Succotash

Seinfeld fans may remember—from the episode in which she falls under the sway of a video store clerk and his highbrow film recommendations—that Elaine is a fan of bleak, ascetic arthouse cinema, jolly romps with titles like The Pain and the Yearning.  (“An old woman experiences pain and yearning,” she reads from the helpful summary on the back of the video case. “192 minutes.”)  Well, boy, do I ever have a book for her.

Absalom, Absalom! is, as we’ve seen, a grim parade of outraged puritanical fools who are, to a one, doomed (doomed, I tell you).  A bounty for any enthusiast of all things painful and yearn-y, it is a book that takes us to “the very threshold of despair.”  Within its pages, we can feel “the cumulative over-reach of despair itself.”  Among its players, we encounter a lone figure and the “thunderous solitude of his despair.”  In its soundscape, we discern “the despair now, the last bitter cry of irrevocable undefeat.”  In its dialog, we hear (and are maybe just a tad confused by the mix of emotions in—?) “a voice calm and sweet and filled with despair.”  Of its resolution, we feel a flicker of hope when one character “has peace now,” even if—I suppose we should have seen this coming—“even if the peace be mostly despair.”

No, no shortage of despair here, arrayed in the various abject hues of its forlorn rainbow—“hopeless despair,” “solitary despair,” “invincible despair,” “complete despair”—with only the slight respite of the aforementioned, less-to-be-expected “peaceful despair.”  There is a “despairing cry,” a “despairing blow,” a “despairing Faustus,” “despairing conviction,” some “despairing fury”—there’s always some fury of some sort or another—and one little girl who hugs a man sadly but colorfully about the knees with her “soft despairing magnolia-colored arms.”

Also to be seen are “despair and shame,” “despair and pity,” and—wait for it—“despair and waiting.”  Plus, “bitterness and despair” and, naturellement, “fury and despair.”  While Chapter 1 has “victory and despair,” Chapter 8 has “despair and victory”; Chapter 4, “grief and despair,” Chapter 7, “despair and grief.”  There is the choice of “surprise or despair” and the denial of “neither surprise nor despair.”  And there is as well “suffering and bewilderment and despair”—which brings us to the yin to despair’s yang.

In Absalom! we are never free of “any human injustice or folly or suffering.” We must contemplate “all misfortune and defeat that the human race ever suffered,” remember that life is a “heritage of suffering,” and memorialize all those who have “courageously suffered”—those who have “suffered pain,” nay, “suffered excruciating pain,” those who have “suffered and endured,” nay, “suffered beyond endurance.”  We must bear the weight of “the heavy organs of suffering and experience” and ask ourselves, Heavy organs?  Is this something I should see a doctor about?

Warfare is, for a general, “suffering, these four years of keeping his men alive.”  An injured soldier, “though suffering, clings…to the arm or leg which he knows must come off.”  (In a fever dream, “the dear suffering arm or leg is strong and sound.”)  One man’s business decision leads to “the loss, which, in withdrawing, he had suffered”; another, having erred, must “admit that he was wrong and suffer and regret it.”  One woman’s traumatic upbringing is a “holocaust in which she had suffered”; another such victim of childhood abuse recounts “how she had been scorned and suffered.”  These despairing folk have “suffered temptation,” “suffered the farce,” and “suffered a situation”; they have sinned, “suffered for it and died for it”; they have even borne the onerous burden of the “sufferance of good manners.”

There is suffering in scripture quotes (“‘your grandfather said, “Suffer little children to come unto Me”’”) and suffering on tombstone inscriptions (“Born October 3, 1841. Suffered Indignities and Travails of this word for 24 Years.”).  Suffering is so prevalent that things are measured by its absence or opposite—a house “not having suffered from invasion, but a shell marooned and forgotten”; eyes “not even suffering but merely filled with baffled incomprehension”; outrage “which the actual living articulate meat had not even suffered but merely inherited.”*  One character imagines a world without war, in which he would have “no flesh and blood of his to suffer by it.”  Another speculates, “it’s not the blow we suffer from but the tedious repercussive anticlimax of it.”

