AS I LAY SLEEPING: My struggles with Faulkner and Narcolepsy
This blog post is not discussion of themes in Faulkner. It is not an academic essay either praising or denouncing the writings of Faulkner. It is a personal voyage of discovery that I have undertaken to answer the question: Why am I unable to read As I Lay Dying without falling asleep? Why do I find Faulkner so impenetrable, so opaque to my conscious mind that I can find no remedy but sleep for the stupor induced by the inscrutable flat talking Mississippians who wander about this book wearing large straw hats on hard dirt paths, making coffins and cakes and probably other taking part in other activities as well, activities about which I would be informed if I could make it past the first two chapters.
Perhaps this effort will allow me to finally diagnose my inability to read Faulkner. Or maybe I will finally catch up on my sleep. And what will my readers get out of this adventure? Perhaps you will be able to feel superior to me. (Don’t knock that as reason to read something; we all need a little ego boost sometimes.) Perhaps something similar happens to you when you read Faulkner. If so, let me know. I feel alone out here.
My method will be to allow you into the depths of my mind as I make my way through the thoroughly described but remarkably dull world that Faulkner creates in the first two chapters of As I Lay Dying. Float along with me on the stream of my consciousness as I drift through the pages towards the caves of sleep. If you haven’t read it…get it out and read along. What are you risking but a nice long nap?
The first chapter is entitled Darl. Okay, Fine. We get to go into the mind of a guy(?) named Darl. The first thing I think is….why not Darrell? Somebody couldn’t spell? I’m sorry. I know, I know…I gave my children unusual names, people get irritated trying to spell them. I’m a bad person. Sorry Darl! You can be named whatever you want. ( This is the crap that floats on the stream of my consciousness. I didn’t say it was going to be a pleasant trip. I just said you might get a nap.)
Starting the chapter. Just had coffee. Darl is walking up from a field. I don’t know why.
He is walking with a guy named Jewel. A tall guy named Jewel with a broken straw hat. Hard dirt path? Check. Cotton? Check. Wow…super interesting so far, Darl. You do live a magical life. That’s unfair. I suppose he’s supposed to be boring. I am sure there is a literary reason for it. Faulkner is probably trying to express….I will figure it out later. I think I will just move on for now.
He and Jewel are walking toward the cotton house…which surprisingly is made of….drum roll... logs. That’s a plot twist I didn’t see coming. Har! (Okay…I’m just joking…it’s the first chapter.)
Now we get a description of Jewel entering and exiting the cotton house. It is as follows:
Jewel, fifteen feet behind me, looking straight ahead, steps in a single stride through the window. Still staring straight ahead, his pale eyes like wood set into his wooden face, he crosses the floor in four strides with the rigid gravity of a cigar store Indian dressed in patched overalls and endued with life from the hips down, and steps in a single stride into the path again just as I come around the corner. In single file and five feet apart and Jewel now in front, we go up the path toward the foot of the bluff.
That’s funny Darl! Wait…I don’t think he means it to be funny.
Okay. That’s something. Now I am picturing Jewel as John Cleese from the Ministry of silly walks. Jewel now looks just like John Cleese in that Monty Python skit. He’s in a broken straw hat, kicking up his feet and walking around Faulkner’s story doing a silly walk. I think I will have him do that walk all around the cotton house, all the way around the cotton house on that hard dirt path and back. Look now he’s put his finger under his nose and he’s doing that bit from the Fawlty Towers episode with the Germans. Cut it out Jewel. You’re cracking me up. Darl does not understand and he’s getting a little cranky. Sorry Darl. Back to the story you’re trying to tell. Just a momentary lapse. I have to stay awake long enough to comment on this chapter. (Jewel still looks a little like Cleese. Don’t think I can fix that. I will just move on.)
We get to Tull’s wagon. I don’t know who he is or why his wagon is parked there. Jewel gets a drink. I manage to have him do that with no cutting up. Stay serious Cleese…er…Jewel.
