As I Lay Dying is the story of a poor farming family from Mississippi. The matriarch of the family, Addie Bundren, is very ill. Before she dies she asks to be buried amongst her relatives in Jefferson, a long journey from the farm where Addie lives with her feckless husband Anse and her children. Anse is not a man to honour promises or do the right thing, but his stubborn, unreasonable nature latches on to his wife’s final wish. Even though on the night of Addie’s death there is a massive storm which destroys all the bridges in the area, Anse is determined to make it to Jefferson. Against all reason he gathers up the family and they set off in a wagon, braving wild river crossings, burning barns, mental breakdown, and broken limbs treated with terrible, amateur first aid.
The story is told through the point of view of various family members, friends who try to help, and others who encounter the chaotic Bundren progress. A few seem to be what a court of law would call a reliable witness. Most are very much not. I’ve seen the word ‘stream of consciousness’ used to describe the book, which might be a fancy term for writing the first thing that comes into your head. It doesn’t really come over like that. Some of the accounts, particularly from the confused younger children, appear to be a splurge of thoughts. But there are also chapters which remind me of a member of the public speaking to camera about what they have witnessed after the disastrous Bundren show has passed through town.
I have no idea who is supposed to have put all these accounts together. There is no framing device to make sense of it all. You just have to take it as it comes. I think if you read it in that spirit, the book will be by turns bewildering, distasteful, beautiful, pretentious, annoying, tragic, and bizarrely funny. It will all add up to an unholy mess of a journey, which has to happen and is completely pointless at the same time. The book takes its name from a line in Homer’s Odyssey. Maybe the point is that there is no point, no tidy final destination, in Jefferson, Ithaca or otherwise, which is oddly reassuring, for a story where death is a major thing.
Reviews often give a rating to a book. Such a thing is difficult here. As I Lay Dying is indefinable, a quality which includes whether a reader actually enjoys it or not. Undoubtedly this is a tough journey, and some people might be quite reasonable in shouting their advice to give it up. But in the end I was glad I read it.