Slap on a Smile

Henry Sutpen is a major player in the narrative of Absalom, Absalom!, and his depiction offers a master class in how to construct a fully-fleshed fictional personality through the accumulation of assorted detail.  If an author wanted to convey, for example, that a character was provincial and something of a puritan, how might he or she go about that process?  William Faulkner demonstrates.

One might begin by describing the character’s background, “raised in provincial North Mississippi.”  Here, in this “provincial backwater,” brought up in a “puritan country household,” the character might demonstrate his “puritan heritage” by spending a sexually tentative adolescence socializing with his fellow “provincial virgins.”  After this, he could move on to “a small new provincial college,” where his “puritan’s provincial horror of revealing surprise or ignorance” might be challenged by new experiences, but his “provincial soul” could remain intact, as well as his “puritan’s humility.”  (Another authorial strategy is to describe the character as having a “puritan character.”)

In the event that such techniques fail to adequately communicate the desired amount of puritanical provincialism, a writer might furthermore portray the protagonist’s “provincial face,” “provincial manners,” “fierce provincial’s pride,” and “puritan’s provincial mind.”  Or address him as “Henry, the provincial” and “Henry the puritan”—also effective.

This same light touch can be applied to rendering the subtleties of a character’s demeanor.  Take Charles Bon, Henry’s college chum, whose seemingly pleasant disposition is a facade meant to keep others at arm’s length—“an expression on his face you might call smiling except that it was not that but just something you couldn’t see through or past.”  Or, as is clarified later within the same sentence, “the smiling that wasn’t smiling but was just something you were not supposed to see beyond.”

The gradations of Bon’s countenance are more finely delineated as the chapter continues, with such additional descriptions as “that expression which might at a glance be called smiling,” “that expression which was not smiling but just something not to be seen through,” and “that expression you might call smiling but which was not, which was just something that even just a clodhopper bastard was not intended to see beyond.”  This rainbow of facial colorings is rendered with even greater precision (albeit to slightly more repetitive effect than one might expect contained in a single sentence) as Bon “lounged into the lawyer’s office and watched from behind that something which could have been called smiling…watching [the lawyer] from behind the smiling…listening courteous and quiet behind that expression which you were not supposed to see past.”

Oddly enough, it is the sight of his provincial puritan friend that especially elicits this toothy subterfuge: “Bon would look at him for a moment with that expression which could have been smiling…and Henry panting, ‘Stop! Stop!’ and Bon watching him with that faint thin expression.”  Or “Bon…sits looking at Henry with that expression which might be called smiling”; or “Bon…again watched Henry with that faint expression about the eyes and mouth which might be smiling.”  Considering that the above are among over a score of expressions exhibited in the book, it might rightly be the reader instead who—smiling or more likely wincing—is at some point compelled to pant, “Stop! Stop!”*


*Among that score are a number of the amazed variety, no big surprise: “the expression of fatalistic and amazed determination,” “his expression of grim and embittered amazement,” “Shreve’s expression of cherubic and erudite amazement.”  At the other end of the emotional spectrum is one character with an “expressionless and rocklike face”—or, put another way (which Faulkner, of course, does): “the grim rocklike man who had looked at him…with absolutely no alteration of expression.”

Balance Overdrawn

Not only does Absalom, Absalom! have a sizable stable of favored words that get trotted out repeatedly to pepper the prose, it also regularly recycles a number of eye-catching phrases (presumably thought too precious by their author to be wasted on a mere single use).  A “balance of spiritual solvency,” for example, impresses with its poetic euphony when first employed to describe one character’s attempt to navigate a moral dilemma—but feels rather like sloppy seconds when it gets used again only eight pages later.  By the time “spiritual solvency” has made its third appearance within the space of two successive chapters, the law of diminishing returns is fully in effect.

