Sunday, September 17, 2006

This was originally meant as an review — I was incensed to see that all reader reviews of this book were positive, someone had to warn the unwary browser! — but it was not accepted. At first I thought this was because I refer to other reviewers, so I took out those references. Then I realized I was above the 1000 word limit, so I trimmed and pruned until I got down to 999 words. Admittedly, one editing strategy was to jam words together. After all this it still was not published. Either my agglutinations didn't make it past some clever computer, or my review was deemed spiteful (one of many the prohibitions). I'm still too angry to keep it to myself, but maybe some day I'll regret my intemperance. Not yet.
(I know it's a mess, a rant more than a review; I wrote it in one go giving no thought to structure, and have not been able or willing to muster the loving delicacy necessary to edit properly.)

A monstrous unbearable stale perverse book

Faulkner's sentences are very long, but they're not constructed; rather, they're piled on. He throws mud, lumber, and nails into a heap and calls it a house. "But where's the door?" asks the poor reader. "There's no way in." His prose doesn't create a world; rather, he uses the same twenty words over and over again, clumsily and without, one suspects, really knowing what they mean: maybe wind can "chuckle" (though it's hard to imagine) but what does it mean to say that the wind is "risible"? Yet he says this again and again, for several pages. In another passage, lasting about ten pages, he uses the word "derision" in a similarly blunt and insensitive way. He injects these words into the reader, forcing a mood upon one that he cannot achieve by legitimate means.

You too can write like Faulkner if you pepper your writing with the following words:

sober (a word that, one suspects, held depths of meaning for an alcoholic, but fails to impress the non-alcoholic)
incredible (a word for lazy writers if there ever was one; "incredible" to whom?)

And be sure to use unnecessary suffixes, as in "abstractional" and "outragement." (What's wrong with "abstract" and "outrage"? Nothing, except that Faulkner needs the suffixes to hide the fact that he has nothing to say.)

Elsewhere he writes: "The coffee was weak, oversweet and hot, too hot to drink or even hold in the hand, possessing seemingly a dynamic inherent inexhaustible quality of renewable heat impervious even to its own fierce radiation."

"impervious even to its own fierce radiation": just what does that mean? That the heat of the coffee cannot penetrate ("even") the hot coffee? Explain, please. And what's the result of lavishing all these big words on a cup of coffee? Locally, it makes even the words that make some sense meaningless, like "inexhaustible quality": we know it's not inexhaustible, but even that bit of hyperbole has to be topped by something completely meaningless. A cup of coffee simply collapses under the weight of so many words that do more to overwhelm the reader, as she tries to make sense of them, than to make anything vivid. And page after page of this fog, this contempt for meaning, this laughably portentous bombast simply numbs the reader. So that when someone is described as being "incredibly calm" I could only think, "Nothing in this book is incredible, because nothing is credible."

One character says, a propos of nothing, "Set, ye armourous son, in a sea of hemingwaves." I just couldn't believe it. Are we supposed to think, "How clever"? Are we supposed to laugh? But this is a book that has banished laughter, so one is left with the assumption that this neologism is meant to be clever and somehow profound.

Here's another excerpt:

"We got to get somewhere."
"Dont I know it? A fellow on a cottonhouse. Another in a tree. And now that thing in your lap."
"It wasn't due yet."

Those last two sentences make it seem as though the woman had given birth. This comes as a surprise, because we've been with her the whole time and nothing was said about her being in labor. But a few pages later it becomes clear that she hasn't given birth yet. Is this confusion deliberate? If so, what would the point be? Or is it merely careless?

The characters are either dull, blank, and impenetrable, or they're hysterical cardboard caricatures straight from pulp fiction; it's hard to say which is more boring.

One of the messages of the novel is that women with husbands are desirable, whereas women with children are not. Faulkner would probably call this a perverse paradox, a stagnant immolation. (Charlotte might seem to be an exception, but she is redeemed by her utter indifference to her children.) Wild Palms takes a tragic turn when Charlotte becomes pregnant and insists on having an abortion: "It's not us now. I want it to be us again, quick, quick." The convict has to leave a job he likes when he seduces, or rapes — we never know, and it's characteristic of the novel that it hardly seems to matter, either to the benumbed characters or to the reader, who has been brutalized by Faulkner for 200 pages — anyway, he gets into trouble with the wife of another worker. His fellow convicts are surprised that he never made any advances to the woman who has gone through thick and thin with him for several weeks and has made no attempt to rejoin the father of her baby, and the fact that she has a child is offered as an explanation.

I'm perplexed by the reviewer who says that this is a pro-life novel; I see no implied criticism of the lovers' justification that a child would be unaffordable (because they prefer not to work), and would put an end to their passion. To the end Charlotte and Harry are presented as anti-heroes bravely challenging bourgeois conformity.

Many of the reviewers assume, and Faulkner would have us believe, that the lovers are "doomed" from the start. Whatever this might mean, their only problem for the first 150 pages is that Harry refuses steady work, and forces Charlotte to quit her job, out of a fear of becoming bourgeois. He looks for a job, sporadically, and when he finds one, or even talks about finding one, Charlotte screams at him. It's hard to be patient with these people.

The last line of the novel is
"Women, shit," the tall convict says.

The whole novel is full of similarly unintelligent statements about women (aka "female meat"), generalizations about unreasoning instinct, etc etc. Here's one:

Not thrift, not husbandry, something far beyond that, who (the entire race of them) employed with infallible instinct, a completely uncerebrated rapport for the type and nature of male partner and situation, either the cold penuriousness of the fabled Vermont farmwife or the fantastic extravagance of the Broadway revue mistress as required, absolutely without regard for the instrinsic value of the medium which they saved or squandered and with little more regard or grief for the bauble which they bought or lacked, using the presence and absence of jewel or checking account as pawns in a chess game whose prize was not security at all but respectability within the milieu in which they lived, even the love-nest under the rose to follow a rule and a pattern…

I'll spare you the rest of that sentence. But it's typical of Faulkner that he has to coin a useless, ugly word — "uncerebrated" — to express a cliché.

"Up the corridor, beyond an elbow, he could hear the voices of two nurses, two nurses not two patients, two females but not necessarily two women even… two nurses laughing not two women…"

What kind of distinction is he drawing between "females" and "women"? We never meet these two nurses, but I imagine he means that they're unattractive. It's a characteristically random and clumsy bit of nastiness, and it seems to issue more from Faulkner than from Harry, who at the moment has other things to worry about.
On the next page two doctors come "…up the corridor and [talk] to one another in clipped voices through their mouth-pads, their smocks flicking neatly like the skirts of two women, passing him without a glance and he was sitting down against because the officer at his elbow said, 'That's right. Take it easy' and he found that he was sitting, the two doctors going on, pinch-waisted like two ladies, the skirts of the smocks snicking behind them…"
The hatefulness of the doctors seems to have everything to do with their effeminacy.

In the same scene doors "clash" "soundlessly." If you insist on cancelling the connotations of words, sooner or later all your words will lose connotations. For me this happened on page 2 of this awful novel.

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