Both plentiful and adaptable, suffer can shape-shift into different guises, from such Dr. Seuss-ian characterizations as a woman who is “the eternal female, the eternal Who-suffers,” to Yoda-esque turns of phrase like “if happy I can be I will, if suffer I must I can.”  One dimestore philosopher worries of a future in which “there wouldn’t be anything left that mattered that much, worth getting that heated over, worth protesting against or suffering for,” but the universe of Absalom! hardly seems in danger of running low on source material over which to writhe in racked anguish—so grab your popcorn, it’s Movie Night!

• • •

*My best guess is that the “articulate meat” here is we human beings, still only animalistic flesh and blood despite the pretensions to something more lofty that our powers of speech might tempt us to entertain (or something like that; I’m spitballing).

Kings Have Done It

Life in the South is supposed to unfold at a leisurely pace, but the whiz-bang world of Absalom, Absalom! hurtles forward with the breathlessness a Carolyn Keene cliffhanger: “Suddenly Henry grasps the pistol”; “She said ‘Stop’ suddenly”; “She moved suddenly”; “he thought, knew, said suddenly to himself, ‘Why she’s not afraid at all.’”  For all of the book’s developments that seem to occur—as has been mentioned beforeinstantaneously, there are plenty enough events happening suddenly as well: call it Nancy Drew and the Mystery of Yoknapatawpha County.

Frolicsome swimmers are depicted “turning suddenly to face one another.”  Tinsel motes in midair are “darting suddenly.”  An uprooted child is “picked suddenly up out of…the only life he knew.”  A tract of land is “overrun suddenly” by builders in order that quickly-constructed houses can be “put suddenly down in place.”  One character, trying to do some rehabilitation on the otherwise unpalatable concept of incest by giving it a bit of royal window-dressing, is enthused to a suddenly-squared level of exponential urgency: “Henry said suddenly, cried suddenly: ‘But kings have done it!’”

Another character contemplates the unexpected midlife acquisition of a spare tire: “The fat, the stomach, came later.  It came upon him suddenly.”  (Redundancy comes no less swiftly, as the very next sentence begins, “The flesh came upon him suddenly.”)  One speaker, reflecting on shifting expectations, recounts: “‘Suddenly it was not outrage that I waited for.’”  A different speaker, elsewhere in the book, realizing that no one is paying his story any mind (“he had no listener”), falls silent mid-recitation—“Then suddenly he had no talker either.”  (And, no, that last phrase is not, to the best of my knowledge, translated from a different language.*)

Absalom!’s resident archfiend Thomas Sutpen, not generally portrayed in the book in the most glowing of terms, is both “this Faustus who appeared suddenly one Sunday” and “the demon who would suddenly curse the store empty of customers” (a demon as well as a self-sabotaging small business proprietor, it would seem).  One fellow tells a family tale of an abrupt interaction between his kinfolk and the Faustus-grocer: “‘Then Grandfather heard Sutpen move, sudden and sharp’”—which is apparently the guy’s go-to velocity and preferred acuteness level, as the story continues three pages later, “‘[he was] not even hearing Sutpen when he said, sudden and sharp, “Stand back. Don’t you touch me.”’”

It is, however, with one particular, repeatedly employed variation that Absalom! achieves its special sudden impact, goosing the story’s incidents forward like the boldfaced italics of a comic book speech balloon:

you keep on trying or having to keep on trying and then all of a sudden it’s all over (p. 101)

All of a sudden he discovered, not what he wanted to do, but what he just had to do (p. 178)

All of a sudden he found himself running and already some distance from the house (p. 188)

then he said that all of a sudden, it was not thinking, it was something shouting it (p. 192)

his father decided all of a sudden to send him [to school] (p. 194)

he realised all of a sudden and without warning that when he passed the men on the gallery they would look after him too (p. 227)

then all of a sudden [he] kind of reared back (also p. 227)

all of a sudden you knew you didn’t want to go back there even (p. 258)

all of a sudden … you find that you don’t want anything (also p. 258)

he would not know until all of a sudden some day it would burst clear and he would know (p. 273)

then one day all of a sudden he though of it, remembered (p. 277)

nevertheless she told you, or at least all of a sudden you knew—— (p. 280)

All of a sudden, this is starting to look like Nancy’s most baffling case ever!

