There are some sentences one re-reads because they are so beautiful, so delicious, that one wants to experience them again. Take, for instance, this gorgeous passage from the Japanese classic “Naomi” by Junichiro Tanizaki, in which the narrator describes his beloved’s body: “This back was a landmark of my love. My hands, my fingers, had frolicked joyfully in this chillingly beautiful snow.” What reader wouldn’t love to roll around in pages filled with such sentences?
Unfortunately, there are other sentences one re-reads because they are so obscure, so wandering, that one needs to go over them numerous times to grasp their meaning. This is the problem with William Faulkner’s “Absalom, Absalom,” a book with such a murky, wordy writing style that the intriguing plot is nearly lost beneath it.
First published in 1936, the book concerns the success and sudden downfall of the Sutpen family in fictional Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi during the Civil War. Faulkner reuses the character of Quentin Compson from “The Sound and the Fury” as a transmitter of this story, as he hears it told layer by layer from those who bore witness to it and attempts to come to some conclusion as to what caused the family tragedy.
Faulkner was a pioneer of experimental, modern fiction, along with James Joyce and Marcel Proust, and because of this a reader nearly expects to find difficulty understanding the action and meaning of his books. The most famous example of this may be Benjy’s section in “The Sound and The Fury,” which is narrated by a mentally challenged person and therefore is a literal, child-like, disorganized stream-of-conscious. This part is challenging and requires piecing together on the part of readers, but when they succeed in comprehending the narration it is a rewarding moment, as it allows them to see the story in through a unique mind.
“Absalom, Absalom” was also considered experimental, as it is non-linear and, like “The Sound and The Fury,” pieces together a story through several points of view. However, the prose style, instead of seeming cutting-edge and electric, is cumbersome, heavy-handed, and repetitive, reminding one more of a 19th century novel instead of a modern American one:
…she was even more inaccessible to the grandfather of whom she had seen but little during her life and probably cared less anyway – that state where, though still visible, young girls appear as though seen through glass and where even the voice cannot reach them; where they exist (this the hoyden who could – and did, outrun and outclimb, and ride and fight both with and beside her brother) in a pearly lambence without shadows and themselves partaking of it; in nebulous suspension held, strange and unpredictable, even their very shapes fluid and delicate and without substance…
An entire book of sentences like this is irritating, even more so because every character talks in this same style, whether they are an old maid with little education, a southern gentleman, or a northern college student, which makes them indistinguishable from one another.
It is unfortunate that the plot is obscured beneath all this flourishing prose, because it is a Southern-Gothic tale about a doomed family and such tales in the hands of writers like Tennessee Williams are often intriguing. However, Faulkner does not reveal the truly riveting plot details until the end of the book, and this makes much of the novel feel like a lot of fuss about nothing, merely the story of a slightly dysfunctional family.
“Absalom, Absalom” is considered one of the greatest American novels, but much of what made it so powerful and cutting-edge has since worn off: the book is structured upon the once-experimental methods of non-linear plot and unreliable narration, and because today’s readers are adept in navigating such techniques, the edginess of the book has worn off. For many readers, it may not only fail to live up to its status, but instead prove to be a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.