JR: Leslie Jamison approached me a while back wanting to join in the When We First Fell In Love series, and I was glad to give her a spot. I just started reading The Gin Closet, and it’s a novel that sounds like a memoir, that’s not really a memoir. But I’ll have more later. Check out Leslie Jamison…you’ll be hearing more from her.
For me, discovering Faulkner had the pacing of a summer romance. I found him one June and couldn’t think of much else until September. But if our introduction had the timing of a fling, it had the texture of a break-up: our weeks together were marked by chronic feelings of loss and loneliness.
I’d gotten major jaw surgery in early June, which meant my mouth was wired shut for nearly eight weeks. For someone like me, a hyper-verbal kid who’d always earned praise and affection by way of wit and speech, this was disquieting. Quite literally, it left me quiet.
I communicated by way of notes: Please get me the pain pills. Is there any way to get another milkshake? I ate my liquid diet through a large plastic syringe. I took baths so I wouldn’t have to remove my gauze and splint. My world was reduced to a catalogue of physical requests and trivial particulars. I felt the days a series of negations: I couldn’t leave the house. I couldn’t talk. I couldn’t eat.
But there was something I could do as well as ever. And so I read.
I started with As I Lay Dying. It stunned me how easily my emotional reaction preceded comprehension—as if the words had cast some subcutaneous spell that got under my skin without passing through any lens of analysis. A dying mother leaves behind five children who spin mourning into poetry. Her youngest son turns her into a fish, dead and flapping on the ground, her eldest son commits himself entirely to the pragmatics of building her coffin. It was hard to find words for why I loved this book. Its own words had already shed ordinary language like a husk, the sloughed snake-skin of How Things Had Been Said Before. What could I offer in praise? In these pages, language feels deformed and remade by the gravity of loss? Or: There’s this funny part about teeth?
That summer, silent and sick, I came to Faulkner with a vengeance. I read the famous books and loved them, and then I read the un-famous books and loved them too. As my life shrank into pain meds, high-caloric smoothies, and sleep, this shrinkage made room for Faulkner’s lives to loom large. The psychic arithmetic was simple: when I had no world of my own, Faulkner gave me the world he had made. I felt the keen pleasure of immersing myself in the work of an author who set many of his novels in the same territory: the Southern county of Yoknapatawpha, whose consonant-clustered name I didn’t have to worry about pronouncing out loud for weeks.
The territory of Yoknapatawpha was epic and particular at once, full of crumbling mansions and shit-stained fields. I got the sense that I’d come to know this place a bit better each time I came back through the pages of another book, that I belonged a bit more. Characters straddled stories or reappeared across novels, and sometimes their intertextuality was painful: a character I’d come to care about deeply in one book died in another—was killed by fire, or his own hand.
I was seduced by Faulkner’s smallest details—underwear and shadows, moonshine and corn cobs—and by the way the tangible world seemed to turn dizzy and feverish in his pages: trees thrashed, honeysuckle drizzled, the soil grew sizzling-hot. His characters had desires that seemed ancient and startling at once: “if people could only change one another forever that way merge like a flame swirling up for an instant then blown cleanly out along the cool eternal dark…” His own prose worked like that, too—swirling up for an instant, casting sparks, taking my breath away and then returning it to my silent, damaged mouth—transformed and electric.