saavedra77: Doc from Deadwood has a dark turn of mind .. (dark)
[personal profile] saavedra77
A conversation with a co-worker prompted me to start re-reading Faulkner's Light in August a couple of weeks ago, a novel I had first attempted (and rapidly given up on) before college.

Light in August is reputedly one of Faulkner's more accessible novels--and an important one. Less formally experimental than The Sound and Fury, As I Lay Dying, or Absalom, Absalom!, the book nonetheless wrestles with equally weighty themes: the legacies of racial and religious communalism and bigotry in the early twentieth-century American Southeast. The narrative follows the struggles of four outsiders in this environment: Lena Grove, an unmarried, pregnant woman traveling on foot in search of her child's father; Joe Christmas, a violent, mixed-race drifter who "passes" for white; Gail Hightower, a disgraced pastor who romanticizes his family's Confederate past; Joanna Burden, the last survivor of a Yankee family whose members settled in the South during Reconstruction.

Revivalist, evangelical religion looms large in this society, among both Southern traditionalists and their opponents. Faulkner describes so many secondary characters as "fanatic" that one gets the impression that this is his view of the community as a whole. And all of the novel's central characters have somehow run afoul of the region's Calvinist sexual morality, with its hypocrisy, misogyny, and other charming traits.

Racism is of course similarly pervasive, in many ways as evident among advocates of abolition and Reconstruction as among defenders of slavery and Jim Crow. Joe Christmas and Joanna Burden are the characters most directly affected by these endemic hatreds: Burden's family background and views make her a pariah among whites, while Christmas' tortured history leaves him even more thoroughly alienated, and awash with confusion and resentment.

This undeniably repressive environment of course bodes poorly for Faulkner's misfit protagonists, whose trajectories are mainly (but not all) tragic.

I thought that the Joe Christmas and Joanna Burden narratives constituted the novel's most compelling--and disquieting--threads. By contrast, I found Hightower's fascination with the Confederate dead tedious (there are more interesting aspects of his character, but these are only hinted at). The Lena Grove storyline sometimes provides a welcome counterpoint, but I did find her characterization kind of thin.

As is so often the case, Faulkner utterly fails to write a compelling African-American character: he seems able to get inside the heads of mixed-race men who "pass" for white (like Joe Christmas, here, or Charles Bon in Absalom, Absalom!), but sadly almost always resorts to stereotype when portraying anyone whose skin is actually darker than parchment. (And if they're female, to boot, forget about it ...)

The novel's denouement also struck me as somewhat dated, freighted with references to 1930s American and global politics: the Depression, fascism, etc. For example, during the novel's last three chapters, Faulkner introduces a highly topical secondary character whom the author (never afraid of an allegorical name ...) dubs Percy Grimm. Grimm's appearance crystallizes the awful implications of the repressive atmosphere sketched over the preceding pages. But there is something undeniably contrived about the timing and manner of his entry into the story.

On the whole, I found Light in August less affecting than some of Faulkner's other best-known works (The Sound and Fury; As I Lay Dying; Absalom, Absalom!; etc), but I'll concede that the novel manages a striking portrait of a time, place, and mindset--one which (thankfully) he gives the reader no reason to feel remotely nostalgic for.
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saavedra77: Back to the byte mines ... (Default)
Anthony Diaz

December 2014

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