A huge thank you is owed to the #1930 club, hosted by Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book, for inspiring me to re-read one of my favourite novels from the last century. ‘As I Lay Dying’ is a demented story about America, family, bereavement, faith and lots more; none of these concepts can be logically understood – to be honest, I’m not sure any of them really make sense – but then neither does the book itself.
As shown in the 1963 Penguin book cover, the story concerns a woman who is watched over, in her coffin, by her family. What is wonderful about the illustration is that it engages perfectly with the off-kilter world of the characters. While the coffin itself is a conventional shape, the bulges at the side, which you would assume to fit its incumbent’s shoulders, actually make space for her ballooning skirt. This means her feet are where you would expect her head to be; either she is going to be buried upside-down or everyone around her must be looking at the world from a decidedly unconventional angle.
A further detail – the face of the corpse in the image is somewhat obscured. After Addie Bundren dies her youngest son, in uncomprehending grief, uses an auger to bore holes in the top of the coffin to allow her to breath, an imprecise act that leads to his mother ultimately wearing an improvised veil made out of a mosquito net before the mended lid is resealed.
It’s shocking, grotesque details like this which make the heavily experimental novel, narrated through stream of consciousness by fifteen different voices, such a page-turner. The story is simple. In what is either an uncharacteristic display of devotion or a totally characteristic show of obstinate, selfish stupidity, Addie’s husband is determined to honour his wife’s wish to be buried where she grew up. This means that ‘beholden to no man’ the whole family are to travel forty miles, through biblical and manmade obstacles (including flood and fire). They meet helpful and horrified neighbours along the way, and are also accompanied by an increasingly large entourage of buzzards as the days pass.
The whole book is genuinely funny and terribly terribly sad; probably my ideal example of black comedy, with different moments to make me gasp with laughter or at the pathos of the situation on each re-reading. While the characters and actions may seem almost gratuitously shocking, the beauty of the prose, which is some of Faulkner’s evocative best, elevates the story. A thoroughly enjoyable re-read and a further reason (if any was necessary) to join the 1930 club!