A Quick, Late Post on Light in August
I’m almost finished reading Light in August. It’s my first Faulkner. Starting at roughly the halfway point it grew into one of the most complex novels I’ve ever read; I’d like to write a fattish pamphlet on this book someday. But what I’d like to focus on here, in broad strokes, is a question regarding “how” rather than “what,” of logic and not of contradiction–specifically how Faulkner produces flat characters, that is, flat characters with depth.
Until the halfway point I mentioned earlier, I thought that Faulkner’s characters were, if not simple, then unsurprising–I expected, perhaps, the sort of character who would be presented at first as a racist, and would gradually come to light as nothing like one, as the modest guardian of the victimized race. More or less the character that commercial cinema wants us to believe always lurks within any localization of racist discourse. I eventually realized that many of the characters who seemed to me predictable were flat, pure surface depth: characters who function as signs, specific voices with almost automated responses–like binary switches–that present and order their social, political, or economic genealogies. Flat characters can be instruments of social critique, as in a Brechtian drama, or of comedy–a character who can simply be positioned and repositioned, his or her function made iterable and reiterated.
Faulkner’s flat characters in Light in August work differently. In a sense they are metacharacters who foreground the absence of a background in which to space them. For instance, we have Lena, with whom the novel begins: pregnant, unwed, she scours the south for the father of her child, who has all but jettisoned her from his life. We get traces of her history, but only glimmers and in almost the manner of a “false start” at the novel’s opening, and until the novel’s climax she remains lost in Faulkner’s dense layering of events. Yet until the end we understand that she will react in a certain southern Protestant way to, say, Byron Bunch proposing marriage to her. Namely, she will say no again and again. We know that there are socio-economic conditions radically in force in the content of her reaction without knowing how far down, so to speak, and in which direction those conditions go; in other words, we know the content of her character precisely insofar as we do not. The flatness of her character takes as its referent not a social critique but the absent depth of her character; it is in this sense that Faulkner’s characters are metacharacters. Elena’s decisions are examples of her character which are shown “beside” her character as a metaprinciple of her character (“meta” meaning both “beyond” and “beside”), but do not “belong” to her character; the decisions which would have been exemplary of her flatness refer in form only to the impossibility of saying why or how her flatness arranges itself. They are at once fundamental to her character and fundamentally absent from her character.
Her character becomes transparent and predictable only when her genealogy is opaque–when the “No” of her passivity haunts us by turns and at every turn–at the same time. Her flatness is in reality, and while remaining flat, an immense void of content which is also impossibly overabundant with the same. This contradiction of flat depth is the logic according to and in which the, again, extremely complex grafting and doubling of events in Light in August works: by and in the mechanism–the active automatism or, inversely, passive decision-making–of these flat characters who foreground only and precisely their own secrecy as characters. (There are possible exceptions–Christmas, for example. But I would go on to say he’s not one, that he is more confounding and superficially deep than any other character, or, otherwise, the essential bind by which every character abandons his or her past in the name of God.)