• • •

*Speaking of excerpts rendered near-nonsensical when unmoored from their context, brace yourself for another double shot of suddenly: “[it was shrewdness] which got him engaged to Miss Rosa … shrewdness acquired in excruciating driblets through the fifty years suddenly capitulant and retroactive or suddenly sprouting and flowering like a seed lain fallow in a vacuum.”  (This has been taken from a wonderfully roundabout sentence chock full of suddenness and shrewdness and any number of other densely packed ingredients—to view it in its entirety, see here.  Although, now that I think about it, I’m not entirely sure how “sensical” this passage is even in context.)

Air Quality

Absalom, Absalom!’s descriptions often read like the prose equivalent of cinematic soft focus—what with every sort of and kind of like another layer of mystifying gauze between the camera and its subject (not “astonishment” but “a sort of astonishment”; not “condensation” but “a kind of condensation”), or the oft-used some imparting its diffused aura of amorphousness to all variety of topics (“some interval of sanity,” “some blind instant of revolt”) like Vaseline smeared on the lens to better enshroud in a forgiving haze the aging star at which it’s aimed.

The eyes of an Absalom! character, then, are not simply visionary and alert—they have “a quality at once visionary and alert.”  A moment of contemplation is not just peaceful and harmless—it has “that quality peaceful and now harmless.”  An object is not solid and permanent but possesses “a quality almost of solidity, permanence.”  A voice, not tense, suffused, and restrained, but “with its tense suffused restrained quality.”

Maintaining this level of quality are such further examples as “the quality of curiosity,” “the very sober quality of his gestures,” “that quality of gaunt and tireless driving,” “some puny quality of faint heat,” and “the unbearable quality of bloodlessness.”  There is a “quality dark and sullen,” a “quality stale static and moribund,” and a “quality strange, contradictory and bizarre.”*

A dream is described as having “that logic- and reason-flouting quality,” which is, of course, “the very quality upon which it must depend to move the dreamer.”  One character’s crooked stance has “some quality, some gathering of [his] still laxed and hunched figure,” while, in a winter scene, we are told “the chill had a compounded, a gathered quality” (which highlights a quality that wind chill and poor posture have in common, i.e., gather seems like a weird word to use to describe either one).

I’ve mentioned before that Absalom! has more than its fair share of swaggering—or, perhaps I should say, in keeping with the current topic, “that quality still swaggering but without braggadocio or belligerence.”  (Without belligerence? you might ask, to which the book would reply, from later in the same sentence: “the quality had never been belligerence.”)  Or perhaps, if quality is needing a bit of a breather, I could tag in an equally shapeless synonym to do its work and say instead “a swaggering gallant air”—air as in “an air dreamy remote and aghast” or “his air grim, haggard, and tatter-ran” or “an air Cassandralike and humorless and profoundly and sternly prophetic.”**

This air fare also includes “that air of scaling desolation,” “that air of children born too late into their parents’ lives,” and “that air which had nothing whatever of furtiveness in it,” plus the “grim mausoleum air of puritan righteousness” and an “air something between a casual and bitterly disinterested spectator.”  (Strange to think what spectacle one must be rubbernecking at to be disinterested and bitter about it.)

Air features most frequently as a component in the Mad Libs equation of “air of” + frequently used adjective + other frequently used adjective + angsty noun.  Witness “air of tranquil and unwitting desolation,” “air of curious and paradoxical awkwardness,” “air of impotent and static rage,” “air of sardonic and indolent detachment,” and—maybe not so angsty here with the noun but…again with the indolent ?—“air of indolent and lethal assurance.”***

A weatherbeaten but plucky house is lucky enough to get the tag-team treatment from both soft-focus filters—“a little shabby, and yet with an air, a quality of grim endurance.”  Which is, like, Warren Beatty treatment.  Or, as Robin Williams waggishly dubbed Barbra Streisand’s 1996 vanity project, “The Mirror Has Two Key Lights.”

