Top 10 Books I Read in 2011: Light in August (#6)

Light in August.

#6: LIGHT IN AUGUST, William Faulkner.

Continuing my annual tradition of ranking the best books I read this past year, I am writing a series of posts about these 10 great novels. You can find the 2011 list and previous lists here.

This novel is supposedly William Faulkner-lite, which is probably why I enjoyed it so much. To my deep and unutterable shame, I have slogged through The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom! with no pleasant memories of either. However. This? I really liked.

Light in August is the accessible proof for the claim that some make, that Faulkner is the greatest writer of all time. After reading this novel, I find that to be a plausible statement. I wanted to believe in Faulkner’s unmatched greatness after having read The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, but I only pretended to understand that claim, in the same way that I pretended to understand ranking Ulysses as the greatest novel ever written. The works are too dense, difficult, and vast for me, and so I nod quietly and assume their genius without attempting to comprehend. This, however, was comprehensible and a solid and clear proof of Faulkner’s brilliance and his unblemished standing in the Western canon.

The novel, published and set in 1932, concerns a small town in Mississippi with a cast of complicated and contentious characters. The lack of progress, poverty, and dismal state of race relations made me think that this book was set in the late 1800s. I was shocked when I realized that it was intended as a portrait of the contemporary deep South. But Faulkner knew it like no other. Light in August follows three interconnected characters in this town, judiciously examining their motives and propelling their dark and fascinating destinies.

A young white woman, Lena, arrives in town, alone and very pregnant, searching for the father of her baby. She knows him as Lucas Burch, and he last promised that he’d “send for her” once he moved down to Mississippi, a promise that we soon learn he is no good for. While looking for Burch, Lena meets Byron Bunch, who quickly falls in love with her. Byron Bunch helps her find Burch, who is now going by the name of Joe Brown. Brown has been living with a strange and secretive man, Joe Christmas. Christmas more or less becomes the central character of the story and it is his sad and perplexing fate that we become most concerned with.

Christmas becomes involved with a white woman in town, Joanna, the daughter of a famously abolitionist and thus unpopular family. Their relationship is built on a desperate and erotic dependence and is, to say the least, twisted and unhealthy. Through a series of unfortunate events, Joanna’s house is burned to the ground and she is found inside, murdered and nearly decapitated. The killer is on the lam and is suspected to be Brown or Christmas. Faulkner never clearly tells us who killed Joanna, but the townspeople are convinced it’s Christmas and commence a man hunt for him. Their desire for Christmas’s life is intensified when it is revealed that Christmas is half-black. I won’t give away everything, as I nearly have, except to say that this is not a happy story. Faulkner doesn’t peddle shiny endings. He writes the recognizably gritty and honest stories and captures the darkness of both Mississippi and the human condition.

I happened to be reading Light in August while I was reading The Help, which was one of the worst (and easily most overrated) books I read all year. This was a fascinating juxtaposition. Light in August helped shine light on all the ways that Kathryn Stockett failed in her feel-good portrayal of Mississippi some 30 years later. Faulkner provided a brilliant contrast to Stockett’s fairytale world, in which all people are 100% good or 100% evil, and in which you finish the novel feeling really good about white people saving the day for black people. Faulkner is too honest to perpetuate that terrible myth. Unsurprisingly, he is vastly more insightful than Stockett in his reading of human nature. In the dark and uncomforting universe of this novel, people are complicated and imperfect. Their motives are not immediately apparent. No one is purely good; no one is purely evil; no one is easily summed up in one line, like you can do with all of Stockett’s two-dimensional characters. People are not so simple, he reminds us. People, both white and black, are full of mixed motives, mystery, and promise. Faulkner lifts the veil and forces us to focus on this uncomfortable truth.

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