Friday, February 24, 2006

Caddy Smelled Like Trees

(Hannah asked me to post it where other people could see. I always do what Hannah says.)

An excerpt:

I wasn't crying, but I couldn't stop. I wasn't crying, but the ground wasn't still, and then I was crying. The ground kept sloping up and the cows ran up the hill. T.P. tried to get up. He fell down again and the cows ran up the hill. Quentin held my arm and we went toward the barn. The barn wasn't there and we had to wait until it came back. I didn't see it come back. It came behind us and Quentin set me down in the trough where the cows ate. I held on to it. It was going away too, and I held to it. The cows ran down the hill again, across the door. I couldn't stop. Quentin and T.P. came up the hill, fighting. T.P. was falling down the hill and Quentin dragged him up the hill. Quentin hit T.P. I couldn't stop.

That's Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury. I first read that as a college sophomore, for Comp Lit 208. This was on page 24. I didn't know what the hell was going on; the narrative was all over the place chronologically and lots of things were unclear--at least in this first section, which was written from the POV of Benjy, who clearly was mentally challenged (the book's title comes from the Shakespeare quote about life being a tale told by an idiot).

Despite that, I was into the book. It had lots of weird imagery (see above) and family drama. I just felt sort of dumb and left out.

Then, in lecture, the instructor talked about that very passage above. And she pointed out something that I hadn't gleaned from the text--at that point in the narrative Benjy was drunk. T.P. had gotten him drunk, and Quentin (Benjy's brother) was pissed about it. Benjy had never been drunk before, and he didn't know what it was to be drunk. To him it wasn't that his equilibrium was off or that his eyes were bugging out on him. It was that the barn was moving, and the ground. It made such wonderful, vivid sense, and was such a perfect invitation into the perceptions of a character who saw things completely differently than I. I was stunned. Once given that insight, my approach to the book completely changed. It's still one of my favorites.

Faulkner is difficult. I don't think even most of his partisans will argue that. I know that he polarizes folks, and I can't think of a writer that I've heard the word "hate" about more often. But he uses language not just to evoke time and place but also to pull the reader completely into someone else's thought processes. And that's the tension of this entire revived discussion about accessibility and self-indulgence, as far as I'm concerned; the mediation between self and other, and the question of how palatable to make the self.

Transparent writing says, there are no barriers between you the reader and I the writer, at least none that we can't overcome; I'm going to tell this story and you will understand it. There may be other, deeper things going on in and around the story, but you don't have to worry about that if you don't feel like it. Just enjoy.

Difficult writing, on the other hand, says there is a barrier between you the reader and I the writer, and that barrier is ourselves. The words I use may not mean quite the same thing to you as they do to me. I might overcome this by using words that are less loaded, but when I do that, they become less my truth; they become something which digests more easily, but signifies less of the message I am trying to send. This is a choice I have made as a writer; you may choose, as a reader, not to care. For my story to be told will probably require more work on your part, and you may not find that work worth the effort. In that way, reading becomes like human interaction.

(I will disclaim that I am talking in both of the above cases (so-called transparent and so-called difficult) about writing of quality. I would submit that there are many, many more ways to fail to write well than there are to succeed, and crap just doesn't concern me much.)

For what it's worth, I don't privilege one type of writing over the other. There is perhaps a greater level of satisfaction in finishing and getting most of what is gettable out of a difficult text, at least for me. But it takes a lot of time and effort, so I don't read as much Faulkner (to stick with my example) as I used to. At Odyssey Jane Yolen reminded us that a lot can be said with a simple declarative sentence. More than in an eight-page sentence filled with ellipsis and not much other punctuation? Depends on who you ask.

Now, puppies.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I always do what Hannah says

You're lucky that the puppies interrupted my mad-with-power moment.

Now I sit back and watch this space for comments. Yay comments1

- H

11:30 AM  
Blogger Dave said...

Well, you do realize it's Friday. No one will comment on Friday.

11:49 AM  
Anonymous Meghan said...

Yes, no one comments on Friday.

12:04 PM  
Blogger chance said...

So, the only thing this bit did was make me want to read the book.

Was that wrong? ;)

5:20 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

Mission accomplished! ;-)

5:52 PM  
Blogger Jason Erik Lundberg said...

I may be the only person who has grown up in the South and not read Faulkner, though I do own a copy of The Sound and the Fury and fully intend to read it this year (I believe it's somewhere around 12 or 13 in my reading queue). And now I have another reason to do so. Thanks, Dave.

10:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't disagree with your discussion upon transparency and difficulty. In fact, I will agree that your argument in that regard feels crystalline and persuasive. What I'm thinking is that the effort for the comprehension of difficult material must merit its reading.

For some people, disregarding nonquality performances, although we could argue that there is a valid stand on what constitutes quality among the reading population, it may work for some and it may not work for others.

Instead of focusing upon generalities, it is more important, IMHO, to recognize that variance exist. Not everyone will like nontraditional fictions or not everyone will like sentences that read like paragraphs, paragraphs that read like pages, stories that are as heavy as tomes. And, and, and not everyone will applaud the same typically plotted genre story written over and over again until there is no story, just one story, endlessly repeated.

As readers, and as writers, we follow our own routes in the world whether they be six lane expressways in the heart of the city or the seldom trod pathways in the wood.


10:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Did I sound grumpy in that last post? I didn't mean to sound grumpy.


10:48 AM  
Blogger Dave said...

You'll get no argument from me, Pam. I was trying very hard not to privilege one type over the other; I hope it didn't come across that way. If it did, I failed. My motive in chiming in on this discussion which we seem to need to beat to death every few months was to examine the motives for working in one way or the other, because my frustration with folks--no one here, BTW--who slap the "self-indulgent" label on "difficult" writing or storytelling is that they often seem not to think about why a writer would choose to write that way. One strategy is as legitimate as the other, is all I wanted to say.

12:27 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

And I didn't think you sounded grumpy :-)

12:27 PM  
Blogger haddayr said...

You've heard people say they HATE Faulkner?

It was a bunch of envious Yankies, wasn't it? Otherwise, I can't account for it. I know there's no accounting for taste, but Jesus Christ.

8:59 AM  
Blogger Dave said...

I don't know if it's envy. A lot of folks have complained that he was just too much work. I've also noticed that there tends to be a Faulkner/Hemingway dichotomy. I include myself in that one, because Hem leaves me cold.

9:19 AM  
Anonymous Jackie M. said...

Yay, puppies!

1:05 AM  

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