• • •

*I realize the comma usage in these excerpts is also strange, contradictory, and bizarre, but I’m trying to reproduce them faithfully.

**As compared to, in a different chapter, “a Cassandra-like listening beyond closed doors” (sic on the hyphen here, which does not figure in “air Cassandralike”).  Nor are these Cassandra’s only appearances in the book.

***Okay, lethal and unwitting are not used all that frequently.  Curious, impotent, paradoxical, sardonic, static, and tranquil, though—easily 80 occasions among them.

The Fault in Our Fierce, Aloof Stars

There are more immobiles in Absalom, Absalom! than, by rights, any one book should have—a regal seated woman is “enthroned and immobile,” an emotionless little girl “immobile of face,” a hirsute horseman “immobile, bearded,” a directionless boat “suspended immobile and without progress”; various moments of stillness and arrest are described as “immobile and pontific,” “monstrous and immobile,” “immobile, impotent, helpless,” and—leaving little here to doubt—“not moving, immobile.”

But all this immobility probably wouldn’t be nearly so conspicuous were it not for its previously noted frequent pairing with a bunch of furiouses—“furious immobility,” “furious inertness and patient immobility,” “furious immobile urgency,” “furious yet absolutely rocklike and immobile antagonism.”  Faulkner seems to like heightened emotion juxtaposed with bodily stiffness—one weepy mannequin bursts into tears after a prolonged ordeal thusly: “burst, as if that entire accumulation of seven months were erupting spontaneously from every pore in one incredible evacuation (she not moving, not moving a muscle).”  So, immobility on the muscle front, but a vigorous pore workout, apparently.

Widening the frame on some of the above examples, I would point out that the emotionless little girl was actually “rigid and still and immobile of face,” and that one of those enraged statues was “rigid in that furious immobility”—phrases that jibe with other motionless-yet-bordering-on-vibrating formulations involving rigid such as a “bonnet…clapped fast onto her head rigid and precarious with rage” and the “fierce dynamic rigidity of impatience” and “something fierce and implacable and dynamic driving down the thin rigid arm.”

And speaking of that unfortunate character’s arm, you could pretty much assemble a Frankenstein’s monster from all the—no jokes, please—rigid body parts to be found in Absalom!: the arm, the girl’s immobile face, “legs [which] hung straight and rigid,” “two fierce rigid knees,” a “back rigid and irrevocably turned,” a hand described alternately as “gripping…with that lifeless and rigid strength” and as having “a dead rigid hard grip,” even—yikes—“a fierce rigid umbilical cord.”  (Fortunately, that last one is merely a vivid simile.)  And then there’s this bit, which pretty much covers all the bases: “He lay still and rigid on his back with the cold New England night on his face and the blood running warm in his rigid body and limbs.”  Key word here is rigid.

You may have noticed that not only those knees but also the creepily nonelastic umbilical cord were both “fierce” as well (as were the dynamic rigidity of impatience and the implacable dynamism running down that one guy’s ulna).  There are also “fierce, hysterical faces” and “two hands fierce,” but fierce is not a word that will be limited to simple Igor-esque limb-cataloging, no.

Absalom, Absalom!’s ranks feature a “fierce paranoiac” and a “fierce brooding woman.”  A cannon fires “one more fierce shot.”  There is “fierce yearning,” “fierce exultation,” “fierce manipulation,” and “fierce obliteration.”  There is a “fierce demoniac lantern,” “fierce vain illusion,” “fierce constant will,” “fierce impersonal rivalry,” “fierce provincial’s pride,” and “fierce proud mysticism.”  There is a “fierce and arid aura” and “fierce and overweening vanity.”  In winter, there is “fierce (it had quit snowing) still air.”

There is the “fierce hissing of words” and the “fierce repercussive flush of vindicated loyalty.”  There is “fierce unflagging jealous care,” “fierce ruthless constant guardianship,” and a “fierce muted metallic green.”  In Chapter 6 there is a “fiercely and heavily starred sky”; in Chapter 9, “fierce and aloof stars.”  One character’s body language includes a “gesture a hundred times more fierce than the level murmur of vituperation.”  Funny, even if my memory is a bit fuzzy from my grade school math days on how to do vituperation times tables, all of this fierce constant fierceness definitely puts me in mind of a particular gesture.

