Some Basic Info:
Title: Absalom, Absalom!
Author: William Faulkner
Genre: Southern Gothic fiction (modern classic)
First Published: 1936
Date Read: October 14-18, 2018
Rating: 2/5 Stars
Goodreads Summary: Published in 1936, Absalom, Absalom! is considered by many to be William Faulkner’s masterpiece. Although the novel’s complex and fragmented structure poses considerable difficulty to readers, the book’s literary merits place it squarely in the ranks of America’s finest novels. The story concerns Thomas Sutpen, a poor man who finds wealth and then marries into a respectable family. His ambition and extreme need for control bring about his ruin and the ruin of his family. Sutpen’s story is told by several narrators, allowing the reader to observe variations in the saga as it is recounted by different speakers. This unusual technique spotlights one of the novel’s central questions: To what extent can people know the truth about the past?
Review: Beware of Spoilers!!!
In all honesty: reading Absalom, Absalom! was one of the worst reading experiences I have ever had. All you Faulkner lovers out there – I’m sorry! One of my favorite English professors actually recommended this to me and thought I would really enjoy it, so trust me, I already feel guilty enough about not liking it… However, I absolutely detested the writing style, I felt utterly detached from the characters, all the narrators sounded exactly the same, and the first chapter basically spoils the entire story – which is then told over and over again from different character’s points of view. Why then, did I not rate this one star? Well, the book also brought up very interesting ideas that truly made me think: what it means to reconstruct the past, what it means to be a person of color in the United States, how trying to achieve the American Dream and build a family legacy can warp a person, what it means to have grown up in the South and to detest and love your home at the same time… I could go on and on, so however terrible my time reading this book may have been, I do think it told an important and insightful story. It was just packaged so badly that I don’t think the book overall was good. Let’s get into why:
The main reason I hated reading Absalom, Absalom! so much was the writing style – the opening sentence of the book is actually a pretty good example:
From a little after two oclock until almost sundown of the long still hot weary dead September afternoon they sat in what Miss Coldfield still called the office because her father had called it that — a dim hot airless room with the blinds all closed and fastened for forty-three summers because when she was a girl someone had believed that light and moving air carried heat and that dark was always cooler, and which (as the sun shone fuller and fuller on that side of the house) became latticed with yellow slashes full of dust motes which Quentin thought of as being flecks of the dead old dried paint itself blown inward from the scaling blinds as wind might have blown them. (Faulkner 1)
Unnecessarily long sentences that made you struggle to remember the beginning by the time you got to the end, heaps of adjectives in front of every single noun, dashes, parentheses – Faulkner apparently thought that if he didn’t include all of these things in a sentence, he would lose literary prestige. Sometimes, sentences would go on for more than a page, there would be no paragraph breaks, and everything was just so convoluted that I often felt as if my head was filled with mud. I was plodding along, trying to follow, but the words were clogging my senses and I’d have to reread entire pages over again because I realized that I had no longer been paying attention to what I was reading. It was a struggle.
Furthermore, it really annoyed me that every single narrator used this exact same style. If I’m not forgetting someone, there were four of them in total: Rosa Coldfield, Mr. Compton, Quentin Compton, and Quentin’s roommate Shreve. While their perspectives on the Sutpen story were very different, I can’t say the same for their voices. They all used these incredibly long hypotactical sentences, and from their voice alone, they were indistinguishable. I found this especially striking and unrealistic since the majority of Absalom, Absalom! is actually one of the narrators telling Sutpen’s story to other characters. Who on Earth talks like this? No one would be able to follow a conversation! It was hard enough to follow when I had the words on the page in front of me!
Honestly, there was only one bonus of this style that I can think of: because it was so hard to follow, you almost don’t notice that you’re being spoiled for all the main events in the first chapter. The writing made it all seem so confusing that it really helped that certain points were mentioned again and again, and it gave you the feeling that you were trying to figure out what had actually transpired at Sutpen’s Hundred along with the characters. You were grasping at straws, formulating theories on the basis of the few facts that seemed to be established, but you ultimately had to settle for knowing you would never know the whole truth.