Faulkner must have liked the sound of his description of an exterior light beset by insects as a “bug-fouled globe,” as it gets retooled into “the single globe stained and bug-fouled” for use elsewhere, just as lunar metaphors for eyewear are modulated for their repeat performances in Chapters 6 and 7 (“twin moons of his spectacles” and “lamp-glared moons of his spectacles,” respectively) and the constructive efforts of the book’s foul patriarch to “drag house and formal gardens violently out of the soundless Nothing” are reviewed a chapter later: “he had dragged house and gardens out of virgin swamp.”

The notion that the passage of a season is personally transformative is well captured in the description of a woman who “preened and fluttered out of her unwitting butterfly’s Indian summer,” but once we have furthermore read about “the absolute halcyon of her butterfly’s summer” and “the bright pointless noon and afternoon of the butterfly’s summer” and “the butterfly of a forgotten summer two years defunctive now,” the imagery is pretty much dead in the jar.

Some turns of phrase set off such distinctive echoes it’s almost hard to believe they were composed previous to the control-X, control-V days of cut-and-paste. Miss Coldfield, the old woman with the grim voice, grim house, and grim front yard whom we met conversing with Quentin in Chapter 1, is described in Chapter 4 as having “even now in her hand or on her lap the reticule with all the keys, entrance closet and cupboard, that the house possessed.”  Then, two chapters later: “Miss Coldfield…had…the black reticule almost as large as a carpet bag containing all the keys which the house possessed: cupboard closet and door.” (Who knows? Maybe there was actual cutting and pasting going on back then—those computer terms had to come from somewhere.)

Other phraseological double-visions include “self-mesmered fool,” a characterization used twice in four pages, and—falling rather firmly into the category of things you probably don’t want to see on the page even once—from Chapter 1, “the rank smell of female old flesh long embattled in virginity,” which is served anew in Chapter 6 (with the appetizing addition of an increase in temperature), again featuring Miss Coldfield and Quentin, the latter getting a whiff of the former, “smelling the heat-distilled old woman-flesh.”  Now there’s a mental picture to bug-foul the twin moons of your spectacles!  

Unsleeping Beauty

If you’re going to use a word like ratiocination more than once in a book—five times, for example—you might try to gussy it up a bit for its assorted recurrences: not just plain old ratiocination every go-round, but maybe an “amazed and fumbling ratiocination” once in a while for variety’s sake.  But, then, I probably shouldn’t say “variety’s sake,” considering how much amazement there is in Absalom, Absalom!

Miss Coldfield from Chapter 1, as has been noted, has a grim voice—or, to be more specific (or, at least, more prolix), a “grim haggard amazed voice.”  Which puts it in the same category as the book’s numerous other amazed elements, such as “amazed determination,” “amazed speculation,” “amazed outrage,” “amazed recapitulation,” “amazed self-pity,” “amazed and tearless grief,” “amazed and passive uncomprehension,” and an “amazed and desperate child.”

Amazement, it seems, is a very nuanced thing—who knew it had so many fine shadings?  “Unbearable amazement,” “tentative amazement,” “embittered amazement,” “shocked amazement,” “uncomprehending amazement,” “aghast amazement,” “unalarmed amazement,” “erudite amazement,” and, lastly—anticlimax alert—“mere amazement.”

One other amazing bit of usage to raise the eyebrow comes at the beginning of this sentence: “Then in the long unamaze Quentin seemed to watch them overrun suddenly the hundred square miles of tranquil and astonished earth….”*  If you read that and thought, “‘Then in the long ’… what ?,” then you and my spell-check have something in common: unamaze is a new one on it, too, just as it is a bit puzzled by the likes of Faulkner’s undefeat and unregret.  And, while we’re at it—although they do not all turn up a goose egg in a dictionary search, together they certainly constitute an odd linguistic tic—unbelief, unchastity, undreaming, unkin, unorganism, and unvolition.  Plus such un-adjectives as unbrided, uncomplex, unchinked, unfree, unmaimed, unmediant, unobscure, unpaced, unrancorous, unrational, unravished, unreally**, unscarified, and unsistered.  (No, that first adjective is not unbridled, i.e., a word anyone has actually heard of, but instead in reference to “unbrided widows.”)

