Mosquitoes is Faulkner’s second novel, which came after his equally un-famous Soldiers’ Pay. It is only passably Faulkner-like, which I guess is another way of saying that he hadn’t yet hammered out his style when he wrote it. In fact, the novel’s tone reminds me at times of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s, though I’ve not read anywhere that Fitzgerald was an influence on Faulkner or vice versa, though the two are contemporaries (born a year apart), and Fitzgerald’s third novel, The Great Gatsby, had been published two years before Mosquitoes. It doesn’t matter, anyway.
It’s perhaps my least favorite of the Faulkner novels that I’ve read–though I admit to not having read any for several years–and made me wonder if I were to read him today if I would still like him much. Mosquitoes does have little slivers of that barely sensible stream-of-consciousness and heavy, opaque narration that many of his later novels are full of, but in this reading these traits seem self-indulgent. I was impatient with them.
Still, it’s plain that Faulkner is daring something, even with this early novel. He plays with structure, delineating his novel by day and time, albeit with chronologically nebulous prologue and epilogue. This structure reflects a meticulous mind and reminds me of some similar timeline I saw scrawled onto the walls of his study when I toured his home in Oxford, Mississippi. I surmise then that he is not one of those writers who gets carried away by his characters, but maybe more the type who, like Nabokov, refer to them as “galley slaves.”
I am interested in how he builds these characters of his. It’s mostly, I think, through dialogue. For example, you’d never confuse the girl Pat with, say, the writer Fairchild, even if you had nothing but their words to pick from. Then you might get a description or two, e.g. that dumb, desiring look the steward keeps giving Pat once he’s fallen in love with her. Faulkner deliberately repeats these images, emphasizes them, so that they become associated with a character. He never refers to Julius as Julius but as “the Semitic man.” That is his image. Or there’s the one of Gordon with his ugliness and his tallness and his beard, or there’s the one of Frost, always reclining.
There is something about Faulkner’s narrator–or maybe the narrators of that time–that remains persistently outside of their characters. Today, it is we who are galley slaves to our creations, embodying their perspective to create that (false) immediacy that readers now expect from stories. But back then there was a satisfying distance.
Why do I think that, though?
Here’s a sample passage:
It was like one morning when he was in a bunch of hobos riding a freight into San Francisco and the bulls had jumped them and they had had to walk in. Along the water-front it was, and there were a lot of boats in the water, kind of rocking back and forth at anchor: he could see reflections of boats and of the piles of the wharves in the water, wavering back and forth; and after a while dawn had come up out of the smoke of the city, like a sound you couldn’t hear, and a lot of yellow and pink had come onto the water where the boats were rocking, and around the piles of the wharf little yellow lines seemed to come right up out of the water; and pretty soon there were gulls looking like they had pink and yellow feathers, slanting and wheeling around.
Even this paragraph, which ostensibly takes place in the head of the steward and even borrows the more colloquial-style, un-erudite language he would have used to think it (“bulls” and “jumped them” and “come up out of” and “kind of rocking back and forth” with repetitions of “back and forth” and “yellow and pink” or “pink and yellow”) feels different from, pre-contemporary to, the intimacy we now pretend in writing. Maybe because, in passages like these, it feels as if the narrator has slipped into the character without his knowledge or awareness, that he is still omniscient and in control. Whereas, in more contemporary styles, the character seems complicit with the narrator, as if saying, “All right, I will let you in, I will show you what it’s like to be me. You tell my story.” And you can’t even remember when it’s over if it had been in first person or third.
While I was reading this novel, I started writing a short story in the same kind of tone as Faulkner’s. When I re-read it, this story segment feels different from other snippets I’ve written, somehow more satisfying. The question is whether or not I will be able to keep it up without the influence of Faulkner’s voice in my head.