Category Archives: American Fiction

Sound and Fury in William Faulkner’s ‘The Sound and the Fury’

The title of William Faulkner’s novel The Sound and the Fury has its origin in a somewhat obscure soliloquy given by Macbeth in William Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth. It reads:

There would have been a time for such a word.

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day

To the last syllable of recorded time,

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

And then is heard no more: it is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

In Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, the phrase comes under some pressure. ‘Sound’ and ‘fury’ are not, in Faulkner’s usage at least, abstractions of which the tale of life is full. The double-use of the definite article suggests a more particularising motivation; it is The Sound and The Fury. With this in mind, I control effed the text for uses of sound and fury, because what turned up presumably means something to somebody.

April Seventh, 1928

Sound Count: 3

Fury Count: 0

As the chapter that Benjy narrates is the first one, one could argue that The Sound of the title is the moaning noise that Benjy makes, the moaning bellow that serves as the clearest indication to those of us capable of restraining ourselves from Sparknotes or Wikipedia summaries despite how adrift they may feel in this novel, that Benjy is neurologically impaired. In a way that is, again, presumably significant, he is often unaware that he makes this sound at all, the reader is only capable of coming to the understanding that he is when putting Jason’s complaints about Benjy’s constant ‘bellering,’ next to how often other characters instruct Benjy to hush.

June Second 1910

Sound Count: 12

Fury Count: 1

The Sound, for Quentin, is almost certainly the ticking of clocks, the ringing of bells and markers of time’s passing in general. Like Benjy’s The Sound, it passes in and out of his awareness: “You can be oblivious to the sound for a long while, then in a second of ticking it can create in the mind unbroken the long diminishing parade of time you didn’t hear.”

Unfortunately for Quentin, even when this sound terminates, he gains no respite from interminable clock-ticking/bell-ringing. Even the absence of sound evokes violence and despair: “The bird whistled again, invisible, a sound meaningless and profound, inflexionless, ceasing as though cut off with the blow of a knife.”

Quentin’s The Fury appears in one of his extended degenerating mélange of voices, within which it is very difficult to situate oneself. Again, what emerges is Quentin’s overwhelming fatalism and desperation: “until someday in very disgust he risks everything on a single blind turn of a card no man ever does that under the first fury of despair or remorse or bereavement he does it only when he has realised that even the despair or remorse or bereavement is not particularly important to the dark diceman and i temporary.”

April Sixth 1928

Sound Count: 2

Fury Count: 0

Its perhaps only fitting that Jason’s The Sound, is the ‘hollow sound’ that soil makes as Quentin is being buried, its low sound’s reverberation subverting Mrs. Compson’s remark which appoints Jason her only hope, a son who is resentful enough of the opportunities that Quentin received to fleece maintenance money intended for her.  Even the hollow sound fades, it re-surfaces later as ‘no sound’ from upstairs.

April Eighth 1928

Sound Count: 16

Fury Count: 1

Fury receives a rather bathetic treatment in the final chapter of the book. Jason, finding that his stolen money has been stolen in turn, holds the travelling show in town responsible and assaults the first member of it he comes across. Their struggle is awkward and ungainly, neither are triumphant: “Jason tried to grasp him in both arms, trying to prison the puny fury of him.” The anti-climax chimes with Jason’s failure to, 1) get his money back and 2) successfully carry out some sort of gesture, no matter how pointless, which might redeem the Compson’s from their over-determined misery. The Puny conclusively defuses all the potential rawness and hazard of The Fury.


The War of Form in John Steinbeck’s ‘Cannery Row’

John Steinbeck’s 1945 novel Cannery Row opens with a striking sentence. It is a striking sentence because it makes use of the novel’s title. (I will be awarding points for examples of other novels that do this) It is a striking sentence because the particle word ‘a’ forms approximately 30% of its content. It is a striking sentence because it is inaccurate. The sentence runs as follows:

“Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.”

I’ll leave aside these subsequent descriptors and focus on the first.

Cannery Row is not a poem; it’s a novel, barely, if you, like me, subscribe to the Goodblood Theory of Prose Genre by Length, the terms of which are outlined below:

Flash fiction = 1 page

Short story = Between 1 and 50 pages

Novella = Between 50 and 150 pages

Novel = 150+

There, neat categorisers for those sick of the ‘it-both-is-and-it-isn’t’ language of the literati.

Anyway, Cannery Row is not a poem, but it obviously means something important when Steinbeck says that it is. I find that when the words ‘poem’ and ‘poet’ are used to describe texts or artists that are not strictly poems or poets, that the usage is generally suspect. For example, when rappers, singer-songwriters or comedians are described as poets, I find that the delineation generally does an injustice to both art forms, as if what makes a great comedian or rapper are somehow analogous to what makes a great poet.

