I can’t unpack William Faulkner’s novel Light in August here. There’s too much in it. It’s too thick. Faulkner piles on his sentences in a gelatinous mass, smearing words on top of words into a deep swamp of meaning, motif, and symbol. The novel is archaeological, a deep dig into the South’s abject wounds. It is the most Faulkneresque Faulkner novel I have read, a heady strange brew that tries to suss out racism, misogyny, fear of paternity, the scars of the plantation system, the fallout of the Civil War, the cold comfort of religion, and so much more. Like any good modern text, you could say it’s about a quest for identity, and how the quester must come into conflict with the codes and terms of the dominant social order to find that solid identity. But in Faulkner there is no stable identity, and Light in August dramatizes this problem, even as it points to a possible inherent payoff.
A book review should give some sense of what happens in the book, but as in much of Faulkner’s work, explaining “what happens” in a Light in August would spoil the puzzle, the synthesis, the game, the shock of it all. But some outlines should suffice. The novel is set in the Jim Crow South, mostly in Jefferson, seat of Yoknapatawpha County, the Faulknerverse. It opens with Lena Grove walking “all the way from Alabama” into Mississippi; she’s in her third trimester of pregnancy and still has no ring on her finger, a sign that every Southerner knows how to read. Lena is looking for the father’s child, Lucas Burch; she hears tell that a Burch might work at the planing mill. It’s not Burch though, but Byron Bunch, who falls for Lena right away, plays Joseph to her Mary. Meanwhile, Lucas Burch is around—only the rascal’s taken up the false name Joe Brown. He’s also taken up with the novel’s tragic anti-hero, Joe Christmas, helping that strange man bootleg whiskey out of old servant quarters adjoining a decaying plantation house. Joe Christmas, an abandoned orphan, may have black blood in him. In Jim Crow Mississippi this makes him black, even worse than black—an unknown, unknowable something. Christmas (is there a more overdetermined name in fiction?) is accused of killing the woman who lives the old plantation house, a woman the community of Jefferson shunned for her family’s abolitionist, carpetbaggin’ past, yet now the community must exact the only kind of justice suitable for a black man accused of killing a white woman in Mississippi in the 1920s. JC, always estranged, must now keep on the run to avoid being lynched.
In any other novel, the two protagonists would have to meet, but Faulkner never allows a scene between Christmas and Lena. Yet they are undeniably tied together: somehow he is both the metaphysical father of her child and the child itself, Faulkner’s answer to the inescapable violent fatalism that curses the South. There is no exit from the wounded past, but there might be new possibilities, and we might find them in Lena’s baby. Lena provides a feminine antidote to Christmas’s abject fear of women, his utterly Faulknerian despair of genitalia and menstruation; at the same time, Christmas becomes the sacrificial lamb for the South’s sins, the totem whose ritualistic dismemberment will at once reaffirm the dominant social patriarchal order of the plantation system at the very same time it reveals that system’s deep hypocrisy and radical instability.
In Light in August, Faulkner shows us a world where social codes are rigid, inflexible, immutable, unspoken, and bear absolutely no relation to the concrete reality of the phenomenal, external world they pretend to govern. It’s the primal sin of the plantation system, which paradoxically separated and joined blacks and whites; which said that miscegenation was abomination yet created the optimal circumstances for racial mixing; which proscribed the very concept of a multiracial family while enforcing the Darwinian circumstances that would necessitate such a collective. It is a world where nothing fits together, nothing connects, yet Faulkner finds a place for his misfits, although he must find it by mixing up the system.
Here’s Lena talking to Hightower, the defrocked minister and ersatz medicine man (I will not even begin to discuss Hightower). Lena’s concern is over Christmas’s grandmother, who through a bizarre series of events is present at the baby’s birth—-
“She keeps on talking about—–She is mixed up someway. And sometimes I get mixed up too, listening, having to . . . . . . .” Her eyes, her words, grope, fumble.
“She keeps on talking about him like his pa was that—–that one in jail, that Mr Christmas. She keeps on, and the I get mixed up and it’s like sometimes I can’t——like I am mixed up too and I think that his pa is that Mr—–Mr Christmas too—–” She watches him; it is as though she makes a tremendous effort of some kind. “But I know that aint so. I know that’s foolish. It’s because she keeps on saying it and saying it, and maybe I ain’t strong good yet, and I get mixed up too. But I am afraid . . . . . . .”
“I don’t like to get mixed up. And I am afraid she might get me mixed up, like they say how you might cross your eyes and then you can’t uncross . . . . . . .”
But the eyes and the I’s (both are ways of seeing, of course) do get crossed in Light. Faulkner mixes up the system, crosses the wires as a way out of the ugly circuit, even as he paradoxically reconfirms the circuit’s contours. This is not a writer who flinches from history and all its despair, even as he tries to find a metaphysical answer outside of religious doctrine and conventional morality.
I feel like I’ve made, at best, some very broad, superficial scratches into the surface of a very dense, thick book; even worse, I’ve barely provided even a hint of Faulkner’s astounding prose. Mea culpa. I’ll take a second, more specific shot at Light in August in an upcoming post. For now: Very highly recommended.