I’ve questioned whether or not I will ever come clean about this to my dad, and it’s so silly, insignificant, and downright irrelevant because I’m grown. He knows that his youngest child–myself–is wild and mostly untamable, so I’m not sure why I decided to keep this a secret for three years.
I have a big tattoo. Right on my left inner bicep. It’s a giant camellia flower, the state flower of Alabama, with “I have come from Alabama: a fur piece” written under the flower in my great grandmother’s cursive. I like it because it’s imperfect. She left school around fourteen to get married, so her handwriting was never flawless and neat. That’s what I think about Alabama; imperfection, errors, flaws, hardness, and the prettiest flower–the camellia.
The phrase, “I have come from Alabama: a fur piece,” is the first line Lena Grove thinks to herself in Faulkner’s seventh novel, Light in August. That novel is and forever will be my favorite novel, which is a bold statement coming from a future English Ph.D. candidate. I love the messiness of it. The novel is five hundred pages of experimental storytelling mostly told through gossip and memories, framed by the story of Lena Grove, a young, poor, pregnant woman who walks to Mississippi to find the father of her unborn child. She’s idealistic, dreamy, and unweighted by the past while other characters remain wholly dominated by their imagined histories. She’s optimistic, and although she has no reason to, she perseveres after being witness to one atrocity after another. She’s resilient, and she carries the hope for the regenerated New South on her lap by the end of the novel.
The middle sections cover the social disgrace of Reverend Gail Hightower, who tells much of the story to the receptacle Byron Bunch, followed by the history of the racially ambiguous Joe Christmas, the masculinized not-woman carpetbagger Joanna Burden, and her eventual death which is ambiguously committed in self-defense by Joe Christmas. She’s decapitated. Joe, who might be part Black, is lynched in a gruesome, violent, sensationalized moment of white supremacy by the comic book Nazi-villain Percy Grimm. Gail Hightower, who was originally obsessed with the Civil War, comes to terms with his flawed history–his grandfather was not a hero, he was a chicken thief. Lena Grove gives birth and continues on her journey with Byron Bunch, who is in love with her, on the flawed mission to find the father of her newborn baby. The novel ends as they enter Tennessee–her, claiming, “My, my. A body does get around. Here we aint been coming from Alabama but two months, and now it’s already Tennessee.”
The book is a mess. I’ve had heated arguments with professor much wiser than myself about Faulkner’s use of Joe Christmas, his goal, the obvious flaws of trying to make a racially ambiguous character in the Jim Crow, one-drop rule South. This novel is my South. In all of its horror, suffering, bigotry, gossip, and flawed communities, this is the South that needs healing and always has. The novel, written in 1932, grapples with some of the same debates I’ve had this week as Roy Moore lost in Alabama. A few months ago, when asked when he thought America was last “great,” Roy Moore told The Los Angeles Times, “I think it was great at the time when families were united–even though we had slavery–they cared for one another.” His comment repeats the self-mythologizing notion that Faulkner attempted to deal with in 1932–that there’s nothing “great” about apologizing for our shame, and that we have to deal with it and face the truth of it if we want a regenerative New South.
I could go on about Faulkner, and perhaps I’ll tell you where to start if you’re scared of him. Think about this as my “No Fear Shakespeare,” but for Faulkner:
- Start with the story “That Evening Sun,” but rail a few bars of Xanax before you do.
- Read The Unvanquished second, because it generally won’t make you pull your hair out.
- Follow that with The Sound and the Fury, keeping “That Evening Sun” in mind. You have to read this one twice, and I’m not kidding, as soon as you stop you should read it again.
- Try getting through Joseph Blotner’s Faulkner: A Biography, hate me for making you read 1,000 pages on his life, but thank me for making you read the only biography worth a damn.
- Then try for As I Lay Dying, laugh when Vardaman Bundren says, “My mother was a fish,” which makes up the entire contents of chapter 19.
- Now you’re ready for Light in August.
- Move on to his first novel Soldiers’ Pay, get disillusioned by World War I.
- Attempt Absalom, Absalom!, stop halfway through and question your literacy.
- Read The Wild Palms/If I Forget Thee Jerusalem and feel every bleak emotion you’ve been repressing.
- Then try for the laugh-out-loud, buddy cop drama, Sanctuary. I’m kidding. Temple Drake gets raped by a corncob by a man named Popeye.
- Then read Requiem for a Nun, it’s very racist and a sequel to Sanctuary.
- Finish Absalom, Absalom!
- Still in the mood? Read The Hamlet, The Town, and The Mansion. They’re a trilogy, and they won’t necessarily hurt you?
- Then read Flags in the Dust/Sartoris and be mad that I didn’t tell you to read it earlier.
- Giggle at The Reivers, it’s kind of cute.
- Don’t ever read Mosquitoes, because it’s terrible.
- Read Pylon, Intruder in the Dust, and A Fable quickly, as they’re not my favorites.
- Finish it all up with Go Down, Moses. Thank me for leaving you on a light note.
The reason I love Faulkner is pretty simple. He deals with the duality and disesteem of the South, and he doesn’t shy away from our shame while also humanizing and showing the systemically bred hatred of my people. The fact that a white man in 1930s Mississippi came to probe the construct of race at all is wild. And he usually does it through giving African Americans voices and space to complicate and revise whitewashed Southern history.
The cover image of my blog–that floral that looks like your grandmother’s sofa–is from Faulkner’s guest bedroom in his Oxford, Mississippi estate, Rowan Oak. It’s so ugly and pretty at the same time, and I think that sums up my relationship with Alabama. It’s a metonymy, or whatever.
I’m not going to make him out to be a decontextualized seer beyond the South’s racism and misogyny–Requiem for Nun, Sanctuary, and 1/3 of Light in August are irredeemably racist and misogynistic. They are, however, necessary to understand the pervasive white supremacy of the South.
If you just don’t get it, if you’re not from the South and can’t imagine how this shit is still a problem, you must read Faulkner. He’ll tell you all about it.