Published in 1930, William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying follows Anse Bundren, his sons and daughter on their journey to bury Addie, Anse's wife and the childrens' mother. The story is a patchwork of the viewpoints of 15 different characters, each of whose 'narration' is simply a stream-of-consciousness monologue. The effect is as entrancing as it is bewildering. [amtap book:isbn=0099479311]
While there is much to admire in the novel - the strong evocation of place, for example, and the ear for country vernacular - it's the unusual narrative technique that makes the greatest impression. Faulkner makes the reader work hard; his characters do not provide helpful recaps of prior events or of their relationships with one another, which is exactly how real people think. The result is a story that emerges slowly, with questions often remaining unanswered for long periods and the reader forced to fill in the blanks with guesswork.
On the one hand, as I've said, this narratorial approach is more authentic. On the other, not having all the information you need to make sense of the story serves as a constant reminder that this is a novel. It constantly draws one's attention back to the narrative device - or at least that's the effect that it had on me. It distanced me from the characters, making me feel that I never really understood them. But, paradoxically, that is what it's like in real life - we can't ever truly know what it's like inside somebody else's head. Then again, isn't the point of fiction to take us inside others, where we can't ever go in reality? Faulkner's technique reminds us that we're reading fiction and in doing so offers a more realistic view of a character than a traditional first-person narrative would, which perhaps defeats the point of writing a novel in the first place. To me, it is both a more authentic and a more artificial narrative voice.
Of course, 80 years later, this technique no longer feels innovative. However, Faulkner carries it off so much better than most authors that its power is undiminished. It is the conviction with which he draws his characters and the strictness with which he controls his narratorial eye that allow him to succeed where lesser authors would fail.
The strictly subjective approach means that it's often unclear whether things are really happening, and even when it's clear what's happened Faulkner often shows us two contrasting perspectives on events without offering a judgement about which we should believe. For example, is Anse's determination to travel so far to bury his wife an act of devotion, an ill-advised piece of bloody-mindedness or simply selfishness? The answer is unclear until the very last page of the book.
The conflicting motives of the characters may not always be clear but their voices are - each character's inner monologue is distinct and recognisable without being being caricature. It is clear, without anyone saying so, that Vardaman is a small boy, for example, and that Jewel is a doer, not a thinker.
There's a sadness about the book that grows as it becomes clear that the family's quest will not be worth price that they have paid along the way. It is the reverse of Homer's quest in The Odyssey - from where the title is drawn - instead of returning to home and order, the Bundren's are leaving home for a place of chaos and uncertainty. The family should have stayed at home, the reader, however, will benefit from having taken the journey.