I would call this book one of my white whales, and it is, but that’s a strange category given how many times I’ve read Moby-Dick. Instead, this book is my Absalom Absalom!.
I was supposed to read this for a Faulkner class in college and I still have the same copy, where I stopped on page 30 and made a mark. I also still have the various underlinings I made all those years ago to fake my reading journals due with the book. I remember being called out by the professor about it too. She was more or less sympathetic.
It’s not an easy book, and it’s not the most fun book to read, but I can tell you that, now 15 years later, I finally finished it, and it is rewarding. I sometimes tell my students that taking on a challenge and completing that challenge is a thing worth doing.
This novel, like many of Faulkner’s novels, is about the intricate relationship among families, history, memory, storytelling, race, and identity (as it relates to everything above).
To say this novel is about Thomas Sutpen’s coming to a small town in Mississippi in order to start a plantation in the 1830s is true and not true at the same time. Instead, this novel is about trying to tell the story about Thomas Sutpen’s……etc etc.
There are kind of several narrators, but more accurately, there are several ways in which this narrative gets told to the people most concerned with putting it together.
Mostly, the story is told through a 3rd person narrator who is chronicling Quentin Compson’s attempts to put together the story of Thomas Sutpen. If this feels mired in who’s telling what story when, it is. This is ABOUT the nature of storytelling, the nature of truth, and how history and History are fragile coalitions of different voices. Quentin spends a lot of time looking through letters, talking with a town elder who lived in the same house as Sutpen, talking with his father, playing around with clues with his college roommate. In addition, there’s a separate layer of connection to Faulkner’s earlier novel The Sound and the Fury in that Quentin is a narrator in that novel as well.
This is beyond a simple historical research project, because the final product, the novel itself, is a compendium of all these voices. It’s not just Quentin uncovering the truth and talking about it, but instead, we read through the same material he does, alongside his own story, alongside the memories and disembodied voices. It’s challenging, it’s eclectic, and it’s quite rich. It’s like a 300 page version of the hardest parts of The Bear, if you have read that Faulkner, and because the very truth, or rather accuracy of what we’re reading, is constantly in question, there’s always the worry that your sense of what is/isn’t will be erased.
I struggle because I come from the South, and Faulkner is king in a lot of ways. When I hear people talk about Southern identity, the Civil War, and American Identity I often feel like people want to reduce these experiences to something less complex and less carefully imagined. This novel does not do that. Complexity is on full display.
However, complexity is not opacity. This novel is a puzzle, not a confusion. It can be worked out, and if you’re slow about it, it can be read fluently. He’s also a rich and gorgeous writer.
“It’s just incredible. It just does not explain. Or perhaps that’s it: they don’t explain and we are not supposed to know. We have a few old mouth-to-mouth tales, we exhume from old trunks and boxes and drawers letters without salutation or signature, in which men and women who once lived and breathed are now merely initials or nicknames out of some now incomprehensible affection which sound to us like Sanskrit or Chocktaw; we see dimly people, the people in whose living blood and seed we ourselves lay dormant and waiting, in this shadowy attenuation of time possessing now heroic proportions, performing their acts of simple passion and simple violence, impervious to time and inexplicable – Yes, Judith, Bon, Henry, Sutpen: all of them. They are there, yet something is missing; they are like a chemical formula exhumed along with the letters from that forgotten chest, carefully, the paper old and faded and falling to pieces, the writing faded, almost indecipherable, yet meaningful, familiar in shape and sense, the name and presence of volatile and sentient forces; you bring them together in the proportions called for, but nothing happens; you re-read, tedious and intent, poring, making sure that you have forgotten nothing, made no miscalculation; you bring them together again and again nothing happens: just the words, the symbols, the shapes themselves, shadowy inscrutable and serene, against that turgid background of a horrible and bloody mischancing of human affairs.”
“Read it if you like or don’t read it if you like. Because you make so little impression, you see. You get born and you try this and you don’t know why only you keep on trying it and you are born at the same time with a lot of other people, all mixed up with them, like trying to, having to, move your arms and legs with string only the same strings are hitched to all the other arms and legs and the others all trying and they don’t know why either except that the strings are all in one another’s way like five or six people all trying to make a rug on the same loom only each one wants to weave his own pattern into the rug; and it can’t matter, you know that, or the Ones that set up the loom would have arranged things a little better, and yet it must matter because you keep on trying and then all of a sudden it’s all over and all you have left is a block of stone with scratches on it provided there was someone to remember to have the marble scratched and set up or had time to, and it rains on it and then sun shines on it and after a while they don’t even remember the name and what the scratches were trying to tell, and it doesn’t matter. And so maybe if you could go to someone, the stranger the better, and give them something-a scrap of paper-something, anything, it not to mean anything in itself and them not even to read it or keep it, not even bother to throw it away or destroy it, at least it would be something just because it would have happened, be remembered even if only from passing from one hand to another, one mind to another, and it would be at least a scratch, something, something that might make a mark on something that was once for the reason that it can die someday, while the block of stone can’t be is because it never can become was because it can’t ever die or perish…”
ETA: Been thinking about it for awhile, part of what makes this an amazing novel is the latter part really sinks is just how crazy this is. The last hundred pages are essentially narrated by two friends arguing about what could have happened 50 years earlier from a story other people told them. But then this becomes the story itself. This narrative filter replaces actual reality and that is the new reality.
There’s a part in the Toni Morrison novel Jazz where the narrator has to stop and apologize for thinking she was capable enough to the tell the story as she wanted, and she just isn’t. This novel basically spends the entire time telling the story that the characters think maybe possibly could have happened. Or maybe not.