Happy New Year, readers! Back in the sixth century, Dionysius Exiguus settled the basic Christian calendar we’re mostly familiar with. His work decided, for instance, the date of December 25 for the celebration of the birth of Christ. Then, as he rather logically figured, since human pregnancy lasts nine months, the Incarnation must have occurred on March 25, nine months before the scene in Bethlehem. He determined our year 1 (which scholars had previously thought of as year 754 of the Roman era) and declared that the Christian Era began with the appearance of God in the flesh on March 25 of that year. So whether you celebrated the millennium on Jan 1, 2000, or Jan 1, 2001, you were wrong. The third millennium A. D. began March 25, 2001.
That sideline has nothing to do with Faulkner. But making you wait for the subject matter promised by the title seems fitting in light of the meandering (I’m tempted to say wibbly-wobbly) sense of time in the narrative. The beginning of the book worked virtual magic on me. A pregnant girl named Lena is walking down a road (already a situation symbolic of slowly moving time). The narrative chooses a moment in that slow progress as the present moment and speaks of it here and there in the present tense. But the narrative also makes leaps to the minutes leading up that present moment through sudden lapses into the past tense. Interspersed with those descriptions come hints of the story that led her to walk down the road, all given in the past perfect. Five minutes before the point of nowness, Lena has passed a stopped wagon. Now she is sitting by the side of the road resting her feet and listening to the creaking motions of the wagon. The wagon has started up and is now pointed in her direction, but she has the impression that it moves without advancing, like a cart on a grecian urn. The cart does eventually catch up with her, but then the point of view shifts to the wagon driver, and we go five minutes back in time to experience, through his eyes, Lena passing the wagon. Through all of these opening pages, I kept seeing a picture of a knight running toward a castle and two curious sentries watching him running, running, always in the distance, until suddenly . . . .
I wish I could write on Faulkner from a position of greater knowledge. But I’m learning as I go along. I remember (some of) what my college literature professor said about him, and in my adult post-college life, I’ve made my way mystified through The Sound and the Fury and morbidly fascinated through As I Lay Dying. But some things are making more sense this time. Father Guido Sarducci might say that the American literature course in his university consists of this brief exchange: “I say-a ‘Faulkner,’ and-a you say-a “Stream-of-a-consciousness’.” And that was about the limit to which my casual observations on the author could run to previously. But it’s been twenty years or so since I last read Faulkner, and I have more awareness of the Joycean technique of breaking the fourth skullbone to give the reader almost direct access to the characters’ thoughts. And I can see now that Faulkner does much more than just quote a character’s inner dialog in the narration. He wanders, repeats phrases, interrupts sentence, strings together fragments, and so on, providing the reader an entire mental atmosphere as well as the thoughts that wing there way through it. Sometimes the prose isn’t clear, but I’m ready to say confidently that it isn’t supposed to be, or perhaps that the very clear message the opaque language delivers is that the character’s thoughts are as muddy as the creek by Joanna Burden’s house.
The parade of techniques and words and tenses and nested flashbacks is amazing and makes me more impressed with the man’s skill than I ever have been. But it’s hard to take in some of the content. Since we have such access to privileged recesses of his characters’ minds, I keep wondering, how does he know so well how to reveal the mind of a psychopath? I know the world is peopled with people, and that those people are flawed, broken, ill, degraded, and depraved. And I like my novels true to that world. But it doesn’t mean I’m itching to read about a man who has nearly decapitated a woman, later (or earlier: wibbly-wobbly, you know) meeting a prostitute in a honky-tonk, where he clubs to death his foster father, who has previously beaten a hatred for Christianity into him by blows with a buckled belt. I’d just rather read more about a pregnant girl walking down a road.