WARNING: This book is not for the faint hearted or the literary challenged.
I struggled through that first chapter like I've never struggled before. I wanted to curl up under a rug and I hide knowing that this was my choice for book group this month and the ladies in my group were going to hate it and/or refuse to finish it.
Both were true (ish).
I found the first chapter completely baffling and thought maybe I had lost the ability to read. I quickly sought solace in the internet and found some reading guides (like Cliff Notes) online. Ah, then it started to make a bit of sense.
I found everyone struggles through that first chapter.
The story is about the Compson family in 1920s and each chapter is told by a different member of the family (although technically the last chapter is the narrated by the author). The first chapter is told by Benjy, the mentally handicapped brother of Quentine, Caddie and Jason. Their father has died and their mother is either a hypochondriac or the laziest woman ever as she spends their entire life in bed. The children are cared for by their black housekeeper, Dilsey, and the various members of her family.
The first chapter is told by Benjy which is why it is such a complete random stream of consciousness.
The second chapter, told by Quentin, was easier although similarly baffling but now that I understood that Faulkner is playing with time and memory, I relaxed a bit and just let the words pour over me like a hot shower on a cold morning. This chapter thrilled me because it is where I found Faulkner's most beautiful writing. the pages of the second chapter are littered with me highlighting as I read page after page of beautiful words. You don't realise until well into the third chapter that Quentin commits suicide at the end of the second chapter at which point you gotta go reread what he's written.
The third chapter is told by Jason, a bitter, sick, and twisted man. Although this chapter is well ordered and time and place make sense, this was my least favourite chapter but only because I hated Jason.
The book takes place over 4 days and ends. It just ends. There's no finding of the missing Caddie or Quentin (her daughter, not her brother). There's no morality tale. You don't know the whys or wherefores. It just ends.
Faulkner writes the first two chapters largely in stream of consciousness which I find so incredibly difficult to read. He also moves through time the way you recall memories (not in any particular order). He also gives the same name to multiple characters. i don't think Faulkner wrote this novel to be read. I think he wrote it for his own pleasure. And if we all happened to like it well all the better.
I am glad I read this. I am more glad that I invested the considerable amount of time and effort to understand it a bit better. I have a feeling this is one of those books that gets better with multiple readings. I feel that I have had to reread so many parts of the book to help me get what was going on that I have already read it at least 3 times but I suspect it will be one of those works that I pick up again in a few years and give another go.
Some critics have called this one of Faulkner's greatest works. He is considered by some the greatest American novelist of all time. I haven't read anything else he has written so I can't offer up an opinion here. But I can recommend that you give it a go. It's not a long book. But a word of warning. Get a reading guide from the internet and read it first. Don't worry, you won't spoil the ending but you will increase your chances of actually finishing the novel and maybe even increase your understanding of this baffling piece of literature.
Book Group Verdict: Only 2 people finished it (I didn't even finish it). One loved it. One didn't understand it. The others gave up 20 pages or so into the first chapter. Next month will be a much easier endeavour: The Outcast by Sadie Jones.