"The Sound and the Fury": Incomprehensible Gothic

13 Dec 2009 // books

William Faulkner's "The Sound and the Fury" is one of most reader-unfriendly book I've ever read. Written in 1929, it's clear that Faulkner was enamoured with the new innovations in prose flowing out of Europe such as that diarrhea of words known as stream of consciousness.

But there's good stream of consciousnessness and there's bad stream of consciousness. Good stream of consciousness conjures up a heightened state of mind. By writing from the inner psyche of the protaganist, we get a better sense of the character through free associations and displacements of languge. Still, stream of consciousness should flow, ratcheting tension through a logic of comprehensible symbolism.

Bad stream of consciousness grates on the nerves like an open-mike session in a second-rate college town. And the opening section of "The Sound and the Fury" is as bad as anything I've read. Written from the point of view of a retard, the thoughts are jumbled up with such a profusion of indistinct pronouns that it's hard to figure out who is talking about what. Characters are introduced willy-nilly. They appear and disappear like a bad itch, and since we're travelling backwards and forwards in time at will, most characters don't even have the privilege of having the simple soliditiy of existence over a paragraph.

It's the kind of chapter where book critics suggests that you read it several times with colored markers so you mark out what time period each paragraph belongs to. Meaning that this is an incoherently written piece of writing, where it's up to you to figure out how to make it coherent. It's like stumbling on the scribbled notes of an unfinished novel. Given the effort needed to figure out what is happening, the final result is stunningly not worth the effort. The characters are not that interesting. The language not particularly rivetting, and the dialogue is barely serviceable.

The chapters do get more comprehensible as we go along. And I was almost ready to forgive Faulkner when I got to the final chapter. Here, Faulkner introduces a new character called Quentin, who is in fact the niece of a man called Quentin from the second chapter. Given that it was written in that spasmodic style where pronouns are thrown around like confetti, and characters are described with as much care as pigs eat slop, this took me a good hour to figure out that Quentin was not actually Quentin. There's no real good reason for this, and it's just a sign of the sloppiness in the writing. And of course, like any piece of literary schlock, the denouement with Quentin involved incest.