I read this years ago for a Faulkner class and I can clearly remember being “prepped” to read it. The grad students in the class who had read it before basically scared us into thinking it would be a hugely difficult novel, and to some extent it is, but it’s not Finnegan’s Wake and it’s not Absalom Absalom, even. It’s challenging but with the right approach there’s a clear narrative.
The structure is four sections; three first person narrations, and a third person narration at the end. The story is the story of a single generation of children of a modestly aristocratic Mississippi family starting in about 1905. It’s the South and the wounds of the Civil War and the subsequent structures of reconstruction and Jim Crow have deep traces on the consciousness and psyche of both the white and Black characters.
The first section spans the entire length of the novel, some 28 years, and is told through a series of repeated and repetitive memories of the youngest son, Benji, a man who seems very likely to have nonverbal Autism, though there wasn’t a name for that at the time. He has a tremendous ability to recall events, dialog, and interactions between the members of the family, and the various traumas he’s experienced. Because his memory is almost entirely descriptive, he isn’t particularly analytical, just narrative. He, like all the family, has a deep needful obsession of the one sister in the family Caddie. Because he’s been rejected by his own mother, he latches onto her as a mother-surrogate
Quentin, narrator of the second section of the novel, discusses his fractured and traumatic incestual desire and would-be possession of Caddie. He loves her, wants her, and tries to force himself on her as she hurriedly tries to marries a real shitbag to cover her pregnancy of another boy (not Quentin), we get all this along with his deeply hurt and depressed impressions of his life and pain on the day he commits suicide at Harvard. On this day he also accidentally finds himself helping a small Italian immigrant girl find her people, wherein he is falsely accused of abuse and kidnapping. It’s a minor event ultimately but it opens up the wounds and guilt he feels from his connection to Caddie.
In the third section, we have another brother Jason, namesake of the father, a grown businessman and now caretaker to “Quentin” the teenager daughter of Caddie, from the pregnancy mentioned in section two. Jason tries to hold the family together, but he is so angry at the world and so alienated from his siblings that he struggles mightily. Not the most compelling of the four section, this focuses on the anger felt, the impact of and another manifestation of the selfishness inherent to this family.
In the last section, we have a third person narration that mainly sticks with the Black servants in the family and their interactions with the white family members. The third person narration seems to suggest a psychical distance, an inability to get inside the head or a dehumanization of the children who refuse to see these people as people. But the insight available in this section reads as objective and analytical. It’s the kind of story that is common among much African American literature of “white folks don’t know us, but we know them.”
This was an enlightening and exciting reread to be sure. I think I liked it when I was younger, but I still feel like this is a true classic.