Having never read Faulkner before now (I know, sacrilege for a southern writer), I began with his “most accessible work”, Light in August. At just over 500 pages, the novel was dense and the writing often obtuse, difficult to follow, and overly embellished. There was, however, something compelling about the story and its characters that encouraged me to continue reading despite the difficulties of the style.
A story told on hearsay
The narrative structure in particular drew my attention; the story is told from many different viewpoints. Reverend Hightower and Joe Christmas are arguably the two main characters, though we hear their stories and those of other characters through many minor characters, including several that go unnamed; the effect being that much of this story is told on what feels like hearsay. We also get a sense of the transience of some of the characters; their stories are recounted by strangers in the towns they pass through. The novel begins and ends on a journey, and though Lena Grove is not the focus of the story, her traveling is an impetus for much of the plot. By contrast, both Hightower’s and Christmas’s stories begin and end in Jefferson. Both are drawn to the town by some unknown force, and both meet with misfortune in the town. Though they are both given the option to abandon Jefferson, both choose to stay and face their misfortunes.
A little over 100 pages into the novel, Faulkner backtracks to the beginning of Christmas’s life as a young boy in the orphanage, mistreated because of his black heritage. Faulkner then tells Christmas’s story up to the narrative present. He spends more than 120 pages on Christmas’s story, which makes it difficult to remember earlier characters and storyline. While Christmas’s story is compelling, I found myself wondering what had happened to the other characters and if we were going to return to them.
Beginning and ending with a journey
The novel begins with Lena’s journey to find the father of her child, which is a driving force throughout the beginning of the novel. As the section on Christmas’s life drags on, however, I began to wonder if Lena’s thread would ever come to fruition, and as I lost hope in that thread, I started to lose interest in Christmas’s story. Regardless, this structure—beginning with one thread then backtracking and catching up to the present—has an interesting effect on the novel’s flow. In the piece of fiction I am currently working on, I am trying a similar structure. It is informative to see this structure in action with Light in August and to recognize the pitfalls of it.
The main criticism I have of Faulkner’s work is a stylistic preference. He uses many modifiers throughout his novel, and he often repeats words and their derivatives multiple times within one sentence, phrase, or paragraph. Additionally, Faulkner seems fond of inventing words by combining several into one. He often uses two or three similes to describe something or a situation, when one simile would do, almost as if he couldn’t decide which one to use and so used all of them. I recognize that these things are stylistic choices, but I believe that the novel could have been trimmed significantly by minimizing the overuse of flowery and embellishing language.
Faulkner’s strength: voice
One thing that Faulkner does beautifully is establish each character’s voice. He replicates several differing dialects in a way that is not distracting and adds to each character’s development. In these techniques, he is a master. I also found interesting the way he occasionally interjects a character’s stream-of-consciousness in italics. I was not put-off or distracted by these sections, but I didn’t see how they added to the story as they primarily repeated information and thoughts that we had already received in other ways.
In the publication that I read, some of the formatting was also distracting and occasionally inconsistent. Faulkner uses italics liberally; sometimes successfully, sometimes not as successful.
There was only one chapter in the novel that I struggled to understand. The chapter, directly preceding the final one, explored Hightower’s childhood and his obsession with his grandfather’s time as a soldier in the Civil War, mentioned earlier on in the novel. In this chapter, Faulkner uses some of the same pronouns to refer to Hightower, Hightower’s father, and Hightower’s grandfather, making the text vague and hard to follow.
Overall, I recognize the value of reading Faulkner. His talent as a story-teller is apparent, and many of his descriptive passages are beautifully wrought; however, there is much that could be improved and tightened in this novel.