Literary great's writing grates

October 24, 2002|by TIM ROWLAND

Once more, I need to begin this space with a correction. Two columns ago, I said that a course in humanities was a good way to lump all the world's useless knowledge under one roof. What I meant to say was that North Korea's admission of a nuclear program was a disturbing development in world affairs that needs to be addressed with expediency and caution.

I also mistakenly said that William Faulkner was a running back for the Los Angeles Rams. Obviously, everyone knows that the Rams are now in St. Louis.

Jeez, how was I to know that anybody reads this paper in Frederick? And the mere thought that the same professorial eyes that have peered and prodded the words of a great master such as Faulkner would also sully their corneas with the likes of - of whatever you call it that I put down to paper - is a concept that, frankly, rattles me to the bone.


I thought it was clear by now that this column is not for consumption of anyone who has any semblance of education. Now, knowing that the best minds of Hood College are watching, I'm finding myself second-guessing every verb placement, every punctuation mark and every tense change. I mean, I don't want critics a hundred years from now to write "Rowland's twisted world view, though marginally entertaining, is seriously flawed in its stylistic clumsiness, which for comedic sake could be easily forgiven were it not for his tritely inelegant literary vocabulary whose banal sense of window dressing cannot forbear lowbrow condescension directly attributable to the fact that while his classmates were attending English classes he was in the Blue Tic Tavern seeing how many times in a row he could bounce a quarter into a plastic cup of beer and arguing hotly over the length of Abraham Lincoln's ears."

Mark Twain said the works of the great literary masters were like wine, while his own were like water - "but everybody drinks water." I suppose you would have to say that my works are more like - well, what's like water, only plainer? This had to change. So nervously, and with an eye to how history will judge me, I picked up a copy of "The Sound and the Fury," which is one of Marshall Faulk's greatest works.

I'd read "The Sound and the Fury" in high school and didn't understand a word that it said but figured that with age may have come the wisdom to finally comprehend this great work. Well, of course that was the greatest delusion that ever was. I was heartened, however, to notice that Faulkner himself pays no attention to verb placement, punctuation or tense change.

The only difference between him and me - and it's a small one in my view - is that he did it on purpose. The first person to read "The Sound and the Fury" must have been like the first person to eat an oyster. The "hows" and "whys" and "to what results" are questions to which the answers can never be known. The first part is called the "Benjy Section" and is told through the eyes of Benjy, who is severely retarded and brings to the table all the calm lucidity that is typical of the severely retarded. His brain skitters about like a waterbug, changing time, place and characters - in the same sentence, often as not - faster than Liz and Liza change husbands.

But the Benjy section is "Cat in the Hat" simple compared to the "Quentin Section" that comes next. Quentin takes about a hundred pages to explain why he's going to drown himself, then Jason comes spewing white-poker hatred like he has the world's last great chance to use it all up, then comes Dilsy, whose life is like the others, only more depressing. There is only one inescapable conclusion you can draw from this novel, and that's that Prozac was invented 60 years too late.

Fortunately, I was rescued by a book written by Stephen Ross and Noel Polk that remarkably explains "The Sound and the Fury." With this help, I was able not only to understand, but to enjoy it, to bathe in it and to notice styles, images and structures of which I had never dreamed possible in literature. There was something to this piece after all. And I'll probably read it again and appreciate it even more.

But don't worry, nothing has really changed. It's like the Calvin and Hobbes exchange between Calvin and his mom:

Calvin: "I read that book you gave me. It really opened my eyes and made me see things in a different way."

Mom: "I'm glad you enjoyed it, Calvin."

Calvin: "It's complicating my life; don't get me any more."

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 2324, or you may e-mail him at

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