Part 3: Dense as an Overgrown Swamp
Peter, what was the experience of reading this book like for you?-Beth
Faulkner's tragedies are the only works I can read half asleep and still not miss anything. I don't mean there's nothing to miss – on the contrary! At college, too: I dozed through most of my reading assignments, but I didn't have to turn the pages back very often for Faulkner. I think my conscious mind gets in the way with Faulkner. Faulkner gives it some bones to chew – all those big words to look up – but most everything else seems geared for my subconscious.Absalom is tough on the conscious reader. Its narrators, whether first person or third, pull him away from his regular reliance on plot and character development. Key plot details are buried in labyrinthine sentences. And characterization through dialog? Forget about it! All the characters sound the same: the dominant ones speak in short, objectively insignificant phrases, while the passive ones – Faulkner's Greek chorus – speak in those long sentences that process and repeat the dominant characters' phrases and put a kind of mental illness, or at least obsession and inexorable amazement, between the reader and the facts. No wonder we all relate to Shreve, who frequently tries to stop Quentin long enough to get a simple narrative point clarified: “'Wait,' Shreve said. 'For Christ's sake wait.'”
So Absalom examines reading, and Shreve is Faulkner's model reader. His conscious mind struggles with the narration, but his subconscious mind catches enough so that he's drawn into the sickness. Because he's a successful reader from outside the South – indeed, outside the U.S. – Shreve demonstrates the universal reach of Absalom's themes. I think it's also significant that Shreve survives, just as Faulkner, who's not known for hope, says in his Nobel acceptance speech that mankind will survive.
Well, in part 1 of this conversation you compared me to Shreve, but I doubt that I'm a model reader! For one thing, I tend to read very fast, and that's not helpful to Faulkner. I really like what you said about his books requiring us to use our subconscious mind; it feels like you have to somehow uncouple your normal intellectual, analytical, processing mind and submit yourself to the flow of words, which are at times almost dreamlike and quite often rambling or even completely crazy.
I also love books like this that force me to slow down and engage with the writing itself, while at the same time immersing me in a mood and place that feel foreign, dark, ominous, and yet somehow seductive. I'm a very visual person so I'm always constructing mental images while I'm reading. With Faulkner I always feel like I'm in an old black-and-white movie, shot without enough light, and definitely scary; I am out of my element here; there's little comfort or familiarity. That mental place haunts me all the days I'm reading the novel, and for some time afterward. I never realized before that this book belongs to the genre of writing known as Southern Gothic, and while it's not about the occult or ghosts or vampires at all, this "haunted" and demonic quality is palpable.
When I stopped reading this book each day, I kept thinking about what he was doing. I was stunned by the complex construction of this novel. Multiple narrators, not always clearly identified at first; a great deal of stream-of-consciousness writing; extremely long sentences; and a story that's gradually revealed through flashbacks from many different points of view. The sheer mastery of the craft of writing was pretty thrilling.
What I found especially impressive is that even though the construction is as dense as an overgrown swamp, he doesn't call attention to it, he's not showing off (like some other masters of the "modern" novel we might name) -- it simply becomes another part of the world he is creating for us to inhabit as we read, and this tangled, dark complexity contributes to the book's mood of violence, tension, murky confusion, and impending doom. If I had to use one word to describe the mood of the novel, I might choose "tense" -- what about you?
And from here, I wonder if we might talk about the female characters in the book next, and about women and the South!