Friday, August 2, 2013

Unrequited and Requited: Faulkner's THE MANSION

William Faulkner wraps up the Snopes trilogy (The Hamlet, The Town, The Mansion) by veering from low comedy to stirring romance to prison revenge tale in a novel that covers more ground (literally and figuratively) than the previous novels. As with the other books, the events all circle around—when they do not directly address—the rise of Flem Snopes from his low-born station in life to his success as a wealthy bank president and landowner. Snopes himself appears less often in this final novel, but his presence is felt; he has withdrawn into his mansion, but his crafty machinations have affected every character's life, often in profound ways.

The novel takes some time to get going, by my lights, as Faulkner revisits events from the previous novels in circular, recursive form, making this book stall for quite some time. Aside from that slow start, the novel moves adeptly to cover a host of characters, all of whom are heading for a mutual resolution of plot and theme.

The novel's comedic bits work well, and the source of much of the humor throughout is our old friend V.K. Ratliff, at the top of his form here after a weak showing in the second novel. Ratliff's voice is compelling when he takes on the narrative, but also he's allowed to be the heroic figure he seemed set to be back in The Hamlet. He's never quite ahead of Flem Snopes, of course, whose sheer singlemindedness about money and quality of rapacious acquisition make him hard to beat, but he's typically ahead of Faulkner's mock romantic figure, attorney Gavin Stevens. Ratliff's visit to New York City (to attend a wedding we don't get to see) is both hilarious and touching, as this self-sufficient man who handles himself well in any situation is knocked down by the notion of spending 75 dollars on a tie.

Gavin Stevens continues to be a dependable knight, (almost) always sure to do the noble thing, sacrificing his happiness for obscure reasons, remaining absurdly chaste in his relationship with Linda Snopes, daughter of the mythic Eula Snopes from the preceding novels. His quasi-romance is full of both comedy and truly heartbreaking moments, but Faulkner works this story—which consumes much of the narrative—into the overarching tale of vengeance against Flem (whose refusal to act and then commitment to action results in a cousin spending 38 years in jail).

Along the way, we meet a host of amazing side characters, all of them engaged in quests of one kind or another. Faulkner sees something to praise in most of them, as they all resist the pull of the earth (there's a beautiful late passage concerning this) in order to somehow make their mark.

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