The Sound and The Fury

July 24, 2015

I recently read William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury.  The book had, frankly, been something I had planned to read for quite some time.  The usual delay between when I decide that I ought to read something and when I actually tackle it is running about fifteen years these days.  (I’m not sure why; it’s not because I’m too busy to read.)

Faulkner is obviously not a fantasy or science fiction author.  He wrote largely in the genre of “literary fiction.”  I have been heartened to see, in recent years, a lot more people admitting that this is just another genre, with its particular tropes and unrealistic conventions.  It is not my most favorite genre certainly, but I do enjoy literary fiction sometimes.

Faulkner is considered by many to be one of the giants of twentieth-century English-language literature, so I figured I ought to try him out.  The Sound and the Fury is similarly considered to be perhaps his best work, so I checked it out of the library.

The book was interesting in many ways, but I found it ultimately unsatisfying.  The story has four sections, and the first two are not structured as conventional linear narratives.  The first day is narrated by Benjamin Compson, an autistic thirty-three-year-old man, still living at the Compson family home in 1928.  His thoughts skip all around his past, which makes the beginning of the story a bit slow going—although it did not take me very long to figure out what was happening.  I did feel, however, that Benji’s whole character did not make sense.  He is nonverbal, yet his memories are portrayed as crystal clear, in a way that just did not ring true to me at all.  He apparently remembers names perfectly, which makes no sense at all.  Ultimately, he seems more like a literary storytelling device than a human character.

Of course, I do not really know what it feels like to be autistic.  I do not understand the qualia of Benji’s existence.  So I am willing to give Faulkner some leeway with Benjamin.  However, I did not feel the same way about the second narration, that of Benji’s elder brother Quentin, who tells the story of the day he killed himself back in 1910.

My complaint is not that Quentin’s narrative is hard to understand.  Having made my way through Benji’s chapter, I had no trouble following what Quentin was saying.  I knew how to recognize the changes of setting and the other odd textual tropes the authors was using.  In fact, it almost felt like I was having too easy a time understanding Quentin’s difficult history with his beloved sister Caddy; apparently, this section of the story is considered extremely hard to follow.  The inserted memories, with their gradually failing sentence structure and punctuation, are apparently supposed to represent Quentin’s failing psyche; but this simply did not work for me.  The storytelling would probably be labeled as “stream of consciousness,” but I kept finding myself thinking, My consciousness definitely does not operate this way.  I do not believe this is how anyone’s actual thought processes go, even if they are on the verge of completely losing it.  I could accept the style as a purely impressionistic representation of a person losing their faculties, but once again, that robs the narrator of an authentic human voice and reduces him to a literary device.

By the time the third chapter arrived, finally narrated in a completely straightforward fashion by the third Compson brother, Jason—who is the most obvious villain of the story, although his mother really seems to be the most despicable character in the tale—I was pretty sick of Faulkner’s self-indulgent attempts to be confusing merely for the sake of being confusing.  As I said, I got the hang of Benji’s and Quentin’s idiosyncratic voices pretty swiftly.  However, there were some things that just seemed over the top.  In particular, many members of the Compsons’ family share names, even when that makes very little sense.  There are two Jason Compson’s, father and son—which is not actually unreasonable, although it seems odd that they did not name the eldest son Quentin after his father.  However, Benji’s name was changed in childhood; before it was Benjamin, he was named after his uncle Maury.  Who changes a kid’s name because he turns out to be disabled?  (One of Benji’s minders—who, over the years, all come from the family of the Compson’s black servants—says the Compsons did it because they were superstitious, which was perhaps supposed to seem ironic, but for me it just served to emphasize the bathos of the whole name changing story.)  Most egregiously, however, is the fact that there are two Quentins.  Caddy names her illegitimate daughter after the brother who killed himself over his sister’s promiscuity.  This naturally leads to a lot of confusion, because the text is so deliberately unclear about which Quentin might be involved in a particular incident that is being remembered.  And this seems like a cheat.  The nonlingual Benji, after all, never gets confused about who is who, so why should the linguistic choices of his narrating voice end up confusing the reader?  The confusion is dragged out until, in Jason’s chapter, the situation is finally made clear, and the plot follows a fairly clean arc, with quite a bit more obvious conflict that in the first two sections.