Unbelief, undefeat, and unregret are the favorites among these, appearing each more than once, but the alpha in this pack of underdogs has to be unsleeping—“unsleeping itch,” “unsleeping viciousness,” “unsleeping candle,” “unsleeping blood,” “unsleeping cabal”…“unsleeping care” is thought of highly enough to be pressed into service in both Chapters 2 and 4.  Unsleeping also pairs up with a fellow un-gerund for the spaghetti-western lineup of “the hate and the fury and the unsleeping and the unforgiving,” and, with its close cousin unasleep, even manages a multiple showing within a single sentence:

Yes, sleeping in the trundle bed beside Judith’s, beside…the Negress who…slept on a pallet on the floor, the child lying there between them unasleep in some hiatus of passive and hopeless despair…lying there unsleeping in the dark between them, feeling them unasleep too….

As the ellipses suggest, the above is whittled down (you’re welcome) from a much longer sentence—much, much longer, about 425 words or so (possibly even more, depending, as mentioned elsewhere, on how you interpret Absalom!’s wonky punctuation).  So maybe I shouldn’t tease: within the space of that many words, perhaps some vocabulary repetition is unevitable.


*One of the book’s eight uses of the word tranquil, but that can wait for another day.

**Unreally?  Really?

Limit One per Customer

So how many times is too many times to employ any given word within a single book?  Obviously it’s a matter of taste, and any boundary would have to be arbitrary—but I think it’s safe to estimate that once you’ve used the word, say, fury or furious over 35 times in your novel, some sort of invisible line has been crossed.

I would also venture that there are some words that probably shouldn’t be used even more than once.  I remember the first time I came across the word fecund in one of James Lee Burke’s Louisiana-set policiers.  Not knowing it, I looked it up (“producing or capable of producing offspring, fruit, vegetation, etc.”) and enjoyed having learned a nifty new word.  But when I encountered it again later in the same book, the effect was more jarring than enjoyable—the second time around, what had seemed originally a bit of pleasurably colorful vocabulary now more resembled a pet flourish drawn from a shallow bag of tricks.*

But perhaps I was just being oversensitive to the fact that I hadn’t originally known what fecund meant—many, I am sure, would say it’s not an overly conspicuous word, nothing whose repeated use should be forbidden.  Still, surely there are some “inkhorners” (as Nicholson Baker would call them) whose effect is so clangorous as to invite a check on their proliferation—ratiocination, for example, strikes me as a good candidate for the “one per book” rule.  Or maybe even a more lenient maximum, like two or possibly three ratiocinations total…but certainly, one would hope, somewhere south of five?  (As Marge Simpson says to Homer after he drunkenly embarrasses her at a party: “You didn’t just cross that line, you threw up on it.”)

“Henry…given to instinctive and violent action rather than thinking, ratiocination”; “the aunt must have had no doubts about Father…though she was probably past all ratiocination by then”; “he…added further, out of some amazed and fumbling ratiocination of inertia”; “the fragile pandora’s box…filled with violent and unratiocinative djinns and demons”; “that best of ratiocination which after all was a good deal like Sutpen’s morality”—okay, to be fair, Absalom, Absalom! has only four ratiocinations, with the fifth occasion coming in the form of an unratiocinative, but who’s counting?  (Oh, right: me.)

Effluvium is another look at me! look at me! sort of word that you would think might benefit from frugal application—but I guess I hadn’t realized, until I read Absalom!, just how many different types of effluvia there are: “tangible effluvium,” “secret effluvium,” “unmistakable effluvium,” and even “presbyterian effluvium,” as was mentioned in a previous entry.  The memory of one demonic departed character is evoked so vividly as to be almost ghost-like, “itself circumambient and enclosed in its effluvium of hell.”  (And, no, this is not the book’s only instance of the word circumambient.)

Other such sore thumbs include brigandage, cherubic, shibboleth, and substanceless, each of which notches three separate exhibitionist appearances apiece in the book’s pages—how could words that so insistently call attention to themselves have escaped the notice (and red pen) of an editor?  It defies ratiocination.


