Friday, August 12, 2011Posted by Melissa (Avid Reader)
by William Faulkner
My only experience with Faulkner to date was The Sound and the Fury. While I found it a fascinating read, you can’t deny that it’s incredibly muddled. There are multiple points of view, one of which is a mentally handicapped person, which makes for a confusing flow to say the least. So I’ve been a bit hesitant to try anything else from the famous southern author.
This book tells the tragic story of Thomas Sutpen, a proud man determined to create an epic legacy. He builds a huge plantation, Sutpen’s Hundred, convinced that its success, along with having male children, will ensure his goal of becoming a “great” man. To reach this end he becomes blinded to the needs of those around him, blatantly disregarding the fate of others in his obsessive quest (I give a more detailed summary in the spoiler section). The book’s name comes from the Biblical tale of King David’s son Absalom, who tried to destroy his father’s empire. Like the old testament story, Faulkner’s book focuses on a patriarch’s sins which eventually bring pain and suffering to his children.
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Thomas Sutpen marries a woman, Eulalia, in Haiti. He later finds out she’s part Negro and so he divorces her; leaving both his wife and their son, Charles Bon. He then travels to Mississippi where buys 100 acres of land and marries a woman named Ellen. He has two children, Judith and Henry, with her and believes he has the perfect male heir to continue his line.
Years later, Henry goes to the University of Mississippi where he befriends, Charles Bon, without knowing that he is his half-brother. Henry takes Charles home to meet his family and Judith falls in love with him. Henry encourages the romance because he is a bit infatuated with both Charles and Judith and their union would allow him to live out his feelings vicariously. Charles realizes that Thomas is his father and thinks that Thomas will announce himself to Charles and welcome him into his home. This never happens and Charles decides to move forward with his plans to marry Judith.
Henry finds out, much to his horror, that Charles is his and Judith’s half-brother and begs Charles to leave her alone. When he refuses, Henry kills Charles to stop the marriage and then he runs away from home. Thomas’ empire is destroyed by the tragedy and he turns to the only women left around him in a desperate attempt to have another son. He fails and his callous disregard for those women leads to his murder.
Faulkner really makes you work for it. The narrative is hard to follow because the story is told by multiple characters, all of whom are relating the story to other people. The timeline bounces around because there are flashbacks and contradicting details and different points of view. It meanders about while trying to find its footing, but the rambling is very intentional. You’re supposed to get a bit lost as you get sucked into the story. Part of the reason it’s interesting is that you don’t know exactly what’s true. A large portion of the story is told by Quentin Compson (a character from The Sound and the Fury) to his Harvard roommate Shreve, decades after the events have taken place. Another part is told by Rosa, Thomas’ sister-in-law who has her own agenda and reasons for hating Sutpen.
Absalom, Absalom is a bit like watching a train wreck. You know it’s all going to end badly, but you can’t look away. Faulkner’s writing is beautiful, but again, it’s not a clear narrative because you’re never sure whether what you’re hearing is fact or someone’s opinion or just rumors. The scope of the story is epic. It touches on a dozen complex topics, including slavery, southern prejudice, devotion to land, incest, the downfall of the South, material wealth vs. familial love, etc. all the while mapping out a complicated tragedy of Greek proportions.
So far I haven’t loved reading Faulkner. I’ve been captivated by his work and it makes me feel like I’m wandering through decrepit old southern mansion as I read it, but I don’t feel passionate about it. This book kind of defies my rating system, because I didn’t love reading it, but it really challenged me and I thought about it long after I finished it. I like it when books do that to me.
I’d like to try another one of his next year and see how that goes. I’m thinking maybe As I Lay Dying of Light in August. Do you guys have any strong feelings about which Faulkner books I should try? The next one might decide whether I pursue him further or not.
"Jesus, the South is fine, isn't it. It's better than the theatre, isn't it. It's better than Ben Hur, isn't it"