However, the last chapter again seemed to me to be a failure.  The three Compson sons had narrated the first three chapters.  (Caddy does not get to narrate, although her presence is hugely felt in all three of her brother’s stories.  Faulkner apparently claimed that she was the true protagonist of the novel, although that seems to be pushing her importance much too far.)  In the fourth chapter, the viewpoint character is (mostly) Dilsey, the Compson’s aging cook and maid—the matriarch of the black family that have been the family’s servants for at least three generations.  Dilsey is a great character—far more moral and grounded than any of the Compsons—and I felt cheated that the chapter was not told in her voice.  Instead, the narrative proceeds entirely in the third person.  While this omniscient narration allows the story to make sideways excursions—to finish off the story of Jason’s comeuppance, for example—I think it is a real loss.  I wonder whether Faulkner felt he could not do justice to Dilsey’s own voice, that he could not speak to the reader as an aging African-American woman.  Perhaps he was right.  Quentin—who, in his most lucid moments, seems, of all the characters, the most like a mouthpiece for Faulkner’s own beliefs—is annoyed that the Northerners expect him to be a virulent racist.  He is somewhat racist, not surprisingly, but he obviously ambivalent about his racism—as I imagine Faulkner was as well.  Still, I think the novel could have been quite a bit stronger if it had been finished in Dilsey’s own voice.

Of course, The Sound and the Fury did manage to keep me reading.  There were many wonderful literary flourishes.  I really liked Quentin Compson, and I definitely empathized with him.  (I still am vaguely considering reading Absolom, Absolom! in which Quentin also features.  Yet his self indulgent suicide seemed pathetically incomprehensible.)  Just at the end of narration, he is fiddling with the electric devices in his Harvard dorm room, then pouring gasoline on his bloodstained waistcoat to get it clean.  His lack of care for his own safety was quite evocative, which is natural enough for a man getting ready to drown himself in the Charles River.

The corrupt judicial system in the western Massachusetts town Quentin visits on his last day also struck me as very authentic.  You don’t (so far as I know) need to pay the police a bribe after your wrongful arrest gets dismissed these days, but the feel of the place Faulkner described still lined up with the attitudes I remember encountering in the hinterlands of Boston.

I do not particularly recommend this novel, although it is certainly considered a classic of American literature.  It captures a certain time and place in America, but unlike, say, The Great Gatsby or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, it does not sport a protagonist that is both likable and realistically authentic.  And it ends abruptly.

Once Yarec was actually inside, Mrissa had to wait.  She had parked her cycle on a rough stretch of of lakeshore.  Behind her sat a low brown warehouse, with a corrugated steel roof.  Down each of the roof’s creases ran a stream of cloudy rainwater.  They reached the edge and tumbled down in a ragged, watery sheet.  The warehouse was empty, but it was no relic.  It looked only a few years old, and Mrissa could see where the latest occupants’ corporate insignia had been spraypainted over with a thin layer of gray.

She could still hear one street performer at work nearby, in spite of the rain—playing the same impromptu over and over on a synthesizer box.  Mrissa leaned against the seat of her bike.  The cowl of her rain slicker hung low over her face, hiding her features from the wandering gazes of distant security cameras.  Her only distinguishing feature was the heaped red curls protruding over her collar.  There was a significant chance that Yarec was never going to make it out; if that happened, Mrissa had decided that she was just going to disappear.  She might send in a terse report in a few weeks, once she had found a stable situation far, far away, but there would be no detailed debriefing at the FAF headquarters if Yarec’s infiltration was a failure.

She had a low resolution video feed, transmitted from Yarec’s position, but it provided a narrow shaky view.  If a security officer came up behind Yarec, she would never see the attack coming.  There would just be a sudden jerk to the floor, then stillness as Yarec lay either unconscious or dead.  Mrissa reached back into her hood and bunched the hair at the side of her neck between her muscular fingers.

For a long time, nothing had been happening.  At first, there were only occasional twitches as Yarec changed position slightly in his dim little compartment.  That showed he was alive, but nothing else.  Then Yarec was out in the light and moving, with a cautious but natural gait.  Ris tried to match up the screen’s narrow field with what she understood of the factory’s interior layout, but beyond staying alert, there was still very little for her to do.

However, when Yarec’s movement became a dogged sprint, her pose changed completely.  Mrissa became minutely attuned to everything that was going on.  She knew her assistance could be required at an instant.  On the shaky screen, she watched the chaos begin inside the facility.  It was soon mirrored in what she observed directly across the turbid gray water.  The plant rang with sirens and lit up with emergency lights.  There were shooting flames on the monitor, and a fiery blast ripped through part of the roof.  Lightning flashed, and thunderclaps mixed with the booming explosions.