Karma Chameleon

Mentioned here recently was the difficulty—when considering a fictional character who is prone to repeat herself, created by a writer who is…well, prone to repeat himself—of distinguishing what is being done by the author for effect from what is merely being done by the author out of habit (the same dilemma one might face in determining if a ventriloquist has Tourette’s syndrome or just a really potty-mouthed puppet).

As has been noted, the character of Miss Coldfield in Absalom, Absalom! likes to say things like “Oh, I hold no brief for myself”—she really likes to say things like this—and is forever nattering on about her neighbors’ obsession with her, but she also has a previously unmentioned fondness for the word instant:

[D]uring that instant”—she recounts of one fraught encounter—“while we stood face to face (that instant before my still advancing body should brush past her and reach the stair) she did me more grace and respect than anyone else I knew; I knew that from the instant I had entered that door.”  (“[P]erhaps I knew already,” she amends a page later, “on the instant I entered the house.”)

The above is from Chapter 5, which is narrated by the indefatigable insta-matic herself and features also a “complete instant,” a “constant and perpetual instant,” a “forever crystallized instant,” an “unbroken instant of tremendous effort,” a “full instant of comprehended terror,” and “the last thin unbearable ecstatic instant of agony”—as well as “the instant’s final crisis” and “one red instant’s fierce obliteration.”  Of her unexpected marital destiny and unlikely groom-to-be, she confides: “I had never for one instant thought of marriage, never for one instant imagined that he would look at me.”

But Miss Coldfield is certainly no more indulgent of this instant gratification than is Faulkner himself, as there are just as many examples that do not issue from his character’s lips, including a “reflex instant,” a “harried instant,” a “psychological instant,” an “instant of contact,” an “instant of dissolution,” an “instant of indisputable recognition,” and “some blind instant of revolt.”

Additional non-Coldfeldian occurrences: One character is “chivalrous for the instant”; another’s teeth are “glinting for an instant.”  Two birds “leave a limb at the same instant”; a father and son reach a “rapport of blood” at the “same identical instant.”  Momentous change can happen during “the instant which Fate always picks to blackjack you,” and destinies can intersect as “men’s secret and solitary lives may be joined for an instant.”  In one scene, a character is regarding handwriting on a page so faint as to be “like a shadow upon it which had resolved on the paper the instant before he looked at it and which might fade, vanish, at any instant while he still read.”*

Adjectival instances include reactions that are “instantaneous and complete” and decisions that are “instantaneous and irrevocable”; there is a dustcloud—a dustcloud—that is described as “instantaneous and eternal.”**  Miss Coldfield reports witnessing “instantaneous and incredible tears” (which are coming on quickly and “disappearing as instantaneously”; later, in Chapter 7, there will also be “tears which ceased on the instant when they began”).  Further Johnny-on-the-spot anatomical illustrations are one player’s “instantaneous unsentient hands”—already made fun of elsewhere by me—and another’s “rich instantaneous bosom.”  (Sounds like something marketed to the lovelorn on late night cable TV—just add water.)

At one point, Miss Coldfield surveys her situation and declares, in an anachronistically you-go-girl sort of mood, “This was my instant.”  And, hey, even if she and her creator have put an awful lot of miles on that word, at least she’s owning the moment.

• • •

*Also: “He must have known that at the very instant when he gave his father the lie” (p. 85); “now would come the instant for which Bon had [prepared]” (p. 89); “during that instant in which, before he knew it, something in him had escaped” (p. 189); “Grandfather…had just seen her too for a second…a chin for an instant beyond a curtain of fallen hair” (p. 201); “for an instant as they moved, hurried, toward [the house] Quentin saw completely through it” (p. 293).

