I just finished listening to the audiobook of William Faulkner’s celebrated novel Absalom, Absalom! The book has had a major influence on world literature, but, ironically, not always in Faulkner’s home country, the U.S.A.
In Absalom, Absalom! Faulkner creates a complex plot structure that is one of the novel’s most unusual features. That meandering architecture does have its antecedents—Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier springs to mind.
The tales of the various narrators in Absalom, Absalom! are filtered through the voice of Quentin Compson, a Harvard undergraduate from the rural Mississippi town of Jefferson, where most of the book’s action takes place. Quentin tells the story in 1910 to his roommate, Shreve, though the timeframe of the story is mostly mid-19th century.
But the plot is not a linear progression through history. Instead, the story unfolds in temporal loops that keep circling back to certain key events, revealing with each telling another part of what occurred in a particular episode. As the loops around a certain incident accumulate, the reader is able to assemble a more complete picture of that event. These loops are like the twists of a cord, or the frills at the edge of a doily, moving forward, but never in a straight line.
At one point in the novel, Faulker beautifully describes the worldview that underlies his highly original method of storytelling:
“Maybe nothing ever happens once and is finished. Maybe happen is never once but like ripples maybe on water after the pebble sinks, the ripples moving on, spreading, the pool attached by a narrow umbilical water-cord to the next pool which the first pool feeds, has fed, did feed, let this second pool contain a different temperature of water, a different molecularity of having seen, felt, remembered, reflect in a different tone the infinite unchanging sky, it doesn’t matter: that pebble’s watery echo whose fall it did not even see moves across its surface too at the original ripple-space, to the old ineradicable rhythm…”
In other words, each event in a story resonates with every other event, whether we realize the connections or not, just as the characters in the novel seem to repeat the same actions from generation to generation. Thomas Sutpen, the Southern, self-made partriarch who is the dominant figure in the novel, marries two women without divorcing the first. The son that he never acknowledged from his first marriage similarly attempts bigamy, but…well, I won’t reveal what happens for those who haven’t read the novel. It’s like a cycle of Greek tragedies on a Southern plantation, and then some.
Absalom, Absalom! has been described as “Southern Gothic” but I don’t think there’s a lot of the Gothic in Faulkner’s book. To me, “Gothic” implies the presence of otherworldly beings and phenomena, and the characters of Absalom, Absalom! are very much of this world. What could be more material than Thomas Sutpen’s relentless, Balzacian energy to procreate and to build and rebuild his plantation? I would describe Faulkner’s novel as Southern baroque, since it has the ornateness, grandeur, and sensuality of a baroque basilica.
The style of the novel also has a leisurely, baroque flow. Here’s a passage from the opening paragraphs that gives a flavor of the book’s style, which makes it such a pleasure to hear certain sections of the novel read out loud in a Mississippi drawl:
“Her voice would not cease, it would just vanish. There would be the dim coffin-smelling gloom sweet and oversweet with the twice-bloomed wistaria against the outer wall by the savage quiet September sun impacted distilled and hyperdistilled, into which came now and then the loud cloudy flutter of sparrows like a flat limber stick whipped by an idle boy, and the rank smell of female old flesh long embattled in virginity while the wan haggard face watched him above the faint triangle of lace at wrists and throat from the too tall chair in which she resembled a crucified child; and the voice not ceasing but vanishing into and then out of the long intervals like a stream, a trickle running from patch to patch of dried sand, and the ghost mused with shadowy docility as if it were the voice which he haunted where a more fortunate one would have had a house.”
OK, there are some otherworldly beings there, I’ll give you that.
The novel’s baroque diction and plot were a tremendous influence on several of the greatest South American magical realist writers, particularly in novels such as Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, Love in the Time of Cholera, and Autumn of the Patriarch. I would add Mario Vargas Llosa’s masterpiece, Conversation in the Cathedral (which you should read if you haven’t—fantastic book!), and Manuel Puig’s wonderful saga, Heartbreak Tango.
It’s curious to me that so few writers of Faulkner’s own country have emulated either his style or his plot structure. He is one of the few North Americans to win the Nobel Prize for literature, isn’t he? I do think Toni Morrison's novel Jazz has some of Absalom, Absalom in its winding plot structure and the ornateness of its language.
Maybe part of the problem is that Faulkner is a complicated case when it comes to race and gender, and who wants to touch complexity in this day and age? Faulkner probably thought of himself as an enlightened person when it came to those issues, at least in the context of the time when Absalom, Absalom! was published, which was 1936. And in some ways Faulkner was enlightened. There is a character in the novel who nails himself into his own attic and starves to death rather than be drafted into the Confederate army during the Civil War. The book discusses relationships between the races. Those were certainly taboo subjects for a white Southern writer to depict at that time. Despite those moments in the book, Faulkner could be faulted over and over for his obsessive use of the “n” word and his stereotypical description of African Americans. The women characters in the novel are paper dolls. For those of us still living with the legacy of the history Faulkner describes in Absalom, Absalom!, the book is a grab bag as a role model for other writers.
Or is it that Faulkner’s baroque, Southern sensibility is not in tune with the WYSIWIG culture of Puritan America? Who has time for a sentence that goes on for the better part of a page in a world where stock market trades are logged by the millionth of a second? I experienced this firsthand when I was listening to the audiobook of Absalom, Absalom! on the way to work. I would arrive at the parking lot at my office and I couldn’t shut off the narrative till the actor reading the book had come to a stopping point, so I would sit in my car for a couple of minutes while the time ticked away making me later and later for work, and I paused in my Toyota Corolla listening to Faulkner’s sazerac-infused prose, waiting for that beautiful, winding river of a sentence to finally reach its delta.Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies
Zack’s most recent translation, Bérénice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris by Isabelle Stibbe
Other recent posts about writing topics:
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry?
Poetic Forms: Introduction; The Sonnet, The Sestina, The Ghazal, The Tanka, The Villanelle
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration
Types of Closure in Poetry