As I Lay Dying

by William Faulkner

This is a weird book. It takes a while to catch on to what's going on. As I Lay Dying is comprised of 58 chapters spread between the points of view of 15 different characters. While shifting POV is something of a Faulkner trademark, the chapters here are very brief—some not even one page long—and you might almost mistake them for vignettes at first. But what the reader eventually needs to catch on to is that the shared narration sometimes disrupts the timeline (overlapping it in one place & leaving gaps in another), and that seven of the narrators are immediate family members of all different ages, and hence, all different perspectives. I benefit hugely from a handwritten genogram of sorts that my used paperback's previous owner scrawled on the back page in ballpoint pen.

As to the plot, allow me to relate only this, in the words of the patriarch, Anse Bundren: "'Seems like it aint no end to bad luck when once it starts.'" Faulkner got the title of this book from a line in The Odyssey, and INDEED, is As I Lay Dying EVER an odyssey! You can extrapolate more than that if you just take the 'logic' of There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly and apply it to how a family disenfranchised from society in every possible way might go about handling the terminal illness & death of one of their own.

So in many ways, this is a ridiculous, unbelievable, & irritating tale. I can say with confidence, that if you liked Tobacco Road, you'll probably also like As I Lay Dying. Much of my criticism of the former could be applied to the latter. To wit: My copy's blurb includes the suggestion of "black humor" within these pages, but as crazy-making as the plot is...I just didn't dare laugh (possibly because I was too busy banging my head against the wall). And as inarticulate as the characters are, and as feckless & ill-conceived as every single one of their actions seems to be, I believe I even learned something from them. That tension is something that will give this book "staying power" in my estimation, even though I didn't especially enjoy the actual reading of it, page for page. Thereby making this book hard to rank... Hard to rank...