Reading Faulkner with Oprah.

All about fiction.
Sept. 15 2005 9:56 AM

Reading Faulkner With Oprah

It's underrated.

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Illustration by Charlie Powell.
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When Oprah announced last June that her book club would tackle the taxing project of reading three novels by William Faulkner—"A Summer of Faulkner," she called it—I signed up immediately. I was motivated, in part, by genuine curiosity. In 18 years of education, including a college degree in English and an MFA, I had never been asked to read a single book by Faulkner. And I'd never successfully managed to read him on my own. One summer I actually got through most of Light in August. But today all I remember about the experience is feeling under-equipped to make sense of the book's massive complexities and tortuous undercurrents. A recent attempt to breach The Sound and the Fury failed at page 16. It had begun to seem Faulkner wasn't for me. So why not enlist Oprah in my aid? Of course, there was another motive at work: Call it literary rubber-necking. What on earth, I wondered, would the doyenne of self-help and "rapport-talk" make of William Faulkner, the high priest of American modernism—and, according to the New York Review of Books, "the most radical innovator in the annals of American fiction"?

It looked like one of the oddest pairings around, and yet Oprah-meets-Faulkner turned out, in a curious way, to be an inspired match. It's easy to forget just how radical a writer Faulkner still is, because he's been so thoroughly absorbed into the canon: a process by which, as one critic once put it, "the idiosyncratic is distorted into the normative." Faulkner is anything but normative. Figuring out what is going on in a book like The Sound and the Fury is so hard—and demands such a leap of faith—that every reader struggles in similar ways. Its demanding textual challenges have a strangely democratizing effect. No matter how many lit-crit terms you can throw around, Faulkner's jagged, wildly original style is hard—and can jar confident readers as well as less confident ones. And I confess: At this point in my life, harried by e-mails, exhausted by obligations, tempted by TiVo, I needed some kind of nudging to get me to sit down and engage as deeply as the book was asking me to.

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The book club structure itself was simple. June was devoted to As I Lay Dying,July to The Sound and the Fury, and August, of course, to Light in August. Each week we were encouraged to get through a set assignment of pages. Throughout the summer, the Web site hosted a dedicated discussion thread for each book and urged readers to participate (and to form our own neighborhood book clubs). The perplexed reader could find aid in the form of a mini-packet of ancillary "materials" such as "Faulkner's Life and Times" ("See how Faulkner's family stories and turbulent times shaped his literary work"), along with maps, family trees, and chronologies. On Monday evenings, we gathered online for streamed video lectures by college professors, including Robert Hamblin, the director of the Center for Faulkner Studies. Each professor took "questions" by e-mail, which had to be submitted in advance. (I was excited by the prospect, until I calculated my chances of being one of the half-dozen chosen.)

And so it happened that around the first of July I picked up The Sound and the Fury for the second time this year, with renewed resolve. There was a plan, and there were lectures to attend. I felt inspired. It was 10:42 p.m.

My boyfriend cocked a skeptical eyebrow at me. "You'll be asleep in five minutes," he said.

"Not at all," I protested. Two pages later, my eyes had grown heavy. Unfamiliar names swam before me, along with fragmented, unconnected sentences. No dent could be made until I was more awake.

Book cover

In the morning I started over. My mind kept wandering—wasn't that a dust ball that needed vacuuming?—but because I had a task that couldn't be shirked, I sat still. Soon, mesmerized by the prose—"Caddy smelled like trees in the rain"—I made headway. But confusion still reigned. Within the first few pages the narrative had moved forward, back, and sideways in time. I hadn't grasped these time shifts last night, and no wonder: Sometimes they were set off by italics, sometimes not. Plus, the early pages described the actions of no fewer than 10 characters whose lives were intricately bound up with one another. Their interrelationships were clearly crucial to understanding the dialogue. But they were never (God forbid!) explained by our author, who, like Valéry, appeared to have an aversion to writing sentences like "The Marquis went out at 10 o'clock." (Valéry, of course, chose to become a poet.) Gradually it dawned on me that the narrator wasn't only a child but also mentally impaired. The difficulties were growing more knowable. And then suddenly Quentin, a hitherto-male character, became a girl: "They sat up in the swing, quick. Quentin had her hands on her hair." I threw my hands up. Had Faulkner himself lost track of his story?

Going online in search of help, I worried about what I might find. What if no one liked Faulkner, or—worse—the message boards were full of politically correct protests of his attitude toward women, or rife with therapeutic platitudes inspired by the incest and suicide that underpin the book? But on the boards, which I found after clicking past a headline about transvestites who break up families, I discovered scores of thoughtful posts that were bracingly enthusiastic about Faulkner. Even the grumpy readers—and there were some, of course—seemed to want to discover what everyone else was excited about. What I liked best was that people were busy addressing something no one talks about much these days: the actual experience of reading, the nuts and bolts of it. A typical posting, under the heading "That's Faulkner For Ya," offered encouragement to a struggling fellow member:

I think Benjy's chapter [the first] is the hardest to read through since his is not only subjective but his thought processes are REALLY random. Once you get past this and Quentin's, it shouldn't be that hard. Hang in there, it's a true masterpiece! Oh, and try reading the first 2 chapters again after you've read it through...

To which another reader responded:

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