Saturday, 7 September 2013

Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner

Its incredibly tempting to start this review with one long run-on sentence, with plenty of punctuation, but no periods, and particularly not apostrophes when youre dealing with words like "dont," but I find refraining from apostrophes incredibly difficult and everything I've written just looks wrong (but this is a hypnotic writing style after you've - dammit! - read it for a while, and to me, sounds like a horse's - I give up! - gallop, although I did find it slightly irritating that every single narrator (there are at least four) has exactly the same long sentences and cadence, which does seem to strain credulity, yet once you get sucked into the writing, it's hard to extricate yourself.)

And that's enough of that. I'm sure I'm not the first reviewer to try that gimmick.

Ah, paragraph breaks, how I've missed you.

It took me quite a while to figure out what I thought of this book, and I'm still not entirely sure. The race and miscegenation issues often made me uncomfortable. This book is obviously exactly what it is, though, and I'm loath to dismiss all of a certain genre of Southern literature, although I am also not willing to give it a free pass. This book is often and overtly racist and misogynist.

What finally really caught and held my attention was the realization of how much this is actually a book about storytelling. As I said, it switches narrators at different parts of the book, and few of them are telling a story they actually observed. Instead, they know the bare bones of what happened, and construct a narrative of what, to them, must have happened. Then, a detail that reframes the entire previous story will be revealed, and someone else will take up the tale. In doing so, the various narrators construct elaborate scenes and characters, and give to them detail and life and quirks, without ever knowing if those scenes occurred, if those characters existed, if anything remotely like what they imagine must have happened did happen.

And so, in a way, instead of being about what happened, it is a story about how people tell stories, about how they make them satisfying to themselves, how stories are constructed and communicated, and how much can be embellished in the telling.

It is also, unmistakably, a story of male desire. The women in the story are mostly ciphers, and even when they want something, they are very rarely given any agency around it, any ability to do anything that might change this story of men. Instead, this story is about men wanting fathers, sons, land, and other men. It is about desires spoken and unspoken, communicated, withheld, and transferred.

All the Sutpens are broiling cauldrons of desire, and for the most part, unattainable desire, or desire briefly won and then lost. And the sins of the father are brought upon the son(s), and spell doom in the end. There is an inexorableness about this book.

And yet, the cry that names the book is a bit of a puzzlement for me. It is a biblical cry of a father mourning for a lost son, a heartwrenching expression of loss. And yet, the father figure in the book seems more interested in the idea of a son than he does in the individual.

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