Yarec, having set the disaster in motion, had now lost himself among the escaping throngs.  Outside, the security personnel, in their sky blue uniforms, were still trying to maintain a cordon, but with each blast, they were pushed further back from the conflagration.  When the panicked factory workers finally burst past the guards, Yarec broke away from their horde.  While the others rushed for the causeway road to the mainland, Yarec broke for the shoreline opposite Mrissa’s position.

It was her job to provide covering fire for his escape.  She shot off six or seven rockets, hitting the fence at the spot where Yarec hit the water, then to his left and right along the coast.  Then she was supposed to wait.  Yarec might need serious medical attention the moment he was pulled from the water.  It was her responsibility to provide it, but only if he arrived soon.  Mrissa had picked out a fairly safe location—on the grounds of another small manufacturing facility that had only recently closed down—but she had given away her position now.  Someone would be around to look for her, and probably soon.

There was no way to track Yarec once he was in the water.  His camera was waterproof, but in the wet, ragged dimness, there was nothing for it to see.  As the rain fell harder and harder, the surface of the lake became a dirty, pock-marked mess.  It was impossible to see whether Yarec was still coming up for air.

Mrissa dropped the rocket launcher.  She pushed back the hood of her parka and ran both hands up through the soggy curls stuck to her forehead.  She pushed the locks back and held them tightly against her scalp, is if they might be the only things blocking her from seeing him.

Then, like a gray dolphin breasting from the water, his head and torso were up and out.  He wheezed a horrible-sounding breath.  Then Mrissa’s arms were there for him to fall upon.

She half led, half dragged him to her motorcycle, and they rode back to a clean hotel room, where they could hole up until they decided what to do next.  She gave Yarec’s bruised body a bath.  Then he just wanted to lie down beside her, with his own skin next to hers under the blanket.  He kept shivering for a long time.  The harsh ordeal had left him cold to the core, and for a while he had very little to say.  He just lay, curled up with his arms around his knees.  Mrissa lay behind him, still half dressed in her bra and undershorts, until he finally stopped shivering and fell asleep.

When he woke up again, they talked.  The city was not safe, and she wanted to get away.  So Yarec took her northeast into the countryside, to the the little town where he was born.  Mrissa accepted the bumpy trip, but she did not like the destination.

Where am I? Mrissa wondered once they were there.  She knew the geographic coordinates, but the highland seemed so alien compared to the coastal plains.  It was dry here in the summer and dry in the winter.  The landowners seemed to fancy themselves old-fashioned country squires, but there was virtually nothing to grow.  The soil, where it was not just sand, might have been quite fertile.  There was certainly volcanic activity to enrich it; just outside of town, Ris had seen two cinder cones.  They rose up thirty of forty meters—heaps of ash and black rock laced with razor-sharp edges.  Yet whatever nutrients the coughing little volcanoes had donated to the soil, there was too little water to draw them out.

In that dry countryside, for the first time Yarec seemed old.  He must have been much older than Mrissa, but she had never dared to ask his age.  In Sankirk, it had not seemed to matter.  When they were actively working, he had been a perfect professional—fit, sharp-eyed, and ingenious; and during their off time, Yarec’s behavior had always seemed uncommonly youthful, almost immature—as if some part of him had been frozen in perpetual adolescence.

However, in the country, among Yarec’s native people, his true age became an unavoidable fact.  The community was full of middle-aged men and women whom Yarec had known since they were infants.  Before Marshall Kubiak’s garden soiree, Yarec had tried telling Mrissa about the many relatives and family friends she would probably meet.  She leaned back against his chest and listened, snapping the names and the brief anecdotes associated with them into place in her mental diagram of the community.  So when she was introduced to people at the party, she remembered most of them; yet she was shocked at how old they all seemed.  Yarec, she realized, must have been one of the oldest people in town, and he was unquestionably the richest.  The affluent in these parts mostly survived by selling away the mineral resources under their feet, and that was nowhere near as lucrative as Yarec’s own very specialized line of work.  Whenever Yarec’s back was turned, Ris was aware of people’s envious glares, and she wanted to whisk him away to a safe place where he would be more appreciated.