*Nicholson Baker, in his John Updike appreciation U and I, captures perfectly the anxiety from a writer’s perspective of being so labeled: “I looked askance at ‘florilegia’ and ‘plenipotentiary’ because I felt a needle jump in my déjà vu-meter that might indicate that I’d used them both before, and I didn’t like the idea of people (i.e., Updike) thinking, ‘Florilegia again?  It wasn’t that great the first time!  He’s pretending his vocabulary is a touch-me-anywhere-and-I’ll-secrete-a-mot-juste kind of thing, when it turns out to be this cribbed little circle of favored freaks that he uses over and over hoping nobody will notice!’”

(I also would like to add that I am a big fan of James Lee Burke—although his work does contain a lot of fecundity.)

Swaggering Genius

One instance of fury that went unmentioned in the previous entry appears in this description from Chapter 7: “a little island set in a smiling and fury-lurked and incredible indigo sea.”  I didn’t mention it because, frankly, I have no idea what it means, which makes it harder to poke fun at.  Of course, one could argue that it’s unfair to suggest a phrase is impenetrable without putting it in its full context, but the context is an approximately 500-word sentence, so I’m not sure how much help that would be.*

Incomprehensible—a word which merits its own digression, but one enormous footnote is enough—or not, that “fury-lurked” phrase is a reminder that there’s an awful lot of lurking going on in Absalom, Absalom!  Characters lurk behind fences, around camps, in the backs of houses, around gutted chimneys, and “in dim halls filled with that presbyterian effluvium of lugubrious and vindictive anticipation.”  (You know, that kind of hall.)

There is also “lurking dark,” “lurking circumstance,” “lurking harborage,” a “lurking triumphant face,” and various vaguely-defined threats that are “waiting, almost lurking, just beyond…reach,” emerging “from whatever place it was they lurked,” and hiding noisily in places “beyond which somewhere something lurked which bellowed.”

At the other end of the spectrum from those who would skulk in the shadows are the more show-offish players—the swaggerers.  One man has “a swaggering gallant air.”  Another contrives “somehow to swagger even on a horse.”  A character salutes a group “with that florid, swaggering gesture to the hat,” while later, another military figure’s uniform is described as “fitted…to the swaggering of all his gestures.”  (Although, “even with his martial rank and prerogatives he did not quite swagger like he used to.”)

There are different types of swaggering—“darkly swaggering,” for example, or “that quality still swaggering but without braggadocio” (which, minus the braggadocio, is not any type of swaggering I’ve ever encountered), and what can only be described, coming as it does within a single sentence, as really swaggering:

[H]e was as tall as his father now and … sat the mare with the same swagger although lighter in the bone than Sutpen, as if his bones were capable of bearing the swagger but were still too light and quick to support the pomposity.

(The auto-commentary here on the weight of pomposity will be allowed to stand without comment.)

Eight instances of swagger or swaggering—twice as many occasions of lurk or lurking…I feel compelled to do some repeating myself, myself: Where was the editor?


*Three-part note: By my count, the sentence is 497 words, although it contains a parenthetical section within which are two …subsentences, I guess you would call them, each of which ends with a period and after each of which the parenthetical material continues begun by a capital letter, so your guess is as good as mine whether this qualifies as a single sentence or more.  (Plus, any individual’s word count presumably depends on whether one considers things like “fury-lurked” and “pariah-interdict” [!] one word or two.)

It just so happens that impenetrable is, itself, a word used with distracting frequency in Absalom, Absalom!  Examples include “impenetrable dreaming,” “impenetrable tranquility,” and—a mouthful if ever there was one—“impenetrable impertubability,” along with “impenetrable and insurmountable circumstance” and “impenetrable and shadowy character.” But what really prove impenetrable are faces—“calm impenetrable faces.”  Or, as it is phrased elsewhere to erase any possible doubt, “that calm absolutely impenetrable face.”  Or, if you don’t like the word calm, “the same impenetrable and serene face.”  Or, if you prefer the word mask, “the impenetrable mask which she used for a face.”  Or, if you just really want to take the long way around it, “the face which had long since forgotten how to be young and yet absolutely impenetrable.”

