Sunday, October 01, 2006

Soldiers' Pay by William Faulkner

Professor Girl asked for my impression of William Faulkner’s Soldiers’ Pay when I finished reading it. I finished reading it yesterday, so I have some impressions. This is the second Faulkner novel I’ve read, the first being the better known As I Lay Dying, and the similarities in his craft are as striking as his development from Soldiers’ to Dying. As in Dying, this first novel contains some great passages—some of the most beautiful descriptions I’ve ever read. He also employs phrasing that surprises, more often effective than not.

The themes of this book seem to be disappointment and futility. Life gives you what it will, and what you want doesn’t much matter. The first example of this comes on the first page, with Cadet Lowe’s regret that the war (WWI) ended before he could fly in combat and fight and die as a hero. There are many other examples, but to detail them here would be to ruin the story for those yet to read it.

These characters inhabit a society completely alien to me, so formal and defined even those who do wrong acknowledge their deviation from accepted norm and embrace their villainy. Also, the characters interact in such strange ways it has a twofold effect on me: the tension of the story never lets up, which compels me to read on to find some kind of relief; and it reinforces my impression of the surreal, which opens me to anything that might happen in the story.

In Soldiers’ Pay Faulkner manages to build a reality that is perfectly believable, and then pushes through that to present surreal elements that remain plausible, like when I stand too quickly and get a headrush, and my vision seems to intensify, distinctions sharpen and glimmer, and I feel hyperaware until my circulation recovers.

This surreal element is well employed in the scene in which Joe Gilligan chases Januarius Jones, which reminds me of the scene in Lolita when Humbert pursues Quilty. Both sequences are delightfully bizarre, and their resemblance may rest with the similarities between the two villains.

While Faulkner shifts his point of view frequently in this story, only once do we get into the thoughts of Donald Mahon, the catalyst character, which I think is perfect. Faulkner’s world operates in spite of the wounded man, not because of him. The point is not lost: this is true of all of the characters.

I only have a few problems with the novel, none of which should suggest that Faulkner should have written it differently. I won’t workshop a novel that’s been published for 77 years, and I won’t give Faulkner advice, because he’s dead. However, I have some trouble with his occasional ambiguous pronoun use. If it’s intentional, and it must be, I can only imagine Faulkner wants the reader to be as unsure of what’s happening as the characters are about their futures. I don’t think my appreciation of the story is enhanced by not knowing who “he” is until “he” is identified as Dr. Mahon in the next sentence.

The biggest quibble I have is that I can’t be sure who the principal actor is. Margaret Powers’s actions are the most significant, but she’s present at neither the beginning nor the end of the story, and her motives are almost entirely opaque. No one person sits at the spine of this story, except possibly Donald, and he’s practically furniture.

The element of the story that saddens me is the casual racism in Faulkner’s world, both this created reality and the world in which he created it. Blacks and whites are seen as fundamentally different, and the “Sambo” caricatures depress me as much as the characters’ offhand use of the word “nigger.” Maybe even more disturbing is the narrative insistence on labels such as “Negro cornetist” and “Negro driver.” I know it’s a fruitless presentism that motivates my disappointment, but it always irks me that artists who can so completely transcend the mundane works of their times can entirely fail to elevate themselves above the failings of their social milieux. I need to just let this go and accept the novel as a product of its time, but I find that difficult.

In all, I enjoyed this novel, and I’ll probably return to it after a while. There is some truly beautiful language at work here, and the characters and setting are well established. I want to take a closer look, though, at Faulkner's plot and dialogue, both of which bewilder me at times.


Diana said...

The man is a genius. As I Lay Dying is one of my favorite novels of all times. The sentences, the hours I've spent copying sentences from that novel into little notebooks. I was just talking to my undergrad fiction workshop today about writing sentences like Faulkner. Look at this sentence, I said. Let's map it out. Let's look at how he moves through it.

I found parts of Soldiers' Pay mind-numbingly clunky and there were parts where I couldn't figure out what's the point. But there's still magic in it--as you've pointed out--and another thing I like a lot about Soldiers' Pay is that it's a first novel, and as a first novel, it's more about the brilliance that's still to come. I hate when reviewers talk about how a writer is "fully realized." Who wants to be fully realized in their first book?

Darren says Garden State by Rick Moody is a good first novel. I haven't read it, but his book The Ice Storm is pretty freaking great. We just finished that one in Form and Technique.

Jason said...

I think my problem with the plot is the same as yours. I never get any sense that the tension is building toward something significant--that it's just tension to move me along. It works, though, for that.

I don't know if the movie Garden State is based on Moody's book, but I just saw that not too long ago, and it was pretty entertaining.

Now that I've read a few novels in a row I'm indulging in some philosophy. This time it's Michel Foucault's The Archaeology of Knowledge. Interesting so far.

Rich said...

Enough with the book reviews! Give me another rant!

Jason said...

Don't worry, I have a big'un brewing. I may dislodge it tonight yet. And at some point I may start writing productively again. That would be good.