Finished at a table at Pamplona under an umbrella drinking a ginger lemonade yesterday afternoon. I want to go right ahead—I mean, for the jugular—and ask about the final line of AILD. (If you haven’t yet finished the book, or’re planning on reading it sometime, forgive me.) The words are Anse’s, pa’s, come to us in a “Cash” section: “ ‘Meet Mrs Bundren,’ ” he says (261). Anse, now, with his mouthful of new teeth, turns out to have behind our backs married the woman he borrowed the two spades from, the one whose home had been issuing music. (“It’s a comfortable thing, music is” .) Is this the sharp tip of the present, what it’s all been leading up to? Where the Bundrens begin all over again? Is this what Anse and the woman were negotiating back there, off stage, when Anse was taking too long? Was this his plan the entire time? I wonder if it matters. Either way: the slow, increasingly mournful, flow of AILD is cut off by an almost—I think this word works—caustic note of replacement. Anse has replaced Addie.
In the “Editor’s Note” to my copy of the book (Vintage International version), Faulkner’s quoted on the writing of AILD:
“I set out deliberately to write a tour-de-force. Before I ever put pen to paper and set down the first words, I knew what the last word would be. Before I began I said, I am going to write a book by which, at a pinch, I can stand or fall if I never touch ink again” (264).
I knew what the last word would be — How? Does he mean Anse’s last words, really? (I don’t think he means “says,” though what do I know.) What to do with this claim of Faulkner’s? Do we think back on AILD, now, and see a single slow march headed for an inevitable end? We obliged to take this frankly cocky Faulkner at his word? Are we meant to feel had, a little, like the whole time Faulkner knew precisely where he was leading us while we plowed our way forward as if free? (Us, and the Bundrens—all of them except Anse, who’s last laugh, here, confirms several of the characters’ sense of the calculation lying beneath his air of dumb lugubriousness. … Or does it? What if Anse has surprised himself? What if this isn’t what he wants at all? Does it matter that Anse’s last laugh is mediated through Cash? That loosen things?) I wonder, too, if it’s Anse, not Faulkner, divinely driving the thing. The way the surprise of his last line’s delivered, it’s almost as if Anse knew, too, before the book even begins, what the last word will be. Faulkner, here, is far more grandiose than Anse, but maybe also closer to him than we think—I wonder if Faulkner’s self-description of AILD’s author also in some ways describes his father character.
But no, we don’t know. For all we know, the woman’s price for two spades was Anse. Anse, I mean, could be, is, I think, being driven no less than the others. But, then, by what?
Reading, you feel inevitability. But it isn’t, I don’t think, the inevitability of preordainment. It’s a different kind of inevitability—almost, I want to call it, the inevitability of our stupidity. (I thought this a few times reading: how, man, we are stupid.) There’s “fixing” Cash’s leg with cement, or crossing Tull’s bridge, anyway. Stupid, stupid, so painfully stupid. It’s angering. So, is it, what, this unreally stupid stubbornness that compels the Bundrens’ forward? (There must be a better way to talk about death wishes.) A pack of Bundrens: this image of about an almost brute march headlong, starting off slow but gaining speed as it rushes on, which brings itself to the end it was all along headed for, plus Faulkner’s cocky god-ish line above—it makes me think of this scene:
And forthwith Jesus gave them leave. And the unclean spirits went out, and entered into the swine: and the herd ran violently down a steep place into the sea, (they were about two thousand;) and were choked in the sea. (Matt 5: 13, KJV)
Well, has the lord put the devil in the Bundrens? Is it the devil that has them sending themselves straight forward off a cliff? Straight to Jefferson? (The drowned choked mules, feet in the air, stick in me.) What if there’s no lord, or devil, at work at all? Then what makes them move? Because I’m actualy not sure they’ve actually thrown themselves off a cliff at the end; they live on. And if they’ve gotten to where they’ve gotten possessed, in some way, motivated by, like, alien forces within, or at least, by burning human stupidity, still, I’m not sure that their forward motion is as singly headed for the book’s end as your more properly Christian account might have it. Anse himself is multiply single-minded: set on Addie’s wish, set on getting teeth, set on the curse of his sons, set on his own Jovian suffering (My name is Legion, says the man possessed, for we are many [Matt 5:9], a line I think tells you something about the “I” in AILD’s title, too—Addie’s not the only one laying, dying; maybe the Bundrens are many dying as one), and so on. And so there’s really no reason to believe that his actual secret single wish all along was to replace Addie with the woman with the spades and graphophone. It could be arbitrary. “Meet Mrs Bundren”: this last line at once punctures and holds the text’s threads together. It’s like an anchor, almost, or even, like a quilting point. (It’s honestly nearly a punch line, in the spirit of Portnoy’s Complaint.) In a comment, I suggested there’s something about AILD that reminds me of an arrangement of (musical) loops, and I’m thinking of that again, now: the sort of irruption of the last line might mainly just be a way to stop.
Which is not to say that there’s not, and this is weirdly tied up with the pleasure (even humor) of its surprise, awful in it. Anse, or, well, someone, has replaced Addie. One of the first or second things that came to mind, right in the wake of the last line, was just how much this book is a work of mourning. I’d been feeling this throughout, usually most intensely in the “Vardaman” sections (Vardaman, in that way that the scariest kids do, and perhaps on all of our behalves, creates a reality to live in in which his mother’s simply not gone at all, only now a fish). Each character feels and articulates Addie’s loss in particular ways, but then they also, together, literally carrying her around up until the point that they let her go (or, don’t), mourn her. The book’s task is to bury Addie. To handle her absence. Someone might say that replacing her the way she’s replaced in the last line is the mark of mourning well done. Healthily moving on, that sort of thing. But then, for me, the question arises: how haven’t the Bundrens rid themselves of her? Putting aside the hold that Addie’s wish has on Anse (according to Anse), how come it’s so hard for them to let go of her at all? How’ve they incorporated her, her being-gone? Is the hole she leaves really filled up just like that, with a new Mrs Bundren? Does the last line sting like it does because we sense, somehow, Addie’s irreplaceability? Or is it, man, because we sense the opposite—because we sense the fact that she is, in fact, replaceable? What if she wasn’t loved—could she still leave a hole?
I’ll stop here, with replaceability: in a “Cora” section, Cora recounts how she was one day compelled all of the sudden to get down on her knees in front of Addie and pray for her because Addie had spoken of Darl as if he were her Christ. She’d replaced God with Darl, so that now Darl was her cross, her salvation (168). What if replacing Addie like Anse does were just as awful? What other replacements does AILD run on? Addie herself talks about the children she gives Anse as replacements for one another—mainly, of Vardaman as a replacement for “the child I had robbed him of,” (176) which I think means Darl, though I’m not sure (too many secrets). I’m even compelled to think of the ways that proper names surface and are cycled and summoned and invoked over the course of the book (again, mainly by Vardaman) as having something to do with its working out who is replaceable (proper names means singular, irreplaceable entities), and if so, how. As if to list them, Darl, Jewel, Dewey Dell, were to try to keep them present. At least, I’ll stop by saying that my hunch is that AILD is propelled neither by the devil nor the lord nor the masterful powers of Faulkner, Author, but rather by its own mourning. “Meet Mrs Bundren.” This means: behold my new wife, your new mother, your future. But also at the same time: don’t stop feeling who’s she filling in for.
P.S.: I also want to put out there that I’d love to talk out how, on Earth, that coffin symbol (my page 88) emerges. And what it’s doing there.