I already made it pretty clear that I hated the narrative style of Absalom, Absalom! The way the narration itself was split, however, was brilliant because it showed the same story from so many different perspectives. No one knows everything that happened, for you never can reconstruct an irrecoverable past, but everyone tries to justify their own version, and the different stories interweave marvelously. Rosa, who was most affected personally by the family tragedy, was cold and bitter, portraying Sutpen as a monster, but still feeling the need to talk and recognizing that she may have been rather harsh by the end of the book. Mr. Compton’s stories show a very different Sutpen – not an ogre, but a man struggling to build a life and legacy, a man as he was known by his friends. Shreve’s version of event’s turns utterly speculative as he gets carried away with what might have happened – I actually really enjoyed his version of how Charles Le Bon and Henry Sutpen’s friendship might have developed and how Charles died as an almost-martyr. Quentin kind of brought all the different strands together, and it was interesting to see how he went from disinterest to obsession with Sutpen.
I also found Quentin’s relationship to the South – his home – fascinating. It is very telling how he chooses Sutpen’s story as a way to tell Shreve about the South, and how he ultimately denies hating the South so much that the reader knows that he actually must, even if he does not acknowledge it. It really reminded me a lot of the dichotomy I felt being in the South: people love their home and their heritage, but they struggle with the darker parts of that heritage. Absalom, Absalom! did not shy away from the discussion of slavery and African-American rights, and I really appreciated that. It is very telling how marrying a someone with even a drop of “negro blood” might be considered even worse than an incestuous relationship with one’s half-brother, how Thomas Sutpen did not really see that African-Americans were different from other people until he was exposed to “more cultured society”, how Rosa switched back and forth from describing Clytie as a slave and as a fellow worker who helped her and Judith get through the hardest years in their lives. These brutally honest depictions show how deeply ingrained prejudices can be, even if the people who have them are aware themselves that these ideas are no more than social constructs. And of course, the ending of the book is also very telling: of the Sutpens, Jim Bond, the mentally impaired black man, is the only one who survives, and Shreve himself wonders whether the Jim Bonds of the world might actually be America’s future:
I think that in time the Jim Bonds are going to conquer the western hemisphere. Of course it wont quite be in our time and of course as they spread toward the poles they will bleach out again like the rabbits and the birds do, so they wont show up so sharp against the snow. But it will still be Jim Bond; and so in a few thousand years, I who regard you will also have sprung from the loins of African kings. (Faulkner 302)
It was interesting how this idea is presented with no value judgment whatsoever – should we see this as a symbol of black empowerment and an increase of mixed-race relations, or should we see it as a dangerous and bleak future? Faulkner never specifies, and in doing so, he might turn attentive reader’s attention to the prejudices they themselves have.
I hated the characters – they were unlikable, stuck in one mentality they seemingly couldn’t get away from, and the horrible writing style and lack of character voice made me feel extremely disconnected. BUT: I still found the characters and their relationship to one another very fascinating. It seemed like such an accurate depiction of what the South may have looked like at the time, and it showed the internal struggles people were actually going through. What would they fight for in the Civil War? What were their values? How should they behave? How should slaves be treated?
Still, I was a bit disappointed that we only got white narrators’ perspective (though that, of course, adds a whole other layer of meaning to the story – you have to speculate on what happened, because when a large part of the population is silenced, you can’t ever have the full story.) Charles Le Bon was probably my favorite character, even if we didn’t see too much of him. I would have loved to have more of him, especially his friendship with Henry, his relationship to Judith, his childhood… He was way more interesting than any of the other characters, though this story probably wouldn’t have been such an accurate depiction of the Southern plantation owner’s perspective if he had been in it more. Still, it was very frustrating to have to listen to Rosa, Mr. Compton, Quentin, and Shreve speculate on and on when there were far more interesting characters like Charles, Clytie, Judith and even Thomas Sutpen himself.
I think I’m gonna leave it at that for now – there are a bunch of interesting themes one could discuss, but if I get into that, my university work is going to suffer (I can talk about themes for a very long time, trust me. Sometimes the English minor in me does come to the fore…). Plus, all of them have probably already been discussed in-depth in countless articles and maybe even sparknotes, so you can get your literary insights there. I’m just going to summarize that while this book brought up a lot of interesting aspects, I hated how it was written so much that I was unable to enjoy my experience reading it. Maybe you’ll have better luck, though! I think this just wasn’t for me…