Sometimes after reading a famous, canonical work of literature I feel like stopping people on the sidewalk and saying, “Holy crap, you guys! You’ll never believe this, but [Moby Dick / The Stranger / Under the Volcano / Darkness at Noon / etc.] is actually a good book!” As if its famous, canonical status didn’t make that clear. Well, I just read The Sound and the Fury for the first time, and I’m resisting the urge to announce that—gasp—it’s good!
So instead of doing that, I’ll mention that The Sound and the Fury anticipates a bunch of books and cultural phenomena that are very relevant today.
Benjy, the autistic son, is America’s earliest and best contribution to what Marco Roth calls the neuronovel—a story that emphasizes the protagonist’s neurologically abnormal brain. Without Benjy we might not have gotten Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn, Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love, or John Wray’s Lowboy. There’s also a hint, in Benjy’s interactions with the black servants who look after him, of George and Lennie from Of Mice and Men.
Quentin Compson is a spiritual ancestor to Holden Caulfield of The Catcher in the Rye. (PURCHASE THIS E-BOOK to see what I mean.) Both young men are dissatisfied with posh Yankee schools, unable to make the transition from childhood to adulthood, and neurotically obsessed with preserving moral purity in a corrupt world. Both dream of being a savior to wayward children, and need a savior themselves.
Jason Compson foreshadows the stereotype of the NASCAR-watching, Republican-voting, shotgun-brandishing Southern male. With his folksy wit and casual racism, he embodies a set of contradictions—chivalrous and vindictive, religious and wicked, philosophical and petty—that is familiar to anyone who has followed the so-called culture wars between the so-called red and blue states. Jason is incapable of empathy and yet eager to impose his morality on everyone around him. He sees himself as a martyr to the memory of a better, bygone America, and blames his troubles on “New York Jews.” That may sound like a platform for political office in 2012, but it comes from a novel published in 1929.