I’m not sure where to begin when talking about The Wild Palms. Perhaps by clarifying that The Wild Palms is the publisher’s chosen name for If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem, Faulkner’s preferred title, and that it is also one of two intertwined stories in the book published under that title. A friend insisted that I read it, that it would probably become my new favorite book, but that I also might want to throw it against a wall when I finished. As usual, he was annoyingly right.
The Wild Palms was my first Faulkner, despite my degree in English and my two Southern-born-and-educated advisers and my proclivity for mid-century male authors (see also: Hemingway, Durrell, Greene). As an educated and enlightened woman in this day and age, I know that I should have strong feelings about the rampant (perceived or actual) misogyny in the works of these authors. I know. Let’s just set that aside for now because you know what? I don’t want to hear it. This isn’t about what I should think or feel. It is about what I am or did or do think or feel.
And that was completely devastated. I started the book on a rainy Friday night when Rachel and I wanted to be alone together, her at one end of the living room with video games and the dog, me curled up with my book and a glass of wine and the cool breeze. I was leaving Ann Arbor in four days, and my copy was checked out from the library, adding an extra urgency to the read. I went to bed early, woke early, and finished the first 70 pages by 7am, turning back into my pillow for a good, wrenching cry.
“It doesn’t die; you’re the one that dies. It’s like the ocean: if you’re no good, if you begin to make a bad smell in it, it just spews you up somewhere to die. You die anyway, but I had rather drown in the ocean than be urped up onto a strip of dead beach and be dried away by the sun into a little foul smear with no name to it, just This Was for an epitaph.”
I had things I needed to do – it was my last weekend in town – but I spent part of Saturday morning walking around in a daze, the mood heightened by the fine mist and the fact that I forgot my wallet at home, thus preventing me from buying coffee until far too late in the day for me to be actually functional. I felt like that U2 song whose video provided one of my earliest impressions of alternative music and memories of MTV from a summer visit to my grandparents, when I would sneak downstairs while they napped to watch cable in Grandpa’s huge naugahyde chair. The hugeness of the chair and the significance of the video have both diminished over time, as will, I suspect, the memory of the numbness of that morning, though there have been other mornings like it that have stuck with me for years and years.
“It’s what we have come to work for, got into the habit of working for before we knew it, almost waited too late before we found it out.”
In the titular story, a couple turns their back on all of the things society tells us to value – children, careers, friends, stability – for love, for love only, for love always.
“Listen: it’s got to be all honeymoon, always. Either heaven, or hell: no comfortable safe peaceful purgatory between for you and me to wait in until good behavior or forbearance or shame or repentance overtakes us.”
Do I even need to tell you that there can’t possibly be a happy ending? “That story ends very badly for all involved, you know.” “Don’t all the good ones?” And then there’s this, where I am right now, drinking bourbon in the back room of my new apartment in Pilsen, listening to the whistle of trains in the distance, scanning for the moon against the night sky.
“You must do it in solitude and you can bear just so much solitude and stil live, like electricity. And for this one or two seconds you will be absolutely alone: not before you were and not after you are not, because you are never alone then; in either case, you are secure and companioned in a myriad and inextricable anonymity: in the one, dust from dust; in the other, seething worms to seething worms.”
The theorists would tell me that there is no meaning outside the text. The theorists would tell me that my reading is contextually bound. Most of the time I feel like the theorists are full of shit, but this one time, I’ll buy it. I’ll buy it because this story resonated with me in ways I didn’t anticipate. Because I recognized myself, my experience, my fears and desires in both the normalcy the couple fled, and the recklessness with which they embraced the impossible. Because I was thankful for the (slight) reprieve offered by Old Man, the story told in alternating chapters – of a convict facing similarly inexorable though completely different circumstances, choices, and actions. Because I was thankful to finish the book on a flight back from DC, surrounded on all sides by people, unable to completely lose my shit as I would have otherwise. Because I was thankful to finish the book at the end of the flight and on the eve of two extremely long, extremely draining days when I wouldn’t have time to read anything else, allowing the book to rest in my mind and on my heart in the same way that you might savor the first taste of something amazing, in the way that a first (or last) kiss lingers on your lips long after the physical sensation has passed into memory.
“Because if memory exists outside of the flesh it wont be memory because it wont know what it remembers so when she became not then half of memory became not and if I become not then all of remembering will cease to be. – Yes he thought Between grief and nothing I will take grief.”
This is the fourth of at least 15 books that I plan to read in the next year for my friend Mark’s 2/3 Challenge.
3 thoughts on “2/3 Book Challenge: The Wild Palms (If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem)”
Well, that’s it. I’m going to have to read it now.
Mm, I didn’t think I’d ever particularly want to read more Faulkner (I’ve only read a little by him, and only in my own English-major days rather than by choice), but this post may have just changed my mind.
I am just reading THE WILD PALMS for, I think, the second time. I went through a great deal of Faulkner when I was twenty years old, working in the City, gradually losing my life, and drinking a great deal. Now I’m 55, and still struggling, but in a different kind of way. I was reading some of ‘Wild Palms’ last night in a pub in St Albans – I had just taken a friend of mine to an appointment at the Minor Injuries Unit there. The pub has had many different names over the years, but I remember reading my first Iris Murdoch (THE SEA, THE SEA) there when it was called the Pineapple – back in the early 1980’s. Faulkner is probably the greatest American novelist of all – in the same way Tony Bennett and Jack Jones are the greatest American singers.
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