Sunday Salon: Faulkner and Hjorstberg


The last time I read anything by William Faulkner was 12 years ago when I was writing my master’s thesis on Absalom, Absalom! and The Sound and The Fury.

After grad school, every time I tried to read anything by Faulkner, I rolled into a mental block.  A couple of years ago, when I read Jane Smiley’s 13 Way of Looking at the Novel, I was happy to read Smiley’s assessment of As I Lay Dying.

Enthused by Smiley’s reading, when I decided to read through my own list of 100 novels, As I Lay Dying had to go on the list. I’ve reached the point where I’m now reading it — it’s 62 on the reading list — and enjoying it, enjoying Faulkner’s Mississippi lilt in the voices of his characters, enjoying one of the weirdest novels I’ve ever read. It’s nice to find myself reacquainted with a writer I loved in my twenties.

I say weirdest novel, because of the plot: A country family embarks on strange quest — the Bundren clan, at the request of dying mother and wife Addie Bundren, set out first to build Addie’s coffin, and then take her body by wagon to her family’s cemetery in another town. A simple journey becomes a skewed quest, one hampered by weather, by bizarre events, all pretzeled by Faulkner’s dark Southern-gothic humor.

Point of view becomes pivotal to the narrative — as it does in so many of Faulkner’s novels — with each main player sorting out the story in first-person segments.

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On my recently read list is William Hjorstberg’s mystery novel Nevermore. Set in Jazz Age New York, the novel involves Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini crossing paths to solve a bizarre series of murders, all of which are themed to murders in Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories. I’m not an avid devourer of mystery novels, but this one is well-paced and a quirky idea.

The only thing that bothered me was the heavy peppering of cliches. Some seemed justifiable since they were dated expressions from the 20s, often spoken or thought by characters who would use the language of the time. Others, though, seemed inserted simply as prose shortcuts.

The cliches distracted me, though not enough to stop reading — the story itself, the idea, was compelling. But Hjortsberg’s use of cliche reminded me of a passage on cliche in Richard Rhodes’ How to Write:

I know of at least one popular, best-selling author who carefully goes through his draft manuscripts and substitutes cliches for any original turns of phrase that may have crept in, because he doesn’t want to distract his readers with unfamiliar words and images . . . .

I wonder if Hjortsberg consciously inserted cliches because readers expected them. And I wonder, Do readers really expect cliches? If so, why?

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Editor’s Note: This post has been written as part of Sunday Salon.

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