final review: Light in August by William Faulkner (audio)

augustI am challenged by Faulkner. I already began to share my frustrations in an earlier post that you might want to check out.

So then, the second half of the book. The short story is I still don’t understand what this book is about. It opens with a pregnant country woman, traveling on foot in pursuit of the missing father of her child. He left her when he found out she was pregnant, promising to send for her when he had a household set up; everyone Lena talks to, and I the reader, understand that he’s no good and this is a lie, but she is dogged. She succeeds in tracking him down, this man she knows as Lucas Birch, to all our surprise, and he is indeed no good (and also now goes by Joe Brown). And then the story shifts to that of a companion of Birch/Brown’s, a man named Joe Christmas. We learn his entire life story. He was an orphan, living mostly as a white boy/man but occasionally outed as being part black. (Note that there are lots of n-words in this book. Something to keep in mind in the audio format, if you’re driving around with your windows down.) There is also a Byron Bunch, who cares for Lena while she gets close to having her baby; and a man named Hightower, a former minister who advises Byron Bunch. We learn pieces of their stories, as well. We don’t learn terribly much about Birch/Brown himself, despite in some ways him being the hub around which these spokes rotate. And I’m torn between wishing we knew more about Lena, and being frustrated (and therefore satiated) by what I do know of her.

The bottom line is that I still do not understand what this book is about. On one hand, that makes it really a pretty good candidate for what I’m doing with it, which is listening to it to prepare to to listen to a lecture explaining to me what the heck it’s about and what Mr. Faulkner was trying to do with it. On the other hand, it has not aided my enjoyment of this book. I’m confused. Why do we care about these people? I never learned to care about these people. Are we concerned with Lena? Or are we concerned with Christmas? Are we concerned with Byron Bunch?

I found it strange that certain characters make very long, descriptive speeches, when they’re meant to be simple people. When they speak, I hear Faulkner, not Lena, or Mrs. Hines or whomever. I’m not a fan of the author speaking through the dialog of his characters.

My audio edition concluded with an interview – of all people – with James Lee Burke. This is strange because he’s one of my favorites (and stranger still because I just days ago finished his new book, Light of the World – sorry, the review won’t post til the book is published in late July). It turns out that he puts Faulkner right up there with his top four greatest writers of all time: Chaucer, Milton, Shakespeare and Keats. I am baffled. I won’t try to re-hash this interview for you, in which Burke touches on the gifts of Faulkner; suffice it to say it’s the first time I failed to “get” James Lee Burke. [If you’re interested, it’s the Brilliance Audio production of 2011, read by Will Patton. The interview with Burke is conducted by an awesomely-named James Atlas.]

I think that maybe Faulkner transmits on a frequency I don’t receive. I understand vaguely that this is a work of allegory. Perhaps the Yale University class lectures that I plan to listen to eventually (you can find them here on iTunes U) will illuminate things; possibly they will not. This is a non-review, I know. I’m sorry. I don’t get Faulkner.

Next up in my audio collection is The Sound and the Fury and I don’t think I’m brave enough. Jason’s recommendation of As I Lay Dying was encouraging, but I’m still a little gun-shy; plus my local library doesn’t have that one on audio. For now, I will take a break from Faulkner. Maybe I’ll even start with some of the Yale lectures and see if I’m inspired and educated.

Rating: requires discussion.

When trying to come up with a numbered rating for this book, I think: I did not like this book. But whose fault is that? Is it partly my fault? Do I share some blame for being unable to appreciate or follow? I give Light in August a 3 for my enjoyment level, but to acknowledge my complicity in our minds’ failure to meet, Faulkner’s and mine that is, I will assign a very generous 5 grumbles and hope for either better, or no, future Faulkner reads.

8 Responses

  1. Sorry this was such an unpleasant read…then again, I did warn you to stay away from it! 😛 It’s been far too long since I have read this novel and much of the plot details elude me but then again, they seem take a backseat to Faulkner’s literary aesthetics. I cannot offer any valid arguments in its defense other than it was one of those works that I appreciated mostly for its stylistic prose more than the story and characters. I remember enjoying it a lot more than ‘Sound and the Fury’ though and definitely need to read it again soon. I’d recommend taking a break from Faulkner for a while and when feeling up to it, check out “As I lay Dying.” You might be pleasantly surprised.

    On an unrelated note, I actually did get around to reading “The Sun Also Rises” along with “The Old Man and the Sea” and really enjoyed them both, especially the latter. I can see myself being a Hemingway convert. 🙂

    • Jason, I’m excited to hear that you found some value in Hemingway, and sorry I can’t say the same quite so much about your Faulkner. But again, there will be some authors I just don’t love, and that’ll be okay. I’m on the fence about my future with Faulkner, but if I do try him again, there’s no question that I’ll be looking for As I Lay Dying, per your recommendation. Thanks for all your help: my failure to love him is no judgment of your efforts, at least!

  2. I remember loving this so much in college that I read all of Faulkner’s other work in a summer in my twenties. Now that I’m old (ish), I wonder if I will have less patience for it. I need to re-read. If I do, I’ll let you know if my opinion has changed.

  3. One more thought that I apologize for not including: I can’t imagine trying to follow Faulkner in audio book format.

  4. […] One big hope I had for these lectures was that they would help me to work my way through my difficulties with Faulkner. In that respect, they’ve been moderately successful. On the one hand, I am vindicated by Dimock’s saying that The Sound and the Fury is really difficult to understand! Now, I began that book at one point, years ago, and I don’t think I made it 15 pages; but already things are illuminated. So perhaps, as I suspected, Faulkner would become comprehensible to me if I had a good teacher looking over my shoulder and consulting page-by-page. I still don’t think I’m going to try The Sound and the Fury again anytime soon. But I look forward to hearing about my recent read, Light in August. […]

  5. […] final review: Light in August by William Faulkner (audio) ( […]

  6. […] hum. And then there was Light in August, the only Faulkner I’ve read, and if you read my two reviews of that, you know I’m settling in as not a Faulkner fan. So, the final question of this […]

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