Wednesday, September 27, 2017

August's Book: Light in August

August is apparently unofficial Faulkner month. This is Light in August* after all.

Light in August by William Faulkner
Literature (1932 - 507 pp.)

Light in August hit at a time when William Faulkner's career was far enough along its upward ascent that it never languished in obscurity, nor, like The Sound and the Fury (1929), did it ever act as a staging ground to see whether Faulkner ever could make it as an author. (Hindsight says yes, he could.) After the success of Sanctuary (1931), which was written in a straighter narrative format, Light in August blends non-linear with narrative.

In each character, as with the world in last month's book, the reader is forced to ask what went wrong? What could have been?** The story opens with Lena Grove, who is walking to fictitious Jefferson, Mississippi in order to find the father of her unborn child. Then it transitions to Joe Christmas, a planing mill worker accused of murder. (Rightly? Wrongly? We'll never know.) Byron Bunch, another of the mill's workers, reveals a good heart but nothing else. Reverend Hightower is the only source of wisdom in Jefferson, yet he is never shown actually doing anything except dispensing wisdom.

Early in the book, Faulkner sheds light on Brown, another planing mill worker, the [redacted for the father of all spoiler purposes] and [redacted for spoiler purposes, although it is a Burden to do so].*** Brown's gambling winnings say the most about him, and about the way varying levels of wealth play into people's likelihoods of keeping their jobs:
Sixty dollars is the wrong figure [for Brown to quit the planing mill]. If it had been either ten dollars or five hundred, I reckon you'd be right. But not just sixty. He'll just feel now that he is settled down good here, drawing at last somewhere about what he is worth a week. (39-40)
This sort of prospect theory-style risk aversion - taking a surer outcome with a lower payoff - epitomizes the sort of person who achieves missed opportunity in Faulkner's South. Brown has just enough to get by, and that's all he gets. Other more desperate characters, like Lena and Christmas, reach out more, and achieve something, even though they end up with drastically different results.

The transition from Christmas's present to his childhood recalls The Sound and the Fury. Although Light in August frequently features stream of consciousness monologues that slip into the characters' thoughts until Something is going to happen Something is going to happen to me (118), it is the sharp shift from the doomed present to the only possibly doomed past that draws the reader deeper into Christmas's life in the very next sentence: "Memory believes before knowing remembers." (119) Just as with Quentin Compson from The Sound and the Fury, understanding Christmas's past is crucial to understanding where he lies in the book's present [SPOILER]. Less poetically, "the sound and fury of the hunt" (331) reads like a self-promotion in comparison.

As Christmas ages, his relationship with time worsens. One of his first thoughts when passing by a local restaurant is that "there is something about it beside food, eating. But I dont know what. And I will never know." (176) This hopelessness pervades his thoughts and actions as he grows into adulthood. When he lacks the money to afford coffee with his pie, he muses that it is "terrible to be young". (181) Christmas's building relationship with a waitress causes him to note that: "And in time even the despair and the regret and the shame grew less." (181) When the waitress attempts to end the relationship, it is as though "in a moment she will vanish. She will not be. And then I will be back home, in bed, having not left it at all". (188) Time is always Christmas's enemy; like the other characters, he can never capitalize on it. Mr. McEachern, Christmas's adoptive father, combines Christmas's relationships with the waitress and with time in the starkest terms imaginable: "But you have still plenty of time to make me regret that heifer". (200) And so they lead downhill.

Death is "peaceful", in that word, to whomever encounters it, old or young, white or racially ambiguous, even if they're related. (205, 464) When Byron transforms mentally, he does not die, but a bad part of him dies: "Then a cold, hard wind seems to blow through him. It is at once violent and peaceful, blowing away hard like chaff or trash or dead leaves all the desire and the despair and hopelessness and the tragic and vain imagining too." (425) This transformation carries him past Hightower's quote below (411) to Byron's pinnacle in the book. (440) Nature, transformation and death all are peace to Light in August's characters. They reach peace when time runs out.

The last hundred pages sum up the lost (as in Lost Generation?), endless, sometimes tragic fates the characters face. Hightower dispenses his greatest piece of wisdom to Lena in reference to her plan to marry Byron, showing that the disgraced Hightower, whose life reads like a constant stream of failed opportunity,**** has come to understand what failed opportunity really means: "You are probably not more than half his age. But you have already outlived him twice over. He will never overtake you, catch up with you, because he has wasted too much time. And that too, his nothing, is as irredeemable as your all." (411) Wasted time, more lost opportunity, keep creeping up in every character's life. Yet what would some of these characters have ever achieved? Brown's cowardice shows in Lena's thoughts shortly after: "He will have no more shame than to lie about being afraid, just as he had no more shame than to be afraid because he lied" (430) Lena is unremarkable, and stunningly little of her life before her pregnancy is revealed, but she soldiers on.

When Byron tells Hightower about the beating Brown has just laid on him, with a bloody face, he says the book's most powerful line: "he aint broke anything that belongs to me." (440) Much more belongs to Byron at the end of the book than at the start; ironically, much of it could have belonged to Brown, who relinquished it. Byron's transformation is like a death, only it leads him out of town, where he had little left anyway. An unnamed focus character in the book's last chapter points out that Lena is still travelling, and that she probably has no set destination. (506) This is the way character goes, toward death or toward a sense of self that is not necessarily flattering. Yet there is light.

Ease of Reading: 4
Educational Content: 6

*It isn't September until, in Toronto, Canada, it consistently drops below 30 degrees Celsius during the day (86 degrees Fahrenheit, for those from where Faulkner's from).

**Wondering what could have been apparently happens to those of us who review books, too.

***Now isn't that a way to get a reader interested in a character. He's rather mysterious... but why?

****"I acquiesced. Nay, I did worse: I served it. I served it by using it to forward my own desire. I came here where faces full of bafflement and hunger and eagerness waited for me, waiting to believe; I did not see them. " (487)