Blood Simple

Blood Simple

We are reading four of Faulkner’s novels with Mark, and the second is Light in August, which I read years and years ago. I didn’t recall any of the story upon this read, but I do remember being surprised, shocked, in wonder – I’d say amazed, if it weren’t such an overused word – upon reading it the first time, due to its subject and unromantic portrayal, and also at the unfamiliar craft and power of Faulkner’s writing. I had picked the book up for the title. The change of light in August was a new awareness then, marking that coming-out-of-childhood jump in scale, where the Earth suddenly has a serene and heedless presence, an existence independent of all unnoticed human doings. I was enveloped in the light of August when traveling abroad, in Paris – the sense of it enhanced by everything new-though-old, the city sparse, light of people, grand and extensive and other. And every summer since, for years and years and years, I waited, watchful for that moment when the quality of light transmuted, the sun not so high, the rays slanted and indifferent, summer’s hold slipped to hint at the impending fall. Mark (a southern boy, born and bred) says Faulkner refers instead to the few days in August when the Deep South’s heavy, oppressive summer heat breaks – a respite – but for me the remembered feelings of suspended in-between, of loss and indifference framed my read of the novel this time and the one before.

I won’t recount the plot lines here. They seem to me simply a theater for Faulkner to display his surgical understanding of the South: to articulate the master narratives of a place-time and the mechanisms used to maintain and impose them. The overwhelming feeling I had reading Light in August was fragility. Not as an insignificant, weak, and mortal component of a vast ignoring ignorant universe, but as a social creature, secured by – or exiled from – community. Bruce and I have lived many places and traveled to many more, and over our lifetimes we have gathered much confidence in our ability to live anywhere, thrive anywhere, cosmopolitan and universal in our knowings. But Faulkner exposes the conditionality, the precariousness of belonging, and now I am not so sure. It is a hysteria of sorts (not unlike that of witchy Salem) that delineates the danger of difference, the safety of conformity and the eager willingness – the need – to assign inside and out. Gossip is the time-honed and forever service-able tool that establishes the boundaries of the real, for truth is simply and only what everyone agrees it to be. How easy to lose the fellowship, and how dire the results. The Old South would be a difficult place to claim even a fingerhold, its overarching pillars and rooted bedrock out of reach for anyone new. Not easier for Bruce than me either, despite his growing-up time in West Virginia. We are on the wrong side of history, her-story, the story.

The most beautiful thing about Faulkner’s writing is that he is not teleological in his story-telling – there is little of climax or moral or point or ending. Rather he paints a landscape for you to enter and sense and discover. Mark explains this as a quantum physics experience (the scientist in me forbearing …) but I rather understand Light in August (and Absalom, Absalom! ) as fabric, with extent and rhythm, threads and unfinished ends, woven of characters and events even as the reader watches, the whole eventually apparent and complete, though all the same unfinished, continuing, spinning out and on. Faulkner is a difficult (and unsatisfying) read for many because of this, but I don’t mind doing the work. I find his book-worlds collage-like, layered with many paths and meanings and discoveries, open-ended and divergent. Like me.

Reading Faulkner, though, I have to contend with his misogyny. Mark promised to address it but never quite got there, so I am left to my own perceptions and interpretations. None of the female characters are developed or complete – they seem to be only foils or symbols or the problem. Whether this is (critically) descriptive of the worlds he relates or an authorial point of view I cannot say. But reading Faulkner’s male characters I am suffused and perplexed: why are men so angry? Why are men so angry at women? Why are men so weird about blood? Is menstruation somehow a betrayal of desire? Does procreation make sex ugly, banal, and vulgar? Reveal its animalistic inherence? Is sex just too messy, in its completeness? Maybe all that men want is the romance of zipless fucks. Does blood make love a sham?

Maybe what only a woman can know – the profundity of the electric spark: life beginning within you, while making love to someone you love. It colors sex forever after. It is The Frame. Would that men could know this too.


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