Colin McKay Miller's Reviews > Light in August

Light in August by William Faulkner
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Jan 06, 09

bookshelves: novels, reviewing-commentary
Read in December, 2008

A couple of thoughts I’ll tie together: 1) I read a BBC article that suggests a large percentage of people keep books on their shelf to impress others rather than to read them. 2) As young students, teachers take us to the library and allow us to pick out whatever book we like (as long as we’re not just trying to avoid reading by picking out a pamphlet), but by the time we reach high school and college, it’s assigned. Though I believe an educator’s recommendation to be valuable, I believe taking away a person’s choice can rob them of finding the book that will spark excitement and turn them into readers for life. I believe far too many people are forced to read classics, when quite frankly, some of them will never be appealing. For me, I usually have strong reactions, good or bad, to the classics, but I found my spark long ago. For most people though, they know that reading is an intelligent practice, but they’re bored by what they’ve been forced to read, so books are used for the perception they create rather than the pleasure of their contents. While some of it is taste and a blatant unwillingness to participate in any medium straying from the instant gratification culture, there are certainly a good number of masturbatory authors who are more concerned with coming off as intelligent rather than relatable.

I believe William Faulkner is one of those writers who lets his writing get in the way of a good story.

Published in 1932, Light in August is written in the Southern Gothic tradition—set in Faulkner’s fictional Mississippi county, Yoknapatawpha county—where the grotesque is often perpetrated by horror/romance archetypes without moral judgment from the author. The plot consists of three connected strands: 1) A pregnant woman, Lena Grove, in search of the father of her baby; 2) An enigmatic alcohol smuggler, Joe Christmas, struggling with his mixed ancestry; and 3) A disgraced Priest, Reverend Gail Hightower, who lives in near-isolation after annoying the town with his sermons about his dead grandfather. Much of the novel deals with the racism of the South, pulling in violence and observing Judeo-Christian values if they were smashed into a funhouse mirror. It takes a little while to find Faulkner’s rhythm, but it’s not a tough search and it’s enjoyable until you realize he won’t just tell the story. The reader gets dragged through lengthy flashbacks even though the compelling plot line just found its adrenaline. Then you’ll get to the part you’ve been waiting for and Faulkner will skip ahead, spoiling his own story then slowly backing through the incident without any of the tension.

There are obscure punctuation choices, too, and while it’s not a major point of contention, it illustrates my frustration with his style: He uses six ellipses (. . . . . .) when the standard three (…) will do. The second quarter of this book, about 150 pages, could have easily been trimmed back to a lean 30, and even though I liked the last chapter, at least 40 of the pages before that could have been cut out, too, but that’s not Faulkner’s style. He believes in stream of consciousness, where thoughts expand and ideas ramble so that you understand the deepest recesses of a character. While this has certain strengths—as each character gets presented in differing ways, depending on who’s viewing them—I still find the style obese and much of the information superfluous. I lean minimalistic by default (though even I like a little meat on the bone), so I’m not a fan of reading what I think a visceral editor should have cut. Nothing seems to be minor in Faulkner’s eyes. As a result, none of the characters feel all that major either. They’re unique, distinguished, but with everything else, there’s just too much to appreciate it. It’s like mixing all the beautiful colors. After a while, you just end up with brown. Sometimes you need to make choices and Faulkner doesn’t make enough for my liking. As a result, any other book of his will not come onto my shelf. I don’t care who thinks I look smart. Two stars. Barely.
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Comments (showing 1-33 of 33) (33 new)

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message 1: by Nicholas (new)

Nicholas Karpuk Oooh, taking on the Faulk! I've been meaning to try one of his for a while now. He's one of those people always refer to as being difficult and intimidating.

Colin McKay Miller Yeah, it took me a little while to sync into his rhythm, but it's coming now. So far, it seems, nothing is minor to Faulkner.

Kerry Drury What great writing in your review!

Colin McKay Miller Thanks, Kerry. I see you're a fan of this book. Is this your favorite Faulkner?

John Collin, I couldnt disagree more. Yes, there is alot of fat that someone such as yourself might find nessesary to trim, but then it wouldnt be Christmas dinner would it? (no pun intended) Let this be a novel of drippings. There are so many of leanality and minamalism, we enjoy them also. Nicholas this is a good one to start with. Not too difficult yet one must stay attentive and slow down when things seem convoluted.

