One week ago, on Tuesday, I started reading William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. Within two pages I was texting friends who had read it, asking, “What the hell is going on here?” I read the first chapter — 50 pages narrated by a 33-year-old character at the development stage of a child, who loves his sister Caddy and says she smells like trees — and when I got to the end of the chapter, I started it over again.
After I read that chapter twice, I finished the book. I still didn’t know what was going on, but instead of being frustrated and wanting to throw the book across the room, which is what I would have expected, I was in it. I wanted to know, I wanted to understand the jumble, I wanted to follow the breadcrumbs Faulkner dropped.
I read the 200 page novel in four days, including the re-reading of the first chapter. When I turned the final page of the book, I turned back to the beginning and started again. The second reading took one and a half days. I read the book twice in less than a week. And then I read the first chapter a fourth time.
I’ve never read a book twice in one week.
The Sound and the Fury is a work of genius. It is 200 pages, told in four chapters, each of which is titled with a date and riddled with jumps back and forth in time, and each narrating the same events but through a different character’s eyes and in a different character’s voice. Most of the the characters are mentally unstable and are unreliable narrators. The time jumps are not marked by anything in the text except occasionally italics, but mainly by context clues of names and seasons. In the first chapter, the one I read four times, there may be as many as a dozen timestamps: the current time (Benjy’s 33rd birthday), his grandmother’s death when he was five, his sister Caddy’s wedding when he was 15, visiting his father and brothers graves at times I haven’t deciphered, and various other incidents I still haven’t figured out, like his castration, for one, some incident with a statue in the square, his renaming, and something with a neighbor that involved a letter. And fire, and cows jumping out of a barn.
This book is like a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle in white. All the clues are there to piece it together, but you have to keep looking, and it hurts your head after a while, but you are driven by the challenge of it.
In my second reading, I wrote questions I have: why is Quentin sometimes a he and sometimes a she? Why are there two Maurys? Are there two Jasons? I created a timeline: Benjy’s birth, Quentin’s death, the other Quentin’s birth. I wrote the significant events I want to figure out: Benjy’s renaming, the scene in the bathroom when Caddy’s arm is over her face, whatever happens in the barn with the cows and Benjy in the trough.
Despite the books’ difficulty, I am still consumed by it. Just writing this makes me want to read it again. I read that someone asked Faulkner what he thinks about his work being so difficult that people can read it three times and still not understand it, and he said maybe they need to read it a fourth. So I’m thinking, maybe I just need two more times. I’ve read books before that at the end I felt, “Oh my God! That thing at the beginning that I didn’t understand — I wonder if I’d understand it now.” But until The Sound and the Fury, I never actually went back upon finishing a book and started again. In the same day.
I just can’t get over it. I don’t understand how he did this. Did Faulkner write a 700 page manuscript so he had the full story with all the words, and then go through and remove 100,000 of them, leaving the barest minimum to be able to piece it all together? Or did he write it like this — bare and jumbled — and knew the story well enough in his mind to only include what is needed to piece it together? How did he do that and make me want to keep reading despite the mess of it? How did he make it so compelling I’d be willing to read it four times to understand?
I don’t know, but somehow he did. I’m so impressed. In this book, every word is a clue. In this book, every word matters. After one reading, I knew nothing except that I wanted to know more. After two readings I was satisfied that I understood enough to be able to put it down. I want to get to a place of full understanding, though, and I know the clues are there for me to get there.
Maybe I’ll read it again when I finish my current book.