It is not without trepidation that I returned to reading Faulkner just a couple of months back. I say trepidation because I know how mad and meandering and mentally debilitating Faulknerian narrative can. And I say returned because I’d like to believe that Faulkner was one of the authors who greatly influenced my literary tastes during my early college days. Yes, I know that’s very presumptuous of me to claim for I have only read one short story (A Rose for Emily) and one novel (The Sound and the Fury) of his, but these two are enough for me to appreciate flair and style in novels.
He also instilled in me the love for one hundred commas within a one thousand word write-up. And after finishing this novel, Absalom, I approached our resident Hemingway scholar in our book club, asked him if he has ever read Faulkner, and when he answered no, I apologized and proclaimed myself to be a fan of the Faulknerian School of Narrative.
But between my proclamation and the turning of the last page, I am not even sure if I understood enough of this novel for me to love it. As I was looking back at the events and the revelations, I felt a terrible ache spreading within my chest. I was restless, and I had to keep turning this question inside my head: Why does Quentin 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, panting in the cold air, the iron New England dark: I dont. I dont! I dont hate it! I dont hate it!
Absalom, Absalom! (yes, exclamation is point included) is the story of Thomas Sutpen, a squalid man who arrives in Mississippi, buys a piece of land, builds a great house he names Sutpen’s Hundred, rises in the social ladder of that town, procreates, leaves, comes and goes, comes and goes, and ends in… So Sutpen’s story is told in a series of retellings and flashbacks by Quentin Compson, a very familiar character for those who have read The Sound and the Fury, to his Harvard roommate.
This roommate, Shreve, is the one who asks the important question. As you have just read, Quentin vehemently denies it. He thinks it over and tries to convince himself that he doesn’t hate the place. But first, what made Shreve ask the question?
It is less of a question than the understanding that Quentin does hate the South. When asked to tell him about the place where he came from, everything that Quentin related to Shreve was filled with acid bitterness, violent relationships, ignoble histories, and gloomy memories that one can’t help getting the feeling that the storyteller is indeed filled with rankling rancor about what he is talking about.
And yet, how can Quentin hate the South when his roots are all anchored there? In accepting this hatred, he would also have to accept that he somehow hates himself. He is and will always have a part of the South, hence, the denial. This unnoticed self-hatred might be a major factor which contributed to his actions in The Sound and the Fury.
Aside from Quentin narrating, Rosa Coldfield contributes to this nasty job of reconstructing the past. She is Sutpen’s sister-in-law, and when her sister Ellen dies, she is promised marriage by Sutpen himself, only to be jilted. It is no wonder why her story is biased, and Quentin seeks out other narrators. His grandfather and father are other sources, so the stories of the three, plus Quentin’s, mingle with each other like vapors coalescing in the air and forming a thick, nearly impenetrable fog.
This shifty narration is a cause of headache. The sentences can just run forever, and one’s patience can surely be daunted if he tries so hard at understanding every single phrase. My advice: just keep on reading. I believe that it was designed to be that way. The story will plant itself inside your head. Rather, it would accumulate deep within your subconscious with such terrifying strength capable of unseating and transporting you to that place and time where Sutpen’s story took place.
Sutpen’s story is scattered all over the novel, but this book is not only about him. It also depicts the white people’s attitudes toward the blacks. Have you ever heard of the word octoroon? It is what you call a person with an eighth of black blood in his ancestry. Such things mattered during the time of the novel, and the great divide between the whites and the blacks slowly dissolves as interracial marriages start to become a common thing at the end.
And upon arriving at this end, you are not sure if Sutpen is a real bad guy as Rosa firmly believes, or just confused and a little lost. As I continue to think about it, I see him in my mind’s eye, at least his ghost, standing at the charred ruins of Sutpen’s Hundred, perhaps waiting for his mixed-blood idiot grandson to conquer the South.