Colin McKay Miller I'm definitely more a fan of minimalism, John, though I've enjoyed some tomes in my time (Les Miserables and Underworld on the longer end; The Fortress of Solitude and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay on the shorter end). My big issue with Faulkner was stream of consciousness. I just don't think I'll ever dig that style.

John Thanks for the reply Colin. I certainly understand about brevity. For me Faulkner can really tell a story. I especially enjoy his habit of taking us up to the point of revelation and then digresses down a different road. I keep thinking Dumas, Three Musketeers, for a read sometime. Now that would be a loaf of bread to swallow. You might enjoy Hemingway's Islands in the stream.One can languish in the current with that one.

Colin McKay Miller I've enjoyed Hemingway and I always meant to read The Three Musketeers. Nice chatting with you, too, John; I'd be interested in your opinion on other reads.

message 10: by Deb (new) - added it

Deb Your review contains some interesting points that help me understand, perhaps, why I couldn't bring myself to finish the book. Mainly, for me the superfluous descriptions wore thin. I can be a patient person, but I found myself several times wondering where a description was leading.

Thank you for concisely describing my displeasure.

Colin McKay Miller Indeed, Deb.

I eyeballed your shelf. Seems like you don't mind lush descriptions as long as there's a payoff (i.e. you're not just some minimalist who hates anything longer than a sentence-long description). I'm curious: What fits the criteria of description paying off for you?

message 12: by josey (new) - rated it 1 star

josey Ah, if I could write a review like you I would be so happy. All of your points are what I felt about the book, but I so much want to say that I have read certain classics. I want to struggle through it but don't believe my drive is that strong. I prefer the movie Joe Christmas that is a Christmas movie.

Colin McKay Miller Interesting point, Josey (and thank you for the kind words). I'm only accessible to Stephen King via movies -- his writing just doesn't do it for me. Some books you're just not going to connect with.

message 14: by John (last edited Oct 17, 2011 10:20AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

John Good morning Colin. I finally did read The Three Musketeers and was sorely dissapointed. A bland story that didnt become inspired writing until the end. I have to remind myself that these writers were from a time without the immediate gratification of movies and tv. Their stories were the intellectual entertainment of the day.

However I thoroughly enjoyed Cold Mountain. It's not for everone, but if you like a melancholy pace with descriptive depth then it just might work. The movie stayed true to the tone of the book.

oh, I have The Corner on library hold, so here's to high hopes.

message 15: by John (new) - rated it 4 stars

John Forgive me; I never complimented you on your fine review. It hits Faulkner top on. While he is not for everyone, he is worthy of his noteriety. I liked that your thoughts are cautionary for those wishing to dive in. F. takes patience, perserverence and dedication. Faulkner has a story to tell and it is convoluted.

Did you realize this book never states that Joe Christmas killed the Burden woman? I found an unequivical statement on the liner note map of Yoknapatawpha County in Absolom Absolom.

I would suggest those wishing to start with Faulkner try Satoris, Intruders in the Dust or The Mansion. These have fairly straight story lines and give one a chance to wade in before hitting deep water like The Sound and the Fury.

btw: I've begun re-reading Absolom Absolom with the intention of putting together a quiz. And I do wonder if you looked at my Light in August quiz?


Colin McKay Miller I think I did check it out way back when.

message 17: by josey (new) - rated it 1 star

josey John wrote: "Good morning Colin. I finally did read The Three Musketeers and was sorely dissapointed. A bland story that didnt become inspired writing until the end. I have to remind myself that these writer..."

I loved Cold Mountain, and the movie was just as great.

Jethro Colin, I agree with you WHOLE-HEARTEDLY! I was assigned Light in August in my American Literature class in college. After reading this work, I was so unimpressed, I wasn't about to tackle The Sound and the Fury. No thank you. I will continue to seek out and read works of literature that are enjoyable. And, I trust you will do the same. :)

Colin McKay Miller Jethro wrote: "I will continue to seek out and read works of literature that are enjoyable. And, I trust you will do the same. :) "

I'll try my hardest. Although, you know, we hit some flubs along the way. Thanks for the thoughts, Jethro.

Emily FYI a lot is two words.