**Here’s the context for that one, about 2/3rds of the way down into the sentence: 

And she (Miss Coldfield) had on the shawl, as he had known she would, and the bonnet (black once but faded now to that fierce muted metallic green of old peacock feathers) and the black reticule almost as large as a carpet-bag containing all the keys which the house possessed: cupboard closet and door, some of which would not even turn in locks which, shot home, could be solved by any child with a hairpin or a wad of chewing gum, some of which no longer even fitted the locks they had been made for like old married people who no longer have anything in common, to do or to talk about, save the same general weight of air to displace and breathe and general oblivious biding earth to bear their weight;—that evening, the twelve miles behind the fat mare in the moonless September dust, the trees along the road not rising soaring as trees should but squatting like huge fowl, their leaves ruffled and heavily separate like the feathers of panting fowls, heavy with sixty days of dust, the roadside undergrowth coated with heat-vulcanized dust and, seen through the dustcloud in which the horse and buggy moved, appeared like masses straining delicate and rigid and immobly upward at perpendicular’s absolute in some old dead volcanic water refined to the oxygenless first principle of liquid, the dustcloud in which the buggy moved not blowing away because it had been raised by no wind and was supported by no air but evoked, materialized about them, instantaneous and eternal, cubic foot for cubic foot of dust to cubic foot for cubic foot of horse and buggy, peripatetic beneath the branch-shredded vistas of flat black fiercely and heavily starred sky, the dustcloud moving on, enclosing them with not threat exactly but maybe warning, bland, almost friendly, warning, as if to say, Come on if you like.

(Three dustclouds in this sentence and four dusts.)

Doomed as Doomed Can Be

William Faulkner: not a big proponent, it would seem, of the famous Fiction 101 directive “show, don’t tell.”  What’s wrong with telling, after all?  If you’ve to something to say, don’t go dropping a bunch of hints about it—say it.  If, for instance, you want to get across that one of your characters is a puritan, there’s no reason to piddle around with assorted vignettes of him acting all “puritan-y”—just call him a puritan, for Heaven’s sake.  Time is money.

And let’s say you want to convey that the players in your novel Absalom, Absalom! are doomed.  Why bother with ominous mood-setting or grave harbingers or any such circumlocution when there’s already a perfectly good word to accomplish your goal?  It’s quite versatile, too: “the very situation to which and by which he was doomed,” “children which she had doomed by conceiving them,” “the current of retribution and fatality which…doomed all his blood,” “caught and sunk and doomed too,” or—this last one also quite comprehensive—“the oblivion to which we are all doomed.”

Doomed pitches a pretty big tent: it encompasses “doomed children,” “doomed ships,” a “doomed house,” “doomed and frustrated youth,” “doomed and tragic flower faces,” a “doomed and fatal war,” and two—count ’em—“two doomed races.”  Also “the lonely and foredoomed and indomitable iron spirit” (which is distinguished, presumably, from a post-doomed spirit, whatever exactly that would be.)

And if your characters’ doom is dooming them to some doom in particular, it works for that, as well: “doomed to marry,” “doomed to be a widow,” “doomed to be a murderer,” “doomed and destined to kill,” “doomed to contemplate all human behavior” (said human behavior involving a lot of marital and homicidal impulses, apparently).  It can be used for dramatic counterintuitive effect, like “doomed to live”—and then this permutation can be paired with various different subjects, as in “those who are doomed to live,” “I am doomed to live,” and “she and I both are doomed to live.”  It is also resilient, standing up to repeated, concentrated use in such iterations as “doomed to spinsterhood” (p. 146), “doomed to spinsterhood” (p. 147), and “doomed to spinsterhood” (p. 148).

Nor need there be any namby-pambying about the ultimate orchestrator of all these characters’ sorry fates: doom!  (Crash of thunder.)  “[T]he mistake…which, since he refused to accept it or be stopped by it, became his doom”; “that doom which we call female victory which is: endure and then endure”; “the knell and doom of her native land”; “the family’s doom which Sutpen seemed bent on accomplishing” (this last one proving to be a family affair indeed as we are told that Thomas Sutpen’s son, Henry, also “play[ed] his final part in his family’s doom”).

At one point, two characters are discussing a third (doomed) character, in the light of some inherited insight: “‘Maybe he knew there was a fate, a doom on him, like what the old Aunt Rosa told you about some things that just have to be.’”  Not like what old Aunt Rosa showed you—what she told you.  QED.