I believe I’ve mentioned before how obsessed I am with William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! I read it in college for my senior seminar, and then proceeded to nerd out over it for a good eight months and, in a surprising example of productivity, produce a research paper and conference presentation (who knew??).
So when I ran across an NYT article earlier this week called “How William Faulkner Tackled Race—and Freed the South From Itself,” I dropped everything and read it immediately.
This book is, really, just the best. Who besides Faulkner could literally tell the entire plotline within the first few pages, and then continue with the rest of an amazing novel? Sullivan’s article does an excellent job of exploring the ways Faulkner addresses and defines the South. Quentin’s inability to extricate himself from his incessant narration (and creation) of his Southern heritage plays a central role in his depression and gradual insanity (as Sullivan notes, he commits suicide about a year later in The Sound and the Fury).
What Sullivan doesn’t address, however (although another commenter mentions it), is that almost all the elements of the plot—certainly Bon’s death, his relationships with Judith and Henry, and even Bon himself—are never presented as fact in the text. They could be anything from third- or fourth-hand narration to figments of Quentin and Shreve’s collective imagination.
I’m a little disappointed Sullivan didn’t bring this up, because I think it strengthens his argument—or at least complicates in a very interesting way. With the validity of Bon in question (and with it, his ethnicity and its implications on Sutpen’s and Henry’s actions), Quentin’s insistence on relaying it to Shreve puts an even greater weight on its importance in a Southern novel. Quentin is, himself, the South—hating his own existence, conflicted about his future, unwilling yet obligated to relive the past.
“Now I want you to tell me just one thing more. Why do you hate the South?”
“I dont hate it,” Quentin said, quickly, at once, immediately; “I dont hate it,” he said. I dont hate it he thought . . . I dont. I dont! I dont hate it! I dont hate it!
His attempt to come to terms with the atrocities of his background is rendered invalid by his own heritage. By embroidering details of his own into stories passed down to him by family and neighbors, he is trying to create some sort of order and rationality to the events (especially since he is explaining them to Shreve, a Canadian outsider, in their Yankee dorm room). But as they get deeper into the story, not only do the embellishments fail to provide any sense of reconciliation or finale, but they also weave Quentin into his own heritage even more inexorably.
OH DEAR GOD I COULD LITERALLY GO ON LIKE THIS FOR AGES. But it is Sunday night, I have an early morning tomorrow, and a Harry Potter marathon is on ABC Family. Clearly, my immediate future lies elsewhere.