Review of Light in August by William Faulkner

Time Magazine Top 100 Novels

Book 49: Light in August by William Faulkner

This is a series of reflections reading through Time Magazine’s top 100 novels as selected by Lev Grossman and Richard Lacayo published since 1923 (when Time magazine was founded). For me this is an attempt to broaden my exposure to authors I may not encounter otherwise, especially as a person who was not a liberal arts major in college. Time’s list is alphabetical, so I decided to read through in a random order, and I plan to write a short reflection on each novel.

Light in August deploys a combination of poetic and banal language to tell an ugly story with a series of characters who for their own reasons are unable to exist within the confines of their society. There is something that reminds me of the writing of Flannery O’Connor in the way Faulkner uses beautiful language combined with the simple speech of the characters in his stories that is authentic to their education and station. There are many times where the language and the assumptions of the American South in the 1930s, when the novel is written and set, are jarring to the ears of a modern hearer, but the novel is historically situated in a time where the views on race, sex, religion, and society are very different from our current era. At times I could fall into Faulkner’s poetic use of prose, and he is truly gifted as a wielder of the English language, but each of the characters is unlovable in their own ways. Whether it is the indomitable Lena who refuses to give up her search for Lucas Burch/Joe Brown who is the father to the child she carries, Joe Christmas whose birth and life seems to be overshadowed by a questionable birth and lineage and a grandfather who views his divine calling as bringing about the destruction of his grandson, or Gail Hightower the disgraced minister who lives in the shadow of his grandfather who died in the Civil War.

Light in August is a work of art but like all art its reception is subjective. The world of the 1930s American South at times seems like an alien world for its strangeness and prejudices. There are times where the work seems dystopian and none of the characters, except perhaps Byron Burch, attempt to be heroic. For me the prose is gifted but the story is plodding and the characters seem to fit into a deterministic pattern based upon their inherited flaws. I can appreciate it as a classic but it was hard to hear the speech of the 1930s South, especially towards Black Americans, and not cringe at the way the derogatory terms for Black Americans continued to echo in my head even after putting the book aside. Perhaps it, like Flannery O’Connor’s work, present an uncomfortable mirror to the world of my grandparents whose prejudices echo in both spoken and unspoken ways in our own.

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