At the beginning of my junior year of high school, I found myself in an elective English class called, “Comedy, Wit, and Satire,” which was taught by the venerable Dr. Stone (without a doubt, my inspiration for becoming an English teacher). At the end of my sophomore year, on “step-up day” (where all students, save seniors, take a quick run-through of their courses for the next year), Dr. Stone gave us a set of books to choose from to read over the summer and write a review of. I looked at the set of books, which comprised everything from The Hobbit to Catch-22. I happened to see a book with the picture of an apparently dead woman lying within a tattered old box, her face disclosed through a grimy, cobweb-encrusted window pane. “Well this looks strange,” I thought, and picked it up.
I had no idea what I was in for.
While I was probably too young to appreciate the finer points of Faulkner’s novel, As I Lay Dying did introduce me to the dumbfounding world of experimental (or, at least, non-traditional) writing. The novel is told from no fewer than fifteen points of view–including that of the dead Addie Bundren–and makes frequent use of the stream-of-consciousness writing technique, something that only baffled me at the time (it wasn’t until college, upon reading James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, that I truly understood the technique). Still, I was able to discern the basics: the Bundrens honor dead matriarch Addie’s wish to be buried on the other side of Yoknapatawpha County, so they load her (and her casket, of course) into a cart and haul her there. But like all stories with journeys, the importance is not the destination, but the trip itself. Along the way, we learn all the personalities and problems inherent in the Bundren family. I suppose this did teach the 16-year-old Michael Kneeland that novels didn’t have to be about adventures or romance or tragedy, but could simply be about characters. Of course, since then I have come to realize that the “character novel” gives us perhaps the most clear depiction of life as we know it; thanks to Dr. Stone, I was introduced to this idea earlier than most.
Faulkner still seems daunting to most people–despite Oprah’s endorsement–but As I Lay Dying, despite its experimental writing style, is probably among Faulkner’s most accessible novels. It was certainly accessible enough for a pretentious 16-year-old, anyway, and has remained my favorite Faulkner piece.