The story of Thomas Sutpen, an enigmatic stranger who came to Jefferson in the early 1830s to wrest his mansion out of the muddy bottoms of the north Mississippi wilderness. He was a man, Faulkner said, "who wanted sons and the sons destroyed him." ... Read more
My favorite book used to be The Sound and the Fury, but Absalom! Absalom! simply blew that away! A novel of themes dating back to the Bible and Greek tragedies--love, hubris, fratricide, incest--juxtaposed with the most peculiarly American of settings. Despite what many readers might say (my one friend said this was the first and last book she's started reading that she could simply not finish), it's not that diffiuclt once you get in the rhythm--reading aloud to yourself helps as well. While I would place this at the top of my "greatest books ever written" list, I would not recommend it to a first-time Faulkner reader. I'd read (in this order) The Unvanquished, As I Lay Dying, The Sound and the Fury, Go Down Moses, and Light in August before tackling Absalom! The Unvanquished is probably your best bet to start out on--its stream of consciousness style is not nearly as extreme as in Sound, Absalom, or even As I Lay. This book is worth all the page-long sentences and multiple voices...It's the finest work of not just Faulkner but of American writers as a whole.
A masterpiece by one of our masters
When I was in college, wandering the aisles looking for a book for some other assignment, I would often find myself standing in front of Mr. Faulkner, and I would often find myself thereafter seated on the floor, flipping the pages of this book, marvelling at that first sentence that lasts for two pages. This book reads like Beethoven to me, and I'll admit that I'm in love with it.
First, it's not an easy or a light read. I've read this book three times all the way through (I've read chunks of it countless times), and I can't say that I understand everything. There are a few different narrators, and the narrators themselves will often slip into other voices - Quentin telling Shreve the story that he heard from his father of what Sutpen told the elder Compson twenty years ago - that sort of thing.
Let's talk about the basic plot. There's a chronology included in this edition (I believe) that helps. Yoknapatawpha County, of course, and a stranger moves into town named Thomas Sutpen. Brings a strange bunch of wild slaves, claims a hundred square miles, builds a house, and then tries to find a wife. Marries the daughter of a respected local man, has some children, and then the Civil War comes along. Eldest son rides off to war, happens to fall into communion with his abandoned half-brother, and chaos ensues. It turns out that Sutpen is himself not your average guy, and we hear some very interesting stories about his family, his history, and the lives of his children.
I wouldn't recommend this book to a first-time Faulkner reader. If you want a good Faulkner novel that isn't too dense, try Light in August, or maybe Sanctuary. Both are relatively straightforward. If you've read either of these, or if you just want to dive in, this one is probably his best.
What really "gets" me about this book is the way that we are made to admire, respect, even love the horrific creature that is Thomas Sutpen. He's a fascinating character, and the passages retelling his personal history are alive with tension. You can imagine this man barricaded in the home of a white planter, facing doom at the hands of a slave rebellion; you can see the weird light in his face when he puts down his rifle, opens the door, and steps out into the "darkness" to "subdue" the slave revolt. It's a kind of meditation on the nature of colonialism, tied into myths of patriarchy and gender, with a shot at Christianity stirred in for good measure. I suppose that sounds garbled - but believe me, the fact that Faulkner can effectively blend all of this into one story speaks to his genius. What a book.
Know what you're getting yourself into
I can understand why this book has so many 5 star ratings. It's ideas on the decay of the South are pretty brilliant and perceptive, and the plot is devastating. However, the language, although poetic, is enigmatic and completely exhausting. What's more troubling is that every character in the book has the same way of talking, without ever stopping or completing a thought. Sentences literally go on for over a page. Apparently, that's how every single person talked in 1909.
"Not cowardice which will not face that sickness somewhere at the prime foundation of this factual scheme from which the prisoner soul, miasmal-distillant, wroils ever upward sunward..." This continues for quite some time. While an occassional sentence like this would add a sense of mystery and mysticism to the novel, when the whole thing reads like this, you get pretty tired. Another reviewer noted this sentence: "I became all polymath love's androgynous advocate." What?
