If words can be said to paint a picture, there are certain scenes in Absalom, Absalom! that are like canvases with way too many layers of Pantone on them. In Chapter 8, for example, some Harvard students are having a discussion in dormitory quarters that cannot keep out the winter chill—on page 236, the occupants are pictured as “their breathing vaporised faintly in the cold room.” Four pages after this and the imagery receives a second coat: “They stared at each other…their quiet regular breathing vaporising faintly and steadily in the now tomblike air.”
Three pages later and there is another touch-up: The room is as “quiet as the visible murmur of their vaporising breath.” Further on in the chapter, having presumably allowed for drying time, the artist dabs on a few final licks of pigment to the steamy exhalation concept—“[e]ven while they were not talking their breaths in the tomblike air vaporised gently and quietly” (p. 260)—while adding on a fresh overlay of tomblike air. At one point even, it’s almost as if the author is replying to a sarcastic question from the audience: Hey, so is the room pretty tomblike? Answer, page 275: “The room was indeed tomblike.”
The conversationalists here are Quentin and Shreve, hashing out the tangled family history at the center of the book’s narrative. So vividly do their reminiscences evoke the memories of their subject—the decades-old story of Henry Sutpen and Charles Bon—that at times it’s as if the tellers of the tale are sharing the stage with the players in their story. (I say, “at times.” It’s at a lot of times.)
This not-at-all-confusing fictional device—that Quentin and Shreve somehow accompany Henry and Charles during their various circa-Civil War experiences, just as the latter share space with the former in their early-1900s university settings—is rendered thusly: “in the cold room where there was now not two of them but four” (p. 236—hey, the whole gang’s hanging out in the dorm!) and so: “not two of them there and then either but four of them riding the two horses through the iron darkness” (p. 237—whoosh, now everyone’s on the battlefield in the 1860s!).
If this notion seems a tad fuzzy, allow the author to elaborate: “So that now it was not two but four of them riding the two horses through the dark…four of them and then just two—Charles-Shreve and Quentin-Henry” (p. 267). Now allow him to elaborate some more: “So it was four of them who rode the two horses through that night” (also p. 267). And a bit more after that: “[They were] still not talking since there was nothing to say, the two of them (the four of them)”—(yes, still p. 267).
So—the story of Henry and Charles (and Quentin and Shreve) continues: “So it was four of them still who got off the boat in New Orleans”; “four of them who sat in that drawing room”; “four of them there, in that room in New Orleans in 1860 just as”—Gentle Reader, are you getting the idea yet?—“in a sense there were four of them here in this tomblike room in Massachusetts in 1910.” (Where do I begin—that all four of these “four of them” quotes are from the same page, or about the return of tomblike?)
And, no, the author is not done yet. At a certain point after this, our tale-tellers Quentin and Shreve are yanked abruptly out of their story and back into the present such that they are no longer “participants” in the recollection—“[f]irst two of them, then four; now two again” (p. 275). This not-at-all-confusing development is helpfully explicated on the following page as “two, four, now two again, according to Quentin and Shreve, the two the four the two still talking”—until they all find themselves “the two the four the two facing one another in”—where else but?—“the tomblike room.”
Ah, and with that last brushstroke in place—fini!