In all fairness, and for the masochistically curious, here is—with phrase in question highlighted (along with the periods-inside-parentheses stuff)—the full sentence:

Because he was not afraid until after it was all over, Grandfather said, because that was all it was to him—a spectacle, something to be watched because he might not have a chance to see it again, since his innocence still functioned and he not only did not know what fear was until afterward, he did not even know that at first he was not terrified; did not even know that he had found the place where money was to he had quick if you were courageous and shrewd (he did not mean shrewdness, Grandfather said. What he meant was unscrupulousness only he didn’t know that word because it would not have been in the book from which the school teacher read. Or maybe that was what he meant by courage, Grandfather said) but where high mortality was concomitant with the money and the sheen on the dollars was not from gold but from blood—a spot of earth which might have been created and set aside by Heaven itself, Grandfather said, as a theater for violence and injustice and bloodshed and all the satanic lusts of human greed and cruelty, for the last despairing fury of all the pariah-interdict and all the doomed—a little island set in a smiling and fury-lurked and incredible indigo sea, which was the halfway point between what we call the jungle and what we call civilization, halfway between the dark inscrutable continent from which the black blood, the black bones and flesh and thinking and remembering and hopes and desires, was ravished by violence, and the cold known land to which it was doomed, the civilized land and people which had expelled some of its own blood and thinking and desires that had become too crass to be faced and borne longer, and set it homeless and desperate on the lonely ocean a little lost island in a latitude which would require ten thousand years of equatorial heritage to bear its climate, a soil manured with black blood from two hundred years of oppression and exploitation until it sprang with an incredible paradox of peaceful greenery and crimson flowers and sugar cane sapling size and three times the height of a man and a little bulkier of course but valuable pound for pound almost with silver ore, as if nature held a balance and kept a book and offered a recompense for the torn limbs and outraged hearts even if man did not, the planting of nature and man too watered not only by the wasted blood but breathed over by the winds in which the doomed ships had fled in vain, out of which the last taller of sail had sunk into the blue sea, along which the last vain despairing cry of woman or child had blown away the planting of men too; the yet intact bones and brains in which the old unsleeping blood that had vanished into the earth they trod still cried out for vengeance.

And the Fury. And the Fury. And the Fury.

It’s hardly a surprise that fury might be a word to which William Faulkner is particularly partial—surprising only that it appears but twice in The Sound and the Fury, outside of the title itself.  (Twice, along with a small handful of furiouses.)

That rather restrained use of the word was apparently a mere warmup for the heated workout that fury gets in the pages of Absalom, Absalom!, which exercises such variations as “a fury of wild-eyed horses,” “the fury of the struggle for the facts,” “what fury which would not let him rest,” and, as noted in the previous grim itemization, “that grim virago fury of female affront.”

But that’s only the first lap around the track.  There is also “driving fury,” “irrational fury,” “alert fury,” “solitary fury,” “antic fury,” “repressed fury,” “despairing fury,” “immediate fury,” and “incompressible fury.”  In addition to the solitary brand of fury, there are many partnered variants as well: “fury and implacability,” “fury and despair,” “the hate and the fury,” and—it only stands to reason—“the fury and hate.”

As for the adjective form, a cannon “crumble[s] to dust in its own furious blast and recoil.”  We survey one character’s “state of impotent and furious undefeat.”  (Undefeat. You read that right.)  Among the book’s easygoing dramatis personae are a “furious mad old man,” a “furious lecherous wreck,” and a “furious grim implacable woman.”

There is “furious impatience,” “furious desire,” “furious protest,” and “furious thinking”; “furious and unbending will,” “furious and indomitable desperation,” “furious and almost unbearable unforgiving,” plus “furious and incomprehensible and apparently reasonless moving.”  And on the flip side of reasonless moving, in the too-angry-to-even-budge category: “furious inertness,” “furious immobility,” “furious immobile urgency,” and “furious yet absolutely rocklike and immobile antagonism.”