How are they so backward, yet so smug in their own superiority?  No wonder Yarec had to get away from here.  When he collapsed on the banquet table, Mrissa was afraid for a moment that the locals, with their blanket of self assurance, had actually smothered Yarec into unconsciousness.

She drove Yarec back to his house, leading a modest convoy.  The doctor was following along to see that Yarec got suitably situated, but most of the other cars were just loaded with the curious.  A sizeable fraction of the community seemed to have come along to wish Yarec well.  They all professed to be deeply concerned about his welfare, and of course they were willing to help out in any way they could.  By the time Yarec was tucked gently under the covers of his steel-framed hospital bed, the most daring folk were beginning to congregate in the front room of the house.  Mrissa banished them all except for the Kubiaks.  A few of the visitors were hesitant to go so soon—and not entirely convinced that Ris really had such authority over Yarec’s house—but they acceded to the country custom of never overstaying one’s welcome.

After that, Mrissa watched Yarec’s body deteriorate.  His eyes were bloodshot—splotched with red where they should have been white.  His skin was puckered with sores, and any new nick or bruise became another oozing purple mess.  He was seldom awake and ever more rarely lucid.  So it took Mrissa entirely by surprise when he called her over to him and asked—in the strongest, calmest voice he could muster—to become his spouse and heir.

The question was a real effort for him, and he was asleep again before she could even answer.  Just as well, she told herself, since she was not sure what to say.  She did not feel entitled to Yarec’s largesse.  What would they have said back in Red Stick if they heard I was marrying a terminally ill older man for his money?  Imagining those catty sneers did nothing to dissuade her from accepting Yarec’s proposal though.  No, so what what if a bunch of bitches who don’t know anything about my life would think I’m a gold digger?  That was not why she was marrying him.  The infection may have sped things up, but if events had gone more smoothly, and Yarec had asked her in a year, she believed that she still would have said yes.

A current image did not actually reach her until Mrissa had already staked out Yarec’s arrival.  It arrived on her pocket lamina, which bleeped softly to alert her, but she did no more than glance at the file to make sure it was the picture she had been expecting.  Then Mrissa peered back down at the wharf.  She had perched herself—along with her high-powered scope, which was still perfectly focused, in spite of the dents and scuffs on its casing—on the roof of a three-story warehouse, just over on the mainland.  The little boat, laden with its cargo of exotic human and animal fluids, pulled up to the passenger dock.  The daylight was failing, but the occupied areas of the pier were well lit.  Under the large gray-white lamps, Mrissa could see the crewmen—and Yarec—relatively clearly.  The others looked rather anxious, but Yarec seemed impassive.  He showed neither the severity of an agent on a mission, nor the typical glee of a man on vacation.  To Mrissa, it seemed almost as if the muscles of his face were only halfway connected  to the nerves that were supposed to control them.

Yarec stepped away from the heavy lights of the pier.  Mrissa bounced down off the warehouse roof and was ready to follow him when he hit the street.  She could hear several different strains of music coming from different performers.  Their distinct rhythms competed for primacy in her mind, as she mimed a casual stroll, far behind her quarry.

He was not especially difficult to follow as he drifted toward the core of the festivities.  His gait was casual, until he ducked abruptly out of sight, and Mrissa heard a brief but noisy struggle.  Yarec swiftly disabled a pair of mesh-shirted toughs.  Then he exited the scene, and probably no one but Mrissa even noticed which way he had gone.

He checked into a hotel located next to a Austronesian-style dance club, from which twangs and rumbles tumbled out into the street.  As they walked, Mrissa had edged closer and closer to Yarec, and now, under the silver and pink neon of the hotel’s facade, she got her first clear, unaided look at his face.  He resembled many of his earlier personas.  Straight brown hair—artificially bleached, making it look as if he had lately spent a lot of time outdoors—hung down over his forehead.  His eyes were dark, and the way they were set in his face suggested something different than his otherwise largely Caucasian features.  Yet as always with a new with a new body, there were subtle differences.  The line of his jaw was softer than Mrissa had expected, and his nose was longer.  The slight changes from his default appearance made Mrissa wonder:  How much of what she saw was Yarec’s original appearance?

