Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner

I've had this review waiting in the wings for a while. I actually read this book a few months ago and wrote the review shortly afterward, but for some reason I waited until now to publish it. 

Last year I tackled The Sound and the Fury on my own. I didn't love it, but I found a lot to appreciate about the book. I thought that it might be interesting to study Faulkner in a class. And this year, I got my chance in my American Literature class (click to see the full reading list).

Honestly, I probably should have just left the poor dead guy alone.

I don't know what it was, but this time, I had a lot less patience for Faulkner. Everything about the book, from the very beginning, seemed to just irk me. The sentences were unbearably long, the characters were unrealistically chatty, and Faulkner seemed to have no real concern for his readers or reality.

Here's a quick rundown of the novel:

Quentin (yes, the same Quentin from the TSatF) learns about his Southern past. An old lady named Rosa Coldfield and Quentin's father, Jason Compson, discuss the story of Thomas Sutpen in great detail in the first couple chapters, particularly speculating on the reasons why Sutpen's son, Henry, killed his sister's fiance, Charles Bon. In the last two chapters, Quentin and his college roommate Shreve (a Canadian--yes, that's important) spend a ridiculous amount of hours hashing over the story again and again until they finally come to a conclusion about why Henry Sutpen killed Charles Bon.

Of course, there about a million more details in the story of Thomas Sutpen and his family, which Faulkner spends very little effort trying to make us care about.

My professor advised us, if we were having trouble getting through Faulkner's prose, to spend some time reading the novel aloud, or to have someone else read it aloud to us. I tried both tactics and they both made me hate Faulkner's style all the more. When my husband read it aloud to me, he couldn't help stumbling over every other word. The vocabulary was far too complex and the sentences were horrifically long, each one introducing several tangents until you couldn't even remember how the sentence began and you had no idea where it was going. I could see how Faulkner was trying to imitate real human speech, but I'm afraid nobody talks that way in real life. Yes, I know these are supposed to be characters who were talking over a hundred years ago, but really, nobody talks that way. And nobody talks that much, either. And nobody makes everything so wearily ambiguous. Every once in a while, when someone talks for an hour, they actually manage to say something. In real life, that is.

I get that Faulkner was trying to make a point about narration and stories and how we interpret the events of the past. But honestly, I never cared about any of the characters, because I never got to truly see any of them. The narrators were all just talking about events in the past; they weren't talking about themselves, or living their actual lives. The characters from the past were about as real to me as cardboard cutouts. The story was so filtered through the narrators that the characters didn't come through, and I couldn't care about them. I really wanted to care about Judith, Sutpen's daughter--but she was the most unreal of them all.

The more Faulkner I read, the more I feel that he has absolutely no concern for his reader. He's up on a high horse and doesn't care how confused, annoyed, or exasperated his readers get--as long as he understands the story, and as long as he believes that his novel is a work of art, then what on earth is there to complain about?

Right about now is when the English major in me steps in, tells me to take a few deep breaths, and reminds me that it's not all bad. I have to grudgingly admit a few things about the novel. First, that Faulkner was a Modernist and he was doing a lot of experimentation with form. Even if he did miss the boat on some things, he was trying a lot of new ways to write, and I generally appreciate experimentation in writing.

Second, he did manage a couple of amazing feats. For one thing, he managed to have four people tell the same story and still keep momentum, even though the big climax of the story was revealed in the first few pages of the novel. He also was able to show many, many different sides to the story through the form that he used, which is unusual in any novel and certainly respectable and interesting. Plus, the ambiguity was really quite lovely. Even when you get to the end of the story, you still can't be sure of the real reasons for why people did the things they did. Not everyone likes ambiguity, but I do.

Finally, I remind myself that just because I don't particularly enjoy the book doesn't mean it's not a beautiful work of art. My impression of it doesn't define it. I can acknowledge that it has value, even if it doesn't have value to me. 

That said, I just didn't like Absalom, Absalom!, and I doubt I ever will.

Have you read the book? What did you think? 


  1. I haven't read Faulkner yet because I have a feeling that I won't like him. Isn't that a terrible attitude to have? I do plan to read him one day though. And I don't think my pre-conceived dislike will affect my reading, because there are a few authors where I've thought that I'd dislike their writing and have ended up loving it …….. Virginia Woolf comes to mind.

    I think you made an important point, Emily …….. no matter what style the author is using, or what points he wants to make, he must make the writer care about his characters. And by care, I don't mean like. He needs to make them real. I've found that when I read novels from this era, the characters sometimes seem sacrificed for a higher ideal. It doesn't work for me either.

    I really enjoyed your review. I like your honesty and it doesn't put me off from reading the book, it just gives me more information for when I do! However I think I'm going to try The Sound and the Fury before Absalom, Absalom.

    BTW, I see that you're almost half-way through your Classics Club list! Congratulations!

    1. If expecting to dislike an author is a terrible feeling to have, then I must be a terrible person! There are lots of authors I expect not to like and unfortunately, I'm right a lot of the time. (I didn't expect to like Faulkner.) But I guess the point is just to try anyway. I always feel good about having "conquered" a classic by an author I disliked.

      As far as your second paragraph, I absolutely agree and I think that's an excellent way of putting it! I don't know that there's really any high ideal that could be achieved without real characters.

      I think The Sound and the Fury is probably a better introduction to Faulkner. I appreciated the characters in that one a lot more, and even though the narration did get extremely confusing, the characters at least were telling their own story.

      Oh, and thank you!

  2. I'm yet to read any Faulkner, but I do hope to read The Sound and the Fury soon, this month hopefully. Read so many mixed reviews, though!

    1. Well, you tackle a lot of things I'm afraid maybe you'll like it! (I hope you do, because I think Faulkner probably deserves better than my scathing reviews.)