Personal Best: The Sound and the Fury

"The Sound and the Fury" by William Faulkner

By Joan Smith
Published September 30, 1996 12:24PM (EDT)

how do you choose the best among the novels of William Faulkner, whose power is still unmatched in American literature, who turned storytelling inside out and made it seem an aspect of nature he alone had come to understand, who invented a version of the South that eclipsed all other versions, who showed us the true power of the dependent clause and made sentences that built and persisted and climaxed and landed, to a reader's delight, quite solidly on their feet?

But torn among "Light in August," "Absalom, Absalom," "As I Lay Dying," "Sanctuary" and "Sound and the Fury," I would finally choose the latter, because it was my introduction to Faulkner and because it changed forever the way I thought about the arc of a novel, the potential of a story, the rhythm of words.

Stories are themselves rather humble. We use them, simply, to organize our thoughts, especially our thoughts about who we are and how we're doing. Storytelling is an antidote to chaos.

But Faulkner took a simple story, the decline of a landed Southern family -- one son a suicide, one what we now call developmentally disabled, a daughter who disgraced herself (sexually, of course) and disappeared, and a surviving son so bitter and stingy and paranoic he is incapable of establishing a family of his own -- and invented an elegiac rhythm and language which raised it to the level of myth and persuaded us of the sorry decay of an entire culture.

I have never spoken to a writer who has been able to do his own work, while reading Faulkner, and resist echoing that cadence. It is necessary, perhaps, to clear the palate with something less memorable. Richard Ford, perhaps. William Styron, who often sounds an anemic imitation. Pat Conroy, diverting southern lite. His voice is that resonant, his vision that impossible to resist.

Joan Smith

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