From across the street, Ris watched the hotel.  Yarec gave away which room he was in by adjusting the curtains in his third-floor window.  Security was evidently not his main priority right now.  Mrissa could have broken into Yarec’s room and waited for his return.  However, that would not have been the safest way to introduce herself.  If he found a stranger in his room, there was a reasonable chance that Yarec might just shoot her dead without even bothering to inquire why she was there.  If she was going to accost him in his bedroom, Mrissa would need to make it instantly clear that she was not armed.  She could be completely naked, but even that might not be sufficient.  To show that she was not about to attack him with her fists or reach for something concealed nearby, she should probably also have her hands cuffed behind her back.  However, if Yarec found Mrissa in his hotel room, hands tied and stripped naked, that could lead to an entirely different kind of misunderstanding.

So she waited until he left the hotel and then followed him along the boulevard, as it pulsated with lights and sound.  He seemed to be growing impatient, as if he was already finding the festivities tiresome.  He found the first bar that did not seem like too much of a dive—a red-lit establishment called Sloshed, Sloshed, Sloshed—and stepped inside.  Mrissa gave Yarec a little time to get situated; then she followed him in to make her pitch.

Once Yarec was on the job, Mrissa followed his lead.  She observed him at work, trying to tease out the traits that had made him so effective.  It would obviously never be possible to distill out the perfect essence of his technique, but after they had been working together for a while, Mrissa found there were two things about Yarec that really struck her.  The first—his arrogance—was not much of a surprise.  A polite way of describing it would be that he took a great deal of pride in his work.  He generally had a particular way that he wanted to do something.  When he had thought something through and come to a decision, he did not like to have it questioned.  He liked to see things done his way.

Mrissa’s second observation, however, was more subtle.  It surprised her to see how much he hated doing this kind of work—but apparently, he hated not doing the work even more.  He could conceal his distaste when he chose to, but at close quarters, Mrissa could see the constant frustration simmering inside him.

Sometimes, Yarec’s attitude really worried her.  His behavior never quite fit what she had expected.  She had to talk to somebody, about they way the job was turning out.  She was not quite sure what conversation she really wanted to have, but she had to say something.  So she signalled the FAF that she needed to communicate, in private.

A day and a half before the final assault, Ris went out to run some last-minute mundane errands.  She stopped to eat in a cramped blue-walled diner, where all the various natural and artificial foodstuffs were being seared on a single flat-top grill.  She sat down and waited, picking at the edges of a thin fried patty, until an irritating plinking noise indicated someone was trying to get in touch.  Mrissa excused herself to the ladies’ room and locked the door.  The restroom was a single unit.  The crude deadbolt, which had been affixed to the door by hand, would not keep out a determined intruder, but nobody in the diner had seemed suspicious of her in the slightest.  She knocked the lid down on the commode but did not sit on it.  Instead she stood in the center of the room, eyes of the door, and pulled a small communicator out of the side pocket of her pants.

She checked that the lamina was in an audio-only mode, then held it up near her face.  The voice was a conspiratorial purr.  “Do you need further assistance?  Is something going wrong with the ranking agent?”

“No, no,” Mrissa found herself assuring the voice briskly.  She wondered though, What would they do if I said “yes”?  “I’m just concerned that there’s going to be a lot of violence.  Are you ready for the fallout from a really big kaboom?”

“Do you mean you need more people?  ’Cause I can file a request, but I don’t think—”

“No, no” she said again—more firmly, but not loudly.  It would not do to be heard yelling in the toilet cubicle.  “There’s just going to be a lot of carnage.  As you prepared to deal with that?”  And how much carnage am I prepared to deal with?

“How many casualties are appropriate is left to the discretion of the senior on-the-ground operatives,” the voice intoned.  “However, we may review the mission outcome later, to see whether the methods used were appropriate to the situation.”

“Fine.  But are you prepared to protect the operatives on the ground—like, you know, me—when stuff gets nasty afterward?”

“Do you need additional Field Army Faction resources?” the man on the other end asked.

“Just some more money, I think,” Mrissa answered.  “And you all need to understand that I may not want to stick around after the job’s done.  If you need me afterwards, you may have to wait a while.”

“Hold on,” he said.  “How much money?”  As soon as she answered, he promptly transferred the call to someone else with more authority.  Ris dickered with the second man for a while, until they found a new number that suited both sides.

And evidently, that was all she needed right then.  After the call was over, she flushed the toilet and carefully washed her hands.

“I had told myself I was worried about your performance,” Mrissa told Yarec, “but I think I was really worried about getting close to you.”

She had exited the restaurant, with barely a glance at her uneaten food, and returned to where Yarec was waiting.  It was time to help him get in and out of the factory.