One of the most useful graduate courses I took was called “Structure of the Novel.” So often, studying writing has to do not with learning something new but with heightening a conscious awareness of something you have previously registered only naturally and vaguely. “Structure of the Novel” was one such awareness-heightening course, and it comes to mind today because I have just finished reading a book with nearly unparalleled structural acrobatics: Faulkner’s Light in August.
Light in August is the fourth Faulkner novel I have read, and while it was a pleasure to once again be in the hands of such an assured and complex storyteller, I find myself still regarding Absalom, Absalom! as my favorite Faulkner hit and a book in my top ten all-time list. Absalom, Absalom! also retains its status as the most difficult novel I’ve read (excepting, perhaps, Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood which is difficult to regard as a novel; I don’t recommend it unless you have a real interest in Modernism). But Light in August truly takes the cake—if you’ll allow a cliché in discussing such dazzling originality—when it comes to structure and the movement of time within the book.
If you haven’t read Faulkner, you need only pick up one of his novels (and I recommend cutting your teeth on As I Lay Dying or even on Light in August before attempting Absalom or The Sound and the Fury) and you’ll soon know what Faulkner is like—the lush language, the storytelling between characters, the flirtation with stream of consciousness, the passionate and larger-than-life characters, the Biblical allusions, the favored themes of race, class, miscegenation, sexual purity and impurity, brutality, ambition, and even redemption. Ah, Faulkner!
But as for structure, Light in August had me thinking about circular storytelling technique. It, like Absalom, sets up a situation or conflict early on and spends the rest of the book returning again and again to the characters and other factors that have led to this pivotal moment. In Absalom, the entire story took place in the past and is remembered and retold by current characters, and while Faulkner withholds the heart of the conflict until later in the book—and in so doing, creates suspense—we have a sense early on of the main people and actions at play.
The same technique, though with less suspenseful withholding, is present in Alice McDermott’s wonderful novel Charming Billy. There, too, we know within the first 50 pages (as I recall) that a particular character told a life-altering lie to another character, and we know what the lie is. The rest of the book revisits those characters and circumstances surrounding the lie, as well as its aftereffects.
Light in August is more suspenseful than either of these two books, in part because the content is more sensational (two murders, a prostitute, a criminal on the run, a man on the run from his pregnant girlfriend, a crazy man convinced he is an instrument of God’s will, a pastor who preaches only his grandfather’s “heroic” death fighting for the Confederacy, etc., etc.) but in larger part because of the structure. The preliminary situation is not as detailed or clear as it is in Absalom or McDermott’s Charming Billy, thus giving more room for the story to open out and for the reader to be in suspense over how all these characters are connected or will be connected. More importantly, what I have called the “pivotal situation” is not past and gone as it is in Absalom or Billy; instead, it is still in the story’s present and not yet resolved.
Wait a minute, you might think. This is beginning to sound suspiciously linear, that most classic way of structuring a story—a conflict, followed by rising action, climax, and resolution.
And that’s the baffling part. If you step back, way back, from Light in August and look at the overall trajectory, there’s a strong argument for its being linear. However, when you’re plunged into the book itself, the narrative is anything but linear. Faulkner is up to his usual tricks of seamlessly floating in and out of flashbacks as quickly as he floats in and out of characters’ minds. So, then, is it fair to call this structure circular in the way that I’m calling Absalom and Charming Billy circular? Or is this simply a linear story hidden by the large amount of flashback and backstory that Faulkner adds throughout?
Let me suggest one other way of understanding it. Literary critics have pointed out parallels between the Gospel of John and Light in August—from superficial similarities (they have the same number of chapters) to thematic resonances. Perhaps Faulkner is not only mimicking the gospel in these more surface ways, but also mimicking the structure of the Bible itself. Here, too, we have a “pivotal situation” set out in the Old Testament, in the prophets who know a messiah will come, although we’re not quite sure how it will all go down. Then comes the New Testament where Christ’s story is simultaneously linear (his birth, ministry, death, and resurrection) and circular (the fulfillment of the earlier mysteries, the resurfacing of previous ideas).
Structural acrobatics indeed. So what does this teach me as I continue work on my second novel? Honestly, it’s tempting to throw up my hands in the face of such genius and say I give up, it’s been done, who am I to work in the wake of Faulkner. But, in my more tenacious moments, I’d say the first humble lesson for me to learn is that I, too, might consider trying a preliminary pivotal situation that is followed by an opening out, a clarifying-through-backstory type of movement. In a nutshell: there’s more than one way to skin the structural cat, and insofar as circular storytelling goes, Absalom/Charming Billy pitted against Light in August teach a valuable lesson in the effects on suspense and, ultimately, on emphasis.