This is a guest post from Angela Pneuman. Angela’s novel, Lay It On My Heart, was released on July 1, 2014. Her short stories have appeared in Best American Short Stories (2004 & 2012), Ploughshares, Virginia Quarterly Review, New England Review, the Iowa Review, Glimmertrain, and elsewhere and were collected in her first book, Home Remedies. She teaches creative writing in the Online Writing Certificate program at Stanford, where she was a Stegner Fellow in Fiction. She also works as a writer in the California wine industry. Angela lives in Napa Valley. Follow her on Twitter @angelapneuman.
Like most readers and writers, I like reading books I’ve never read before. I’m always asking for suggestions and at any point I have a list of more than 100 books that come highly recommended—from other writers, from friends, from students—books I fully intend to get around to reading. And when I do, and something new catches fire (Ross MacDonald has been doing this for me lately, and fortunately he was prolific) then I feel as readers have always felt: transported, or returned to myself, or informed, or concerned, or relieved. It’s deeply affirming to encounter a new-to-me author whose sensibility I trust more and more with each page. And when that doesn’t happen—when the sensibility seems to falter—then I usually struggle along gamely anyway. It’s hard to write a book, after all. After two of my own, I find myself wincing on behalf of writers whose efforts I might once have scorned.
It’s a very different thing to reread something I know well. I teach writing, and while I like to introduce new stories and novels as often as I can, I often find myself teaching works I’ve taught before. When you reread the same stories and novels over the years you start to become aware of a vertiginous, shadowy corridor of old selves. Sometimes these old selves actually live in the margins, permanently, in pen.
When I was 17, my godparents in the northeast sent me a box of Faulkner. They sent the whole oeuvre, though the individual books themselves were a mish-mosh of paperback, clothbound, cardboard hardcover.
I can pick up the old copy of The Sound and the Fury today and recognize right away my notes from high school. Back then, what caught my eye were returning details in Benji’s point of view: “Caddy smelled like leaves,” and “Caddy smelled like trees,” and “Caddy smelled like trees in the rain.” Today, I scrawl, but back then my writing was neat and loopy. In the margin I tried to keep the times straight: “this is the 33rd birthday,” “this is Damuddy’s funeral.” It’s funny to me that I included “this is” as though I wasn’t confident I’d get a briefer reference. In high school, though, I wasn’t confident. When the box of Faulkner arrived, I’d just flunked out of AP English, a class in which we were asked to note the return of detail, chart symbolism, and identify main ideas—all useful skills, to be sure. It was Alexander Pope’s “Essay on Man” that did me in. Mrs. Braden, my teacher, wanted us to identify Pope’s four main points and organize paragraphs around them. I sat at the kitchen table late into the night asking of every line, “is this a main point?” and feeling like the answer could go either way. I was the kid who, in elementary school, suffered through multiple choice questions; every option, it seemed, could be true, depending on the circumstance. It wasn’t until fifth grade that I figured out how to guess which answer the teacher would probably pick, but no matter how many times I read “An Essay on Man,” the probable main points eluded me.
So, sitting in the back of my new class—Average English!—feeling insecure and newly self-conscious about reading, my oldest companion, and having found myself the owner of my very own box of Faulkner (not my usual library books) I started in with underlining the parts that felt important. Annotating, too. I wanted some imaginary observer to recognize and approve of the way I knew which parts deserved to be remembered. “Caddy smelled like leaves.” I was also impressed with my own ability to identify adult issues, and my margin notes from this time include: “Caroline’s depressed!” and “Condom?” I congratulated myself, too, for remembering that Jesus had been crucified at the age of 33. Benji = Jesus, I wrote.
Several years later, a new, defiant college feminist, I underlined the voice of Mr. Compton in Quentin’s head in hot pink marker: “Women are like that they don’t acquire knowledge of people we are for that they are just born with a practical fertility of suspicion that makes a crop every so often and usually right they have an affinity for evil for supplying whatever the evil lacks in itself for drawing it about them instinctively as you do bedclothing in slumber fertilizing the mind for it until the evil has served its purpose whether it ever existed or no…” In the margins I express my indignity on behalf of myself and women everywhere with three bright exclamation points.
During my MFA program, I’m reading for craft. In Jason Compton’s voice I noted the excerpts from Caddy’s letters that allow us to see through this “unreliable narrator.” I was still thinking in binaries, still looking for villains: Jason is the clearest-cut racist of several. He’s the one who separates Caddy from her daughter, the one with all the agency. He has some nasty lines of dialog. He’s cruel. I hadn’t caught up to considering the way Faulkner, again and again, exposes the deep rot at the center of a decomposing power system through the very human desperation of its would-be agents.
I won’t even tell you about my Ph.D., with its close inspection of ideology and valiant attempts to occupy a reading space from without it. Narrative is seductive. I got it. Not to get it is to be at narrative’s dubious mercy. Usefully, The Sound and the Fury fractures narrative; the reading experience is as frustrating as Jason’s final pursuit of his niece. The book’s language, its structure, its irresolvable characters and their myriad voices—nothing about it permits comfortable, less-conscious consumption.
How many times have I read this book at this point? To start it, for me, is to finish it again, and tonight, decades later, I’m taking another, different look at “the bad guy” himself. On a basic level, I’m plagued by migraines, and towards the novel’s close, Jason has been hit hard on the head, literally, in his futile pursuit. His head aches so badly that he finds he can’t drive to Jefferson. From his parked car he watches people exit a church. It’s Easter Sunday. He imagines how he must look to them, a “…man sitting quietly behind the wheel of a small car, with his invisible life raveled out about him like a wornout sock.” In earlier readings I have too easily foreclosed on Jason’s humanity. I have resisted his unpleasant point of view. But just as Faulkner understands that an accurate narrative of the south must be disruptive, formally, he understands that not to experience the peculiar, contorted, miserable struggle of this character is to simplify one of the country’s most complex, long-lasting infections. Jason is stranded, forced into a moment of self-consciousness. Unprepared for what comes next. This is our last glimpse of him, and tonight his own defeated metaphor for his own life suggests to me humility and perhaps—perhaps—the seed, however remote, of a difficult grace.
I underline the passage, for old times sake.