Saturday, June 30, 2012

elemental tales of penance

One can enter a mesmerizing and penitential world of biblical dimensions in stories by William Faulkner.  I'm thinking today of an essay by E. L. Doctorow, writing in the NY Review of Books, 24May2012, on Faulkner's "As I Lay Dying."  In basic outline the novel is the story of the Bundren family, including a bitter, worn-out mother, Addie, who has just died, and a journey by her family carrying her coffin in a mule cart across rain soaked, dangerously flooded terrain, to fulfill Addie's wish to be buried among her own people in a distant county.  Her wily, self-serving husband, Anse, enlists his four sons and a young, pregnant daughter for the task, using the occasion to seize the few material possessions they possess to buy things for himself on the journey.   And if Anse has to leave one of the sons suspected of being a little mental at an asylum, to save the family some legal trouble, well, so be it.  No need for everyone else to suffer needlessly; to Anse, that would be an affectation of no value in this world.


Doctorow, a wonderful author of novels himself, has some valuable observations about Faulkner's style of writing:


Faulkner does a number of things in this novel that all together account for its unusual dimensions.  Nothing is explained, scenes are not set, background information is not supplied, characters' CVs are not given.  From the first line, the book is in medias res: "Jewel and I come up from the field, following the path in single file."  Who these people are, and the situation they are dealing with, the reader will work out in the lag: the people in the book will always know more than the reader, who is dependent upon just what they choose to reveal.  And at moments of crisis and impending disaster, what is happening is described incompletely by different characters so as to create in the reader a state of knowing and not knowing at the same time--a fracturing of the experience that has the uncanny effect of affirming its reality.


Surely an effective way of engaging the reader's attention and  piquing his interest in following along on the story's unfolding journey.  Often times I've spent many beginning pages of a novel attempting to give a complete exposition of who my characters are, how they arrived at this point in the story, and the problem they have to overcome in following pages.


Doctorow gives one more paragraph that illustrates these main points:


Of course Faulkner was not alone in his disdain of exposition.  Though he didn't begin to write screenplays for Hollywood until some years after this novel was written, film had been around all his life and it was film that taught him and other early-twentieth-century writers that they no longer needed to explain anything--that it was preferable to incorporate all necessary information in the action, to carry it along in the current of the narrative, as is done in the movies.  This way of working supposes a compact between writer and reader--that everything will become clear eventually.
Excellent essay, and valuable strategies to be considered by any writer.

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