Darl and I hear Cash’s saw. Cash is making a coffin for a person named Addie. He appears to be doing a good job of it. Although, how high are Darl’s standards? He can’t spell his name, so I don’t know. But I assume that Cash knows what he’s doing. The flat plain description is okay I guess. Someone is dying and these people don’t seem like the kind to make a big old fuss about it. So I suppose the flatness perhaps signals the acceptance of the life they lead and the death of someone in the family. Still, what were you thinking Jewel, cutting up like that earlier? Oh wait….that was my imagination.
Back to themes and plot: Somebody is dying and so far Darl doesn’t strike me as a guy with a sense of humor. Although, give him a break….why should he have a sense of humor about someone dying? I guess I’m thinking of the parrot skit now. I should just forget Monty Python. I am onto the main thrust of the book here.
Darl seems to think Addie will like the coffin. Hmmmm….I don’t know how appropriate that thought is Darl. But who knows? Darl might be more empathetic than I think he is. Maybe this whole thinking about the coffin and whether Addie will like it is just his way of dealing her death. If Addie likes the coffin, maybe that reflects some sort of acceptance and…I don’t know….this is Darl. So far, he doesn’t seem that reflective even on some sort of unconscious level.
Wow….got through a whole chapter. Still awake. It was that Monty Python bit. That and the fact that it’s a damned short chapter. One of the many little gifts of life.
Sometimes in the early summer, I stand on the sidewalk and look at the moon. I hold the cat against my fuzzy house coat and he chews on it, sucking and sucking on it, absorbed in safety or contentment or whatever it is cats feel when they nurse. He will do this until he makes my ratty purple robe soaking wet. His mother must have abandoned him with the amoral wisdom that cats possess, possibly due to his extreme wickedness. It is strange to hold a small predator, with fangs and claws, pretending I am his mother for a moment in the moonlight. But it’s okay to be weird in the moonlight. The moon transforms everything it sees into something uncanny and familiar all at once. We are all strange in the moonlight. The distant moon through the flat black silhouettes of the trees, now perfectly clear, now obscured by a translucent cloud, looks down indifferently on me and the cat and some fireflies flickering at random against the inky dark trees. The smell of honeysuckle just haunts the air, sweet, sticky and ghostly like the moon. The moon’s beauty is clear, clichéd, perfect, but still somehow flat and distant as well, an illustrated background for a soothing children’s book. Does it mean anything, I wonder? I ask the moon out loud, “Do you mean something?” I don’t want to ask the meaning of life, the universe, and everything. I doubt the moon wants to be bothered with that. I keep my question simple.
The words still cut through the air in the early summer. If it were late summer, the words would be muffled by the velvety heat and they wouldn’t lift a foot in front of me. I imagine the moon can still hear me this time of year. Why not? The cat shifts to find a dry spot and purrs, badly; he sounds like a small pig. Whether the moon has meaning is not a question to be asked in a church, where meaning is prearranged and agreed upon, but doesn’t consider important things like the significance of a full moon in early summer. It’s not a question for your mother, who might think that her children give meaning to the universe, even though all children must stand under the moon, so aloof it gives them no heed and shines down upon them whether they are happy children or sad. It’s all the same to the moon whether he pours his melted silver light over two teenagers making out on a park bench by a fountain or a burned out car in a war zone. The moon will bestow eerie beauty and bizarre authenticity on whatever he touches. Your mother doesn’t understand how small you are in the universe because the gravity tug of your birth pulled her universe into to a tight, small center. (The cat’s mother might understand how small you are though. If you value your self esteem, do not ask her.)
No...I'm certain that it's a question that only the moon could answer...if he would.
I wait for my answer. The moon does not even look bemused. He too is busy dispensing illusion, pretending that there is beauty in the ugly, and mystery in the well understood to answer my question. But the cat purrs, badly. And the night is warm on my skin. The fireflies flicker here and there. And the moon takes pity on me, looks quizzical for just one instant and says, “Why not?”