What I think is going on here when critics say things like this is that they are internalising the intellectually bankrupt notion that the culture that we consume should be graded on a scale of respectability. Poets tend to reside at the Olympian end of the scale and comedians are somewhere towards the bottom. Incidentally, comedians that are praised as poets are generally the prematurely dead ones known for their acerbic political commentary, wearing of leather jackets and posing with cigarettes in black-and-white photographs. See also, when television shows such as The Wire are compared to the novels of Charles Dickens, as if in order to make ourselves feel better about the fact that we’re watching TV, we have to pretend that the great serial novelist of our time is David Simon, just because they both deal with questions of how people’s lives are dictated by their social milieu. One is far better at doing so than the other. I’ll leave it to yourself to choose which one I mean.

Towards the end of the book, Steinbeck introduces a series of poems, read by the altogether lovely main character named Doc. Doc is a romantic, which means that he gets drunk by himself and reads melancholy poems about unrequited love while listening to Monteverdi and broadcasts a general vibe of quiet desperation, tempered with an essential benignity. Thanks to a group of good-ol’-boy ne’er-do-well brothel creepers, Mac and the boys, Doc is a reluctant host of a couple of raucous soirées and towards the end of one of them he reads a translation of a Sanskrit poem, quoted below, with a view to developing Cannery Row internal dialogue between novels/poetry/life:

“Even now

If I see in my soul the citron-breasted fair one

Still gold-tinted, her face like our night stars,

Drawing unto her; her body beaten about with a flame,

Wounded by the flaming spear of love,

My first of all by reason of her fresh years,

Then is my heart buried alive in snow.”

With its sickly-sweet Keatsian indulgences and Homeric compounds, social realism this poem is not.

Steinbeck’s subjects in Cannery Row, live on newly emerged societal frontiers. In the aftermath of the Great Depression, vast swathes of the American population were reduced to transitory existences, with what fledging skills they had, they tried to get by. Despite his engagement in social matters and social justice, or the lack of it, the medicine of his novels is generally sweetened with a larger poetic mission statement, or a sense of cosmic redemption. When Mac and the boys’ first party destroys Doc’s home, this rift emanates outwards into the wider community, “a black gloom” descends upon Cannery Row itself.

This is a big part of what the novel is supposed to do, perhaps allow the abstract emotions of the poem above to descend to a more comprehensible level, attach a few specificities and inveigle itself to the average reader with a more holistic approach. If Cannery Row is a poem, it is definitely not the one cited above.

J.D. Salinger’s ‘A Catcher in the Rye’

It is in the voice of Holden Caulfield, the protagonist of J.D. Salinger’s novel The Catcher in the Rye, that the novel has both its greatest strength and its greatest liability. Reviewers generally encourage people to read it before their teens are out, lest they find Holden to be utterly insufferable. I’ve heard more than one critic describe the disappointment of returning to him to middle age and find themselves put off by the ramblings of this sarcastic iconoclast. Typical among his reflections is the following, when one of his dates is interrupted by one of Sally’s acquaintances, the lady he is accompanying: “You should’ve seen the way they said hello. You’d have thought they hadn’t seen in each other in twenty years. You’d have thought that they’d taken baths in the same bathtub or something when they were little kids. Old buddyroos. It was nauseating.”

Holden is represented as being constantly disagreeable and irritated but there is a certain degree of slippage in the recording of his disdain. The novel is narrated in retrospect, therefore his perceived sullenness may be a genuine reflection of his sentiments in the moment just as well as it may be an overflowing of angsty emotion recollected in tranquillity. While he narrates the later stages of his date, the reader can perceive the interweaving of two very different emotions simultaneously. First, his apparently sincere expression of the desire to elope with his date, Sally: (“’No kidding,’ I said. ‘I have about a hundred and eighty bucks in the bank. I can take it out when it opens in the morning, and then I could go down and get this guys car. No kidding.”) Also present is Holden’s incredulity that he had expressed the idea at all: “The terrible part, though, is that I meant it when I asked her. That’s the terrible part. I swear to God I’m a madman.”

Of course, it is nothing new to point out h0w Caulfield’s monologue proceeds by means of elisions and concealments just as much as through the plain statement of his uncompromising opinions. The novel begins with the narrator’s self-censorship, an invocation to silence, that he will refuse to provide a holistic appraisal of his self or his place in the world, something that he dismisses as “all that David Copperfield kind of crap.” It’s a fun reversal of the conventional mechanisms of the novel as a genre and indicative of a kind of no-nonsense paring back of detail that one often wishes for when reading novels such as David Copperfield.

The Catcher in the Rye is often held up as one of those novels essential to the American canon and indicative of, dealing in national stereotypes, its capacity to embody a no-nonsense, straightforward narrative voice. In many ways it sets the tone of what was to come in the rest of the century (ignoring the maximalist works of Thomas Pynchon), such as in Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint. While appreciating this aspect of The Catcher in the Rye, one should likewise me attuned to the more tentative and subtle modulations of Holden’s voice.