Sunday, July 17, 2011

Faulkner! Faulkner!

There are two kinds of Faulkner novel: accessible and not-so-accessible. Absalom, Absalom! seemed in the second category, slipping over into inaccessible or maybe just not-worth-the-effort. I set it down at one point, feeling rebuffed by the novel. But a brief step into a contemporary novel left me feeling as if I were experiencing a fictive world that lived only on the surface, and so I returned to Faulkner, though the text was challenging, because at least you're immersed in an actual experience that's working its way through your system like a virus, and that swims in your brain like a dream from which you can't quite awaken.

Is Faulkner joking? At two points, the characters Shreve and Quentin remark on how similar their stream-of-consciousness—styled talk sounds to the discourse of Quentin's father. Of course it sounds similar: No matter who is narrating, they slip into this Jungian overmind–sounding prose style built of clause piled on clause and page-long parenthetical digressions and grandiose meanderings. Everyone sounds that way once they get going. Surely Faulkner is making fun of the style . . . ?

The story plays out like a Greek tragedy, but in American terms. Not only is the Sutpen family cursed, they're cursed because of the South's great sin of slavery. Thomas Sutpen comes from rough beginnings, but the sight of a white man lying in a hammock on a plantation, and his treatment at the door of the big house by an old slave, gives him a sense of mission, a vision for his own life. He doesn't factor in the moral aspects: that such a life is built on injustices large and small. This blindness to the profound failings of Southern culture, a culture that must inevitably destroy itself, leads Sutpen, and all like him, on a quest for something they never should have wanted in the first place, and, like the rest of the South, Sutpen is tripped up by issues of race.

The novel suffers enormously due to Faulkner's complete inability to get inside the head of a black character, or to even see the black characters in anything more than symbolic terms. They are not people, but lessons or obstacles. Charles Bon, partly black, is something of an exception, but we never quite sympathize with Charles, whose role is more to create problems for others, and his death is not felt by any character nor, it would seem, by Faulkner. The book is notable for how often Faulkner employs "the n-word"; I can't recall any other book using it so persistently (when often he could say something else) or with such a sense of otherness inherent in the term. Sutpen's slaves are "wild" (they would have likely eaten the escaped architect of Sutpen's dream house if Sutpen hadn't stopped them); the black man who stops young Thomas Sutpen at the plantation's front door is, repeatedly, "a monkey." Black characters are sometimes nameless, always figures meant to disturb the white characters. It's a problem.

The book's structure is almost a visual trick. You can read much of a chapter and find very little happening, like a train you see in the distance that remains so far off, its size changes little even as it approaches. Then, abruptly, the train is on top of you. Faulkner suddenly accelerates the narrative, allowing half-stated ideas and vague images to finally take shape and find their proper words as a chapter winds up. It's a startling effect, and it happens at both the micro and macro level of the novel.

I read it over the course of several days and read nothing else most of the time. Even so, I completely lost track of a character that had been previously introduced, and so the ending left me confused until I looked up a summary of the novel online. I didn't think I'd been inattentive, but the character had been dropped, and the novel doesn't aim to reassure you of narrative integrity throughout, so it's up to the reader to hang on to some of the threads Faulkner sets aside.

Next up: Ellison's Invisible Man.

Also, I'm working to finish a revision of "You Have No Idea What I've Forgot" for a contest.


S. E. Johnson said...

Without disagreeing with a single thing you're saying, I'm going to jump in and mention that this one novel offers Faulkner's one moment in which he encapsulates exactly my feelings about The Land of My Birth (and first 30 years of my life). To no one's surprise, it's in Quentin's response to "Why do you hate the South?":

"'I don't hate it,' Quentin said, quickly, at once, immediately; 'I don't hate it,' he said, I don't 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!"

and I type this, you see, upon my return from The Family Vacation to Tennessee. ;)

William Preston said...

I think Faulkner long-handed that line on a stolen linen napkin while in the car on the way back from a cookout at his daughter's.