Now You Are Aware of Me

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Billy Faulkner spitting hot fire:


I could just remember how my father used to say that the reason for living was to get ready to stay dead a long time. And when I would have to look at them day after day, each with his and her secret and selfish thought, and blood strange to each other blood and strange to mine, and think that this seemed to be the only way I could get ready to stay dead, I would hate my father for having ever planted me. I would look forward to the times when they faulted, so I could whip them. When the switch fell I could feel it upon my flesh; when it welted and ridged it was my blood that ran, and I would think with each blow of the switch: Now you are aware of me! Now I am something in your secret and selfish life, who have marked your blood with my own for ever and ever.

There is almost too much here. I mentioned, last week, that I only took to As I Lay Dying once I started consuming it in the same way I'd consume the work of a great MC. You don't expect to catch every Doom reference, or any real plot, but you just try to stand back and marvel at the language. In most cases the plot, or the point, reveals itself--but it's still kind of beside the real point, which is always the language. There's an impulse to dismiss technique as irrelevent if it doesn't help push the plot, or sketch great characters. My sympathies are with that dismissal. But understanding Faulkner, and understanding a lot of art, required me to not think so much about what I wanted out of the work, but about what the work was trying to achieve.

In that way, I loved As I Lay Dying, but not for the reasons I usually love a book. I didn't feel the characters were especially well fleshed out, and the plot was pedestrian. But the language of the book, is the statement, the words are the hero, the brush-strokes, themselves, say more than any attempt at character development. 

Dig Anse Bundren:

I have heard men cuss their luck, and right, for they were sinful men. But I do not say it's a curse on me, because I have done so wrong to be cussed by. I am not religious, I reckon. But peace is in my heart: I know it is. I have done things but neither better nor worse than them that pretend otherlike, and I know that Old Marster will care for me as ere a sparrow that falls. But is seems hard that a man, in his need, could be so flouted by a road.

Anse obviously mangles the English language--but his manglings are beautiful. He claims,"I mislike undecision as much as ere a man." He asks, "was there ere such a misfortunate man." I enjoyed his chapters the most because, while very little happened, listening to him talk--listening to his beautiful manglings--told me more about him than any physical description, any biography, or any dialouge. I could feel him through the cadence of his words--especially when I read the work aloud.

I'm reminded of the great MF Doom couplet:

He wears the mask just to cover the scarred flesh,
A rather ugly brother with flows that's gorgeous.

Dying is a book filled with ugly brothers and sisters "with flows that's gorgeous." Faulkner does not so much give a faithful rendition of the South, as he takes the language, the diction and vocab of his region, twists, contorts, pulls, and stretches it in a kind of homage. It's language broken down into portrait.

Again, not to push this too far, but it so much reminds me of what great rappers do with the Ebonics of their region. True, hip-hop is hidebound by its self-referentialism, but its also a compelling, enstranged portrait of of black youth rendered in the brush-strokes of their native dialect. 

Perhaps, more than any other MC, Common displayed that Faulknerian touch, that ability to not so much conjure characters but to conjure a vision of a particular place--Chicago in this case--built on a beautiful mangling of South Side imagery and Ebonics:

Got cousins with flows hope they open some doors 
So we can cop clothes & roll in a Rolls 

Now I roll in a "Olds" with windows that don't roll 
Down the roads where cars get broke in & stole 

These are the stories told by Stony & Cottage Grove 
The world is cold the block is hot as a stove

I do not mean to compare Common's lyrics to Faulkner's on a qualitative level, so much as I'm interested in the approach, in the manner of conjuration. Oddly enough, reading Faulkner has affirmed for me the literary qualities of hip-hop. People say that rap doesn't work on the page--and it doesn't. But so often, I found that neither did As I Lay Dying. It was reciting it--rapping it--that made it come alive for me.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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