Light in August by William Faulkner: B

From the back cover:
Light in August is one of the most brilliantly conceived, cleanly structured, and efficiently expressed novels in the Faulkner canon.

With the timing, climax, and resolution of a great symphony, Faulkner’s seventh novel is a eulogy to the outsider: Lena Grove, a guileless pregnant woman who walks from Alabama to Mississippi in search of the father of her unborn child; Gail Hightower, whose romance with the past sent his wife to her grave; Joanna Burden, a middle-aged woman ostracized from her Southern neighbors; and Joe Christmas, a tortured young man of mixed ancestry whose isolation escalates to homicidal rage.

It is Joe Christmas’ story that frames the novel. With its dramatic back-trackings into Joe’s troubled past, Light in August rushes the reader like flooding water to an unexpected and inspired conclusion. As Joe fulfills his own destiny, he in turn plays out the doom of the South.

I admire the insight and pure craft that went into the writing of Light in August, even as I have complaints about the plot and the intrusive narrative voice. Faulker paints a vivid picture of the time and environment of the story, with an excellent way of pointing out the sorts of things we all notice subconsciously and bringing them to light with perfect clarity. That’s precisely the sort of thing a good writer should do, and I can see why he is revered and remembered.

In and of itself, this would be wonderful, except the result is that each of the characters ends up with essentially the same inner voice. Beyond that, I have trouble believing, for example, that an employee of a planing mill in a dinky little town in 1930s Mississippi would look at his elderly friend’s nose and thoughtfully, consciously compare it to a flag flying above a ruined fort.

The plot itself is slow-moving, and if trimmed of stream of consciousness, this novel would probably be about one third its current length. For the most part, these excursions are comprehensible, but there were a couple of occasions where I had to give up on grasping the meaning of a passage. Here’s an example:

“She has no mother because fatherblood hates with love and pride, but motherblood with hate loves and cohabits.”

Ultimately, I liked this book, though it took time and effort to complete. I am not sure that “enjoy” is the right word for the experience of reading Light in August, but it definitely leaves an impact.

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  1. IMO, you can have all the “craft” in the world and still suck as an author. And sentences like that don’t strike me as particularly crafty… Joyce is another one who needed someone to come around and beat him with a stick.

    I’m not against books that take effort to complete; difficult language is one thing — incomprehensibility and poorly constructed or executed plot is another entirely.

  2. That excerpt was definitely not supposed to represent good writing. 🙂 And I’m not sure I could pinpoint any specific passage as being worthy of praise, either. I guess I mean more that he seemed to have something to say, a way of being insightful without being pretentious that I don’t think I could personally achieve.

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