With each chapter written from the viewpoint of one of 15 different characters, and much of the writing done in the form of “stream of consciousness,” Faulkner broke new literary ground with As I Lay Dying, which he reportedly wrote in six weeks, with nary a word changed in the final published work. It is the story of Addie Bundren, who lays dying as the book opens, forced to hear her eldest son Cash building her coffin below her window. Her husband Anse, a dirt-poor farmer in the Mississippi backwater, promises to take her body for burial to her home town of Jefferson, across the river and some 40 miles distant by wagon, and her five children ranging from Cash to little Vardamon will accompany her coffin on this odyssey as well.
As black a “comedy” as one can imagine, everything that can go wrong does go wrong. First, Addie is put in her coffin with her head where her feet should go, because the dress she is buried in bells at the feet and needs the extra room. Cash insists the coffin is thus imbalanced, but Anse ignores him. Then Vardamon, convinced his mother can’t breathe in the coffin, drills holes through the top and inadvertently drills into his mother’s face. Heavy rains cause the river to flood and washes away not one but several bridges. Anse insists on crossing the river anyway, having already lost several days and with Addie’s corpse starting to smell. The coffin floats off the wagon, the mule team drowns, and Cash not only loses his beloved carpentry tools, but also re-breaks a recently-broken leg. At risk of their lives, sons Jewel and Darl dive for the wagon and the tools, and rescue the coffin. Anse sells Jewel’s beloved horse for a new mule team, and the family moves on, but Cash must spend the rest of the journey lying atop the coffin, smelling a decomposing corpse and watching the buzzards gather.
And that’s just the beginning. Everywhere the Bundren family goes, people urge them to bury the corpse out of respect, but Anse insists on going to Jefferson, invoking his solemn promise to Addie and before God. That he has another agenda is revealed only at the very end. The voice of the traumatized little boy is nearly impossible to comprehend, while the family’s only daughter—secretly pregnant—is angry and sullen, secretive and bitter. Jewel, we learn, is the middle son who was born of a liason between Addie and the local minister. Addie, we learn from the one chapter written from her (post-mortem?) viewpoint, hated her husband, her children, and her life, and Jewel was her only comfort. Darl, the second eldest son, is considered “strange,” but is perhaps the most sane among them.
As I struggled to figure out who the characters in this Greek tragedy were, why they were going on this odyssey from hell, and what the various currents were that were driving them, I was constantly discovering ironic little twists of fate that Faulkner enjoyed burying within this grim and depressing tale. A challenging work, to be sure, and perhaps the hardest I’ve ever had to work to read a book. Was it worth it? You tell me.