Danny Taylor Faulkner is extremely challenging, but very rewarding. I've read The Sound And The Fury, As I Lay Dying, Light In August, and I'm reading Absolom, Absolom now. I'm not saying that to sound smart. I just love how he uses the written word to explore the depths of human psychology like few other authors. While many writers use stream of consciousness style, the way Faulkner frog-hops narrators let's you compare and contrast points of view to get a better understanding of how different people experience the world. Faulkner's books are amazingly complex. They're all about how social, cultural, familial, sexual, and biological forces shape and mold our perspectives. His books are less interested in compelling plots than conflicted and multifaceted characters who reflect the times and places they come from.

Colin McKay Miller Whatevs, Danny, take off your smaartypants!

I keed, I keed.

I can understand why many would agree with you, but my review is simply noting why I didn't like the Faulk.

message 23: by Dave (last edited Jan 31, 2014 08:23AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Dave Your review is interesting and well articulated, and I'm sure a lot of people pile books on their shelf just to look smart, however I think Light in August is a masterpiece of language and poetry that some people (including me) may genuinely enjoy.

To me literature has always been more a matter of language and music rather than plot, that's why this kind of confusing, tremendous style has a lot of appeal to me.

When you say that Faulkner doesn't choose, I disagree: Light in August is not really about these characters but about what they have in common. When you think about it there is no real closure, and the resolution of the story will leave many unsatisfied. Light in August is about the shadows of the past, oppressive believes we all bear and cannot live up to, predestination that crushes its characters (Christmas is deemed evil before even having a chance to live, Hightower sees himself as his grandfather's ghost...), inflexible traditions and society. It's all about forces that overwhelm us, about fate, about a faceless, ubiquitous and terrifying god (or the idea of it).

It's a confusing book, full of darkness, of incertainty, of things half said, half whispered, sometimes pretty obscure, but very deep and very consistent about what it's depicting.

It's also a pretty difficult book. I quite struggled to finish it too (I'm not a native English speaker which doesn't help either), but I think it's a book worth reading, a book that I loved for all these reasons.

Colin McKay Miller Interesting thoughts, Dave.

For all I can articulate or cover in a review, at the end of the day, I didn't enjoy it whereas you did. We build our opinions around those two different starting points.


Jessica Short I completely agree with your review. I am currently on page 374, and I have already been considering putting this book down at this point, but your review made me realize I really want to. I'm just not interested. It keeps going on and on and to me it is very confusing. I know what is going on, but at the same time, I don't. Very, very strange book.

message 26: by John (new) - rated it 4 stars

John Jessica, this is a book for more than one read. I liked it I put together a quiz awhile back.

Jessica Short You know, I wondered that honestly! I wondered if I read it again, if I would understand it and enjoy it more. I can see where the story is a very good one. Maybe it's above my intelligence level, haha. Really!

message 28: by John (new) - rated it 4 stars

John Jessica wrote: "You know, I wondered that honestly!

It isn't intellence but rather desire and perseverance. Practice makes all the difference in the world.

Dang Jessica, you have invested almost 400 pages, why quit now? Faulkner isn't easy and he isn't for everybody. Hang on to the end. Chat me up, we can talk about it. Try this site., or this one

Jessica Short I will holler at you! Thanks! Okay, I'll finish it and see what happens. :-)

Colin McKay Miller Oh. You were being sarcastic the first time through. Awesome.

message 32: by Kaitlyn (new)

Kaitlyn Bless you, Colin. I'm majoring in English for secondary education and felt compelled to give Faulkner a try. About a hundred or so pages into Light in August, however, I felt more than ready to call it a day! My father's family are all southerners, and I am most definitely a Yankee. I find it hard to keep up with my family's diction, let alone Faulkner's, a brilliant writer who has much more control over his language than my family does. As your review pointed out, the syntax can drive a grammar nut crazy! The strange commas, sentences, and slang were all just too much for me. An old teacher of mine said Hemmingway readers normally don't do well with Faulkner. Now, I understand that ine doesn't make a cause, but I also cannot help but feel there's at least some truth to the statement. The length of the novel wasn't a bother to me. I read Dostoevsky and the like with frequency. I just cannot enjoy Faulkner's style, I suppose. Cheers!

message 33: by Peter (new)

Peter Very good. Your writing proves you to be a highly sensitive reader and one day you will return to this book and give it five stars. The greatest things take a little time. You have much to look forward to.

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