I first read this book in a freshman English Lit course at Wellesley. I'd never read Faulkner before, and the professor, William Cain, advised us not to obsess about gleaning precise meaning from the stream-of-consciousness text. Rather, we should let the language flow over us like water and simply feel it. I was grateful for that direction as I started reading, because I found the narrative all but impossible to follow with my rational mind.
Now, 30 years later, I'm reading the book again, but this time audibly. I'm listening to a Random House recording, with 4 readers -- 2 men and 2 women -- reading the parts of the story's 15 narrators. I've written often of my mixed feelings about reading audio vs. text. There are a few books that I've preferred in audio -- maybe the narrators breathed extra life into them, or reading aloud emphasised the poetic beauty of the text. Some books are definitely much better in hard copy. And then there are the books that are just very different when read aloud than when in print. Nabokov's Lolita is one, and As I Lay Dying is another.
The struggle to follow the story, to comprehend, is surprisingly diminished. I remember being vexed by the southern vernacular, the absence of punctuation, and the run-on and fragmentary sentences in the print version. The multiple readers probably help, and they certainly eliminate the punctuation struggles. Read aloud, the narrative is still not crystal-clear, but I don't feel as lost as I did with the text. Best of all: I still have that primal sensation, the feeling that I am right there in Mississippi with the Bundren clan as they transport their wife & mother's remains from their country home to the town of Jackson, where she'd asked to be buried.
Anse Bundren, husband of deceased Addie, is generally an under-motivated man, so his stubborn determination to take Addie's corpse to Jackson puzzles some of his neighbors. One of them remarks that there's nothing quite as implacable as a lazy man who's finally decided to make a move. As the family meets with disaster trying to cross a flood-swollen river, I realise the stupidity and futility of the journey. It's becoming clearer that Anse never treated Addie with much regard when she was living, yet he imperils the whole family to transport her corpse. It's also become clear that, in Faulkner's Mississippi (as everywhere else, I suppose), race is not the only social division: there are country people, and there are town people, and they are not the same. Some of the onlookers suggest that this is not only a foolhardy venture but an arrogant one, taking Addie to Jackson for burial when the Bundrens are country people.
Novelist Amy Tan once defined a classic as a book that you can re-read every ten years and have a notably different experience each time. (Her own once-a-decade book is Lolita.) As Faulkner's characters span the age range from 6-ish to dead, I think there are voices in this book that will speak up differently to the same reader over the course of a lifetime.