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.