But, as our purpose in annotating is to take some things back to our own writing, I nod my head to my dad, the guy who spent much of his academic career devoting time to Faulkner and stumble ahead with my own meager reading.

Or, as writer and teacher Rob Roberge says, “Steal from the best.” I can’t lay claim to Faulkner’s larger mastery of the language, but I hope I can steal some of his tricks. A Light in August gave me more courage in storytelling and its ebb and flow. As long as we can keep the reader anchored in where he or she is on any given page, we can probably dip in and out of the story as we see fit. I’m not sure I have the confidence to tell a story and go back to tell someone else’s point of view and thus change the reader’s knowledge of events, but sometimes side scenes do feed the larger story. Faulkner had a way of keeping us with the characters we were with at the moment and trusting that it would somehow come together in the end. And, while he annoyingly sometimes keeps us out of the knowledge of which character we are with for a paragraph, within a few pages, we know which part of the story to which he or she belongs.

Leaping back to Joe Christmas’ childhood was such a fabulous way to get us into his character. We know he’s a murderer and a drifter, but then we are taken into his close-up five year old world of eating toothpaste and witnessing grownups engaging in something baffling to a five year old: sex. We are learning the upbringing and background of a murderer, taking us through his psychological formation so that by the time he gets to the murder, we know his motives.

Faulkner is careful, also, to give us the physical details of each of our characters, so the old man watching Joe as a child is recognizable when he comes back later as Uncle Doc Hines. The tumblers click into place giving the reader a chill as we are told he is Joe’s grandfather. Joe’s childhood had been told so vividly that we think, “that old man was his grandfather?” and the reasons for his peculiar behavior, not elaborated at the beginning now have a chilling certainty.

And while I don’t think I’ll ever be brave enough to attempt POV shifts within a single paragraph or scene, I have played a bit in my two-POV novel with having a character witnessed and then seeing her point of view which reveals another layer to her behavior.

I am now working on a multi-character novel now that takes place in the present, but also in 1930s Hollywood, I am now cutting back and forth between scenes as they come to me, and there is a forward motion to the narrative, but as these characters rush together and into each others lives I feel I have a bit more courage to have their points of view clash or differ at some point.

It will take a few more readings of this book to unravel more of its mysteries and books have been written on the subject, but the reading of it was a good example of how even a superficial reading of an old classic can yield useful items for our own writing. Keep reading mindfully and keep annotating.


2 thoughts on “A Light in August

  1. I love how you make a memoir out of your review, paying tribute to your literary relationship with your father before analyzing the book. And I really love how you characterize your teen self when you “skimmed for the parts about the horse, noticed some fun descriptions of the whorehouse and had done with it.”

    Your analysis of the book is also great. It makes me want to re-read it. It’s been like 20 years!

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