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Of Fate, Slavery, the South, Pride, and Story-Telling
am 29. Mai 2007
Review Summary: Absalom, Absalom! is a book that you can easily underestimate. Your persistence will be rewarded with pleasure if you are patient, and assume that something magnificent will appear that is different from what you expect. The story is a cross between a Greek tragedy, King Lear, and the oral tradition of story-telling. As such, it strikes the deepest chords of human connection and ambition. The primary settings are Mississippi and the West Indies from the Antebellum period through Reconstruction and into the early 20th century. The themes touch deeply on Southern tradition, slavery, and social class. This is a challenging book to read, and will appeal primarily to those who like difficult books that are full of allusions. For most, having read other Faulkner novels will make this one easier to access and understand. As I Lay Dying is a good precursor for this novel.
Reader Caution: A six-letter word beginning with "n" to describe people of Afro-American descent is used frequently in this book in ways that will offend many people. The use of the word is consistent with the beliefs and the historical moment of the characters who utter it, and does not reflect racist beliefs by the author.
Review: Absalom, Absalom! is certainly one of America's greatest tragic novels. Thomas Sutpen arrives in Jefferson, Mississippi in middle age with a burning desire to establish a magnificent plantation and a dynasty with a leading role in society. To accomplish this, all he has available is his passion, a French architect, some slaves from Haiti, and a huge tract of land that he has somehow swindled out of the Native Americans. From the mud, his dream rises. But his very determination to accomplish his dream causes counterforces to rise that drag his dream into the mud again.
The story is told in a most unusual fashion. Almost every major character's perspective is captured through the device of recounting prior conversations with other major characters. Most of the characters are missing major elements of the "why" of the story, so you need to keep adding the stories together to begin to understand what was happening beneath the surface. The book eventually relies on a conversation with a nonparticipant in the events to explore why they might have occurred, where no direct evidence is available. In this last regard, the book takes on a little of the mystery-solving tradition involving logic that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle used with Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. This conversation-reporting story-telling device makes the book both remarkably recursive and potentially maddening. If you are like me, you will wonder at times what else could possibly be covered in the book. And then, Faulkner pulls new dimensions to his story out of the hat.
Faulkner's point is that we can almost always know "what" has happened in terms of major events, but without great investigation and thought we unlikely to ever understand the "why." You come to appreciate this point by seeing your understanding of Sutpen's life change as you learn more about him and the events that preceded his arrival in Jefferson. I ultimately came away intrigued and inspired by the book's structure. You could easily have the opposite reaction.
The book is a rich source of concepts and observations about the contradictions inherent in slavery and Southern notions of gentle behavior during the 18th and 19th centuries. You only find these contradictions as well laid out in Thomas Jefferson's writings and biographies.
After you read this book, you should be in a good position to ask yourself some basic questions about what you are trying to accomplish with your personal life and your work. Are your goals any more worthy than Sutpen's? What dangers are you exposed to as a result of having this focus? In what ways are you an innocent in your pursuits?
In seeking respect and esteem, remember to give it to others even more generously!