I do like the narrative style though. You have a basic idea of the plot from the beginning, but pieces get filled in my different sources, leading to the overall picture of murder, decay, revenge. I didn't think the characterization was very good though, and that to me is the most important part of a book. Sure, you know who Sutpen is, but you don't really understand him. Ellen is called a moth, desperately clinging to the light but not understanding why. That's pretty a beautiful simile, but not incredibly useful, since we don't know why Ellen is a moth, just that she is.
Basically, if you're going to read this novel, know what you're getting yourself into, and read it slowly, or you'll have to go back a million times and re-read.
WOW! where to begin?
faulkner is an acquired taste. like brussel sprouts, you either like him or hate him, but he is definitely good food for the brain. his books are by no means easy reads, but they are a must for any true lover of literature.
absalom, absalom could have been a simplistic story of the sutpin family from thomas, the father, birth to the death of his youngest child henry. it could have been told in chronological order by an omniscient narrator that provided all of the usual insights and motives into every act. but it is not!
Faulkner tells the story through the eyes of 4 people, all of a different generation or background. the story is told somewhat haphazardly with many gaps which are not filled in until later in the book. the facts are viewed through the eyes of the different story tellers with parts further filtered through stories told to them by others. all of this makes an engrossing tale all the more fascinating. at the end we have a picture of the family that is part history and part saga.
this unusual approach to story telling is classic faulkner. you need to admire the style to really appreciate the ingenuity of the author.
the story is better understood by reading the biblical reference of king david's son as well as faulkner's sound and the fury which involves two of the same characters--specifically quentin compson.
this is faulkner's best novel. it is not for the first time faulkner reader. you need to work your way up to this one by reading as i lay dying, light in august, and then sound and the fury. the trip through these books will challenge even the best reader, but the rewards are well worth it. you will truly never read someone like faulkner again.
Don't give up on this masterpiece . . .
Faulkner is not for everyone, and this book is exhibit number one. I read half of it a year ago before going back and starting over, determined to finish it. I am certainly glad I did, and I will say without doubt I will read it several more times in my life, for this book is at the same time one of the most difficult I've ever read, and one of the most rewarding.
First, the cons: vocabulary that continually drives you to a dictionary; long, run-on sentences, with digression piled on top of digression, parenthesis within parenthesis within parenthesis; multiple telling of the same story. The reading is not easy, in other words.
But the pros: Faulkner is a master of "showing, not telling." He writes poetry without line breaks. For example:
** "a creature cloistered now by deliberate choice and still in the throes of enforced apprenticeship to, rather than voluntary or even acquiescent participation in, breathing"
** "battles lost not alone because of superior numbers and failing ammunition and stores, but because of generals who should not have been generals, who were generals not through training in contemporary methods or aptitude for learning them, but by the divine right to say 'Go there' conferred upon them by an absolute caste system."
** "and maybe they never had time to talk about wounds and besides to talk about wounds in the Confederate army in 1865 would be like coal miners talking about soot."
From these three examples alone, one can see that it's unfair to say that Faulkner's book is one run-on sentence without any differentiation in style or voice. Instead, they show a mastery of language, which Faulkner admittedly gets a little carried away with from time to time, but generally uses much like we use our lungs - without seeming to think about it.
What is most striking about the book is the similarity it has to the human experience. Walter Allen said this is the book in which Faulkner "most profoundly and completely says what he has to say about . . . the human condition." And what is that? That humans are weak and prone to lying, and more dangerously, prone to believing lies that are more comfortable than the truth. When we finish the book, we're still not sure about the details of the story. We don't know who twisted what in his/her narrative, and because the story is told from several points of view, we get conflicting interpretations from the characters about the meaning and cause of certain events. But as in real life, there's no omnipotent interpreter to sort everything out. Almost . . .
"AA" is particularly engrossing in the final half. Just when you think you pretty much know Sutpen's story, Faulkner reveals yet another detail -- coincidence turns out to be anything but, ignornance is shown to be willful, and many other facets which can only be called "plot twists" fall into place in the final 100 pages, and though the prose is anything but easy, it's difficult to put the book down then.
If you're not into "academic" books, stay away. If you're interested just in "a good yarn," steer clear. If you want to see an impressive effort at capturing in writing the frustrating experience of being a fallible, limited human, give it a read. ... Read more