Use Your Words

On the first page of Absalom, Absalom!, one character is telling another a story.  The storyteller is speaking in a “grim haggard amazed voice,” and if you’re thinking how much fun it would be to be on the receiving end of that tale, now consider that she’s “talking…until at last listening would renege and hearing-sense self-confound.”  (This is happening in the book’s first paragraph.)  Less than a page in, and already one of Absalom!’s internal sub-narratives has caused the sense phenomenon of hearing, itself, to throw up its hands in mystification and contemplate a new career.

This is the point at which—the first page!—you’ve got to figure many a casual reader, having just picked this thing up, is thinking to him- or herself something along the lines of “Uh oh.”  For those souls stalwart enough to progress past this literary equivalent of a caution flag waving wildly by the side of the track, it is at least a warning that what lies ahead includes a lot of ambiguous instances of hearing and listening—examples of which will range from simple inattentiveness to occasions bordering on some kind of weird super power.

The captive audience being subjected to the tale described above—the story with the power to make the very act of listening stick its fingers in its own ears—is a young gentleman named Quentin Compson, who, bound by the shackles of propriety and misguided respect for one’s elders, is listening to