Monday, June 21, 2010
Kindling Faulkner's Fire
The following essay was posted last night in the weekly edition of the History News Network website.
Let's get something straight at the outset: There's a limited amount of cultural juice to be squeezed in comparison of any two writers, let alone novelists as different as William Faulkner and Scott Turow. Not only did Faulkner and Turow write about very different people in very different places, they barely shared a century: Faulkner was born in the 19th, and Turow, God willing, has decades to go in the 21st, with all that necessarily implies about their consciousness and frame of reference. Perhaps more to the point, Faulkner's career was dedicated to smashing some of the very conventions of literature that Turow has avowedly embraced, among them a commitment to traditional narrative and the concomitant values and rewards that result from a large general audience (the more succinct term among modernists of Faulkner's stripe would be "pandering"). Though we live in a postmodern world in which scholars and critics routinely blur, if not erase, the line between what was once considered "high" and "low" culture, many of those of us most committed to doing so hesitate to draft Faulkner for such an enterprise. Even in an assertively secular, post-poststructuralist order, there's something sacrilegious about it.
But let's go ahead anyway. In a spirit of Whitman more than Baudrillard.
But none of these writers have conjured up a world as a world quite as vividly as Turow has in his fictional Kindle County, a sprawling metropolitan area that I think of as in the shadow of Chicago but more vibrant than greater Cleveland or Indianapolis (but whose hapless baseball team, the Trappers, is clearly modeled on the Cubs). This vibrancy, of course, is relative -- the so-called "Center City" at the heart of Kindle is an empty husk that struggles to restore its former industrial glory. Nor is the sociological range of characters, from thugs to municipal politicians, all that great; certainly sin and redemption are tightly entwined in these people. But within such parameters a remarkable array of human diversity thrives, as even the names of the names of characters -- Rusty Sabich, Nile Eddgar, Muriel Wynn, Robbie Feaver -- suggest.
As such, Turow comes closer than any of his peers at approaching Faulkner's now-mythical Yoknapatawpha County. There is no decaying aristocracy of the ilk of the Satoris family in Kindle County, but this is at least in part a reflection of a difference in regional milieu; if Yoknapatawpha is a land of white and black sharecroppers in the shadow of great plantations, Kindle is a land of second generation European immigrants clawing their way to the suburban perimeter of a brown underclass. (The proudly dignified Argentine immigrant, Alejandro Stern, protagonist of The Burden of Proof (1991), does have a kind of Faulknerian stature, however, nowhere more so than in the arriviste quality of that stature.) What the two fictional worlds share is a population of brooding, conflicted protagonists inhabiting social landscapes where even minor characters have an edgy intelligence. Faulkner might not describe a woman like the African American law clerk Marvina Hamlin as having "not heard another human being say anything worth considering since her mother told her at a very early age that she had to watch out for herself," as Turow writes in his most new novel, Innocent, but you can find people like her in his work, even if an African American law clerk would be as likely to show up in Light in August as a Martian. Turow can similarly evoke the sense of incestuous rivalry that looms over Faulkner's work in the multi-volume rivalry between Rusty Sabich and his nemesis Tommy Molto: "They managed a strained cordiality, not only as a matter of professional necessity, but perhaps because they had overcome the same cataclysm together. They were like two brothers who never got along but were scarred and shaped by the same upbringing." (This line is from Innocent, the sequel to Turow's 1987 debut and smash bestseller, Presumed Innocent.)
As these examples suggest, the Turow/Faulkner obsession with family history is embedded in a larger context of American history -- and, more importantly, an acute consciousness of time itself. Turow often overtly manipulates his narration by presenting information in an asynchronous manner, much as Faulkner does. Again, this is not an uncommon technique in the mystery genre generally, where crimes are painstakingly reconstructed ("Prosecutors are historians," Rusty Sabich notes in Innocent, noting that "they never get it completely right.") But Turow's deployment of this technique is typically more than a storytelling gambit to advance the plot of his novels. It's part of a broader literary strategy in which time is a virtual character its own right. Faulkner, of course, takes this idea even further. In his work, time is liquid, shifting sometimes over the course of a single sentence. This almost three-dimensional, Picassoesque, deployment of time on his fictional canvases is not merely a hallmark of his style, but of his greatness, a greatness that will likely give his work a sense of esteem and relevance for the foreseeable future.
Turow has a different strength: readability. If Faulkner makes time liquid, Turow gives narrative -- a dimension of literary art that has for too long been overlooked in critical discourse -- a comparable liquidity. As tens of millions of his fiction know, Turow's novels flow so seamlessly as to engender a compulsive desire to finish them quickly. Kindle County is always a great place to visit, even if you can't live there. Anybody who can pull off this trick again and again deserves to be considered a great artist. Is Turow as great as Faulkner? Maybe not. But comparable in ways that help us appreciate both.