I imagine that as a child everyone heard stories about some particular person. Maybe it was a crazy uncle, maybe it was a neighbor who had a breakdown, maybe it was a town kook. Everyone knows someone they’ve never met. Everyone knows someone only through stories. Everyone has someone they seem to understand only because the stories about them are so vivid. Absolam, Absolam tells the story of Thomas Sutpen much like that…
Wait. Let me start over.
Every time I read Absolam, Absolam I try to imagine it as a movie and cannot. The only way to make a movie from this story would be to have the main character out of focus the entire time…
Wait. No. Let me start over.
I was mid-way through the book and on the third page of a sentence when I realized how unsatisfying the picture of Thomas Sutpen really is. The clearest description of the man is told by two college students in the second half of the book, and Thomas Sutpen had been long dead before these two were born…
Wait. No. Let me start again.
I’ve read Absolam, Absolam many times. I lost count a while back. I remember struggling through it the first time and walking away rather unimpressed. It’s difficult. It’s confusing. It’s unpleasant. It’s not good bedtime reading, it simply requires too much energy. But, I returned to it. I think out of pride. I didn’t want to be so utterly lost in a book.
What I didn’t realize the first time through was that the entire story is told in the first three pages. The following 200 or so pages are different characters trying their best to understand it and fill in the missing pieces.
Superfluous to say at this point, but the story is not linear. Thomas Sutpen moved to Yoknapatawpha County nearly a century before the “present.” He cheats a native american out of 100 acres of land which becomes known as Sutpen’s Hundred and he promptly leaves. He returns later with slaves that do not speak English and builds a house on his land and leaves again. He returns later with furniture and goes into town to find a wife. The ruthlessness with which he pursues his “design” still haunts the town.
The book opens with “Miss Rosa” calling Quentin to her home to tell her version of the story. We then hear the story from Quentin’s father. Later, Shreve (Quentin’s roommate at Harvard) tries his best to piece together the fragments of the story Quentin has told him. We’ve met Quentin before (in The Sound and the Fury) and are already familiar with his academic, meandering, and philosophical way of telling a story. Shreve and Quentin hash out the story in Boston more clearly than anyone else.
About the fourth time I read Absolam, Absolam I realized something about the Shreve and Quentin conversation: it must take place only months before Quentin’s suicide in The Sound and the Fury. And Quentin is quietly beginning to expound on the issues that clearly trouble him in The Sound and the Fury.
Thus, Absolam, Absolam is when Yoknapophwa County first feels like a real place. There is something about the half-remembered stories the characters tell that makes the history seem fully realized. This is the book where Faulkner’s collection of stories become greater than their sum. His writing becomes myth.
I will not go into great detail here about the themes in the story. I could go on forever. It’s brilliant. Thomas Sutpen obviously represents Southern plantation life itself. And this book chronicles its rise and fall. Among about a thousand motifs, the book touches on incest and dives deep into racism. Sutpen’s fall is deserved, as was the south’s. And Absolam, Absolam pulls no punches.
I’ve admitted to reading this book many times, so it seems needless to point out that I love it. It’s one of my all-time favorite stories and the desire to drone on about it for pages is strong. I don’t even know how to end this.
No. Wait. Can I start over?