A small unpublished essay on re-reading Absalom, Absalom!
(Written over the weekend of Oct.28, 2001 to meet the Oct. 31 deadline for a book-reviewing contest that Slate.com announced and proceeded to completely forget about.)
Why would I re-read William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! -- a book I have long dismissed as the most overblown classic in modern American literature? Maybe I thought I missed something. Turns out I did.
We've had a rocky relationship, Faulkner and I, ever since the day I sailed this book across a dorm room in frustration. I eventually came round to the majority opinion that it was the kind of unique masterpiece to which all young writers should aspire, but subsequent readings were painful. I found it impossible to follow, and could no longer see just why the story had to be so agonizingly confusing, so pretentiously opaque, or why characters talked so weirdly. Take it up one more time, I counselled myself with cool, book-nerd masochism. Go slow. be mindful.
Well, the dialogue still sucks. I mean, even if you grant that people speak in run-on sentences, shift subjects at will, and go off on lengthy parenthetical tangents, the talk in Absalom! simply defies human speech of any kind. Faulkner isn't Joyce, and stream of chatter isn't stream of consciousness. We don't believe it when a nutty old woman says "I became all polymath love's androgynous advocate," or an irate gentleman asks: "[D]idn't the dread and fear of females which you must have drawn in with the primary mammalian milk teach you better?" We don't believe it when a father, by way of asking his son if he has enough reading light, launches into a lecture on the relation of the sun to the the evolution of mankind. The credibility worsens in the last third of the book, when big chunks of narrative are forced into the mouths of unwilling characters. (What in the world was B.N. Myers thinking, in that ridiculous broadside in the Atlantic last summer, when he ridiculed the conversational patter of DeLillo and McCarthy, and said that sentences that have to be re-read amount to "bad writing," and yearned for the good old days of Faulkner?)
And yet, I am here to report that when I turned the last page I felt exhilarated. The book's accumulating force got to me. Its momentum overcomes its flaws, and when you stand back from its confounding structure you see a turbulent and powerful book where direct evidence, secondhand testimony, and the purely imagined have been pulled together in one magesterial drift. A story, like history itself, that is a mass of what we know, what we've heard, and what we can only guess at. Follow the book closely, scrutinize every impossible line until your patience wears thin, and see if it doesn't start blossoming in your head.
The story flies at us in pieces. Its about a family dynasty that goes bad, told by people who only know part of the story and are surveying the damage years after the central events. The year is 1909. Quentin Compson -- the death-obsessed Harvard student whose suicide is covered in Faulkner's earlier The Sound and the Fury -- visits the town recluse, Miss Rosa Coldfield, at her request. She sees him as the key to posterity, the young man who might someday put facts to paper, and she wants him to get the facts straight about her long-dead brother-in-law, the "demon" Thomas Sutpen.
What are the facts? Her story jumps around wildly: how Sutpen came out of nowhere to establish a plantation in 1833, how he staged fights with his non-English-speaking black slaves, how he married Rosa's much-older sister Ellen, and how his son Henry killed Charles Bon, his best friend and the would-be suitor of Sutpen's daughter Judith. The motive? At first, it looks like a story of of incest by proxy and miscegenation, with Bon taking Henry's imaginary role as Judith's lover, only to be killed when he refuses to renounce the octoroon mistress from his past. Then Quentin learns new information; Bon is actually Sutpen's first child by his first wife, also an octoroon. Did Henry kill Bon to save his sister from incest or from black blood? Is he acting on his own behalf or his fatherÕs? Was it murder or suicide? The mystery keeps getting rewritten, retold, recast, and reimagined. In concert with the fate of SutpenÕs brood is the story of Sutpen himself, the poor white boy whose consuming lifelong desire is to somehow get even with the black servant who snubbed him as a child, and whose answer is to establish, despite one obstacle after the next, a vast white dynasty that not only goes against his wishes but which winds up destroying everyone it touches. Faulkner takes a family history, smashes it to bits, and reconstructs it like a Cubist tower of Babel, and babble. People do nothing but talk all the way through; they talk to fill the void of history, and to give a voice to people who never spoke, who lived with too many secrets to leave a record.
There's no way a book like this could be published today. It's too strange, albeit in the good way, the great way: it demands more attention than you have and repays all the attention you give it. I was wrong about this book. It's no longer hard to imagine re-reading it, or talking about it, forever.