Quentin and Miss Coldfield, the characters introduced in the first chapter sitting in a dead room in a dead house with dead paint on its walls, are featured in the last chapter’s climactic conflagration, “Miss Coldfield screaming harshly, ‘The window! The window!’”—seemingly getting into the spirit of the whole repeated-word business.  Appropriately then, as rescuers attempt to tear the unwilling old woman away, the scene is described: “Quentin could see it: the light thin furious creature making no sound at all now, struggling with silent and bitter fury….”  Now that gal is mad. Furiouser and furiouser!

Grim Business

The word dead appears twice in the first sentence of William Faulkner’s novel Absalom, Absalom!  As the book begins, two of its characters, Quentin and Miss Coldfield, are spending a “long still hot weary dead September afternoon” in a room whose walls are flecked with “dead old dried paint.”  The repetition caught my eye when I first read it.

Dead pops up again a few pages later, but I didn’t note it specifically at the time; rather, it was within an entire phrase that gave me pause—“the airless gloom of a dead house.”  I flipped back, seeking the source of the bell that this set off in my head.  There, three pages previous: “the gloom of the shuttered hallway.”  Two glooms in twice as many pages.

Locating that only quieted one bell, though; another was still ringing. I  backpedalled some more until I found myself returned to that very same first sentence, the setting of which is described as “a dim hot airless room.”  Two airlesses.  That seemed like one too many in such close quarters, there within the space of six pages.

Continuing, I saw that these were not the only such repeat offenders.  I started noticing that a lot of things in the first chapter seemed pretty grim.  Conversing with Quentin in that hot room on that hot afternoon, Miss Coldfield speaks in a “grim haggard amazed voice.”  And the house itself, we are later told, is not only twice-over gloomy and airless but also has “a quality of grim endurance.”  (As does a character who appears in the book’s second paragraph in a flashback, a “French architect with his air grim, haggard, and tatter-ran.”*)

Also grim?  Miss Coldfield’s “grim quiet voice.”  And her “old woman’s grim and implacable unforgiving.”  And, on top of everything else, her “grimly middleclass yard.”  And this is all in the first chapter.

The proceedings do not grow more cheerful from this point on, at least not as measured by grim-frequency.  We will meet “a man with a grim, harried Latin face,” “a grim humorless yokel,” and a “grim duenna row of old women.”  Also among the eventual cast of characters are a “grim rocklike man,” a “grim coffee-colored woman,” and a “small furious grim implacable woman not much larger than a child.”

In future chapters we revisit “that grim tight little house” and “the little grim house’s impregnable solitude” and “the waiting grim decaying presence, spirit, of the house itself.”  Various characters wear expressions of “grim and embittered amazement,” display “grim and unflagging alertness,” act with “grim and cold intensity,” and have architecturally ambitious (but grim) dreams of “grim and castlelike magnificence.”

We encounter also “grim tableau,” “grim armistice,” a “grim mausoleum air of puritan righteousness,” a “grim embattled conspiracy,” a “grim sortie,” and two types of fury—“grim and unflagging fury” and its female cousin, “grim virago fury.”**

Finishing up the list (the book contains almost 30 instances of the word—we must not forget the “grim lightless solitary ship” and the “grim ogre-bourne”), I find myself with a question that recurs almost as insistently as all those grim iterations: Where the heck was the editor?  


*A flashback in the book’s second paragraph?  This reminds of the scene in Funny Farm in which Chevy Chase plays a wannabe writer whose wife starts bawling after reading his novel-in-the-works because she doesn’t know how to break it to him that it’s terrible: “It’s all those flashbacks. You never know when anything’s taking place. In the first 20 pages alone, I counted three flashbacks, one flash-forward, and I think a page in, you have a flash-sideways.”

**Wasn’t that the killer car in Stephen King’s Christine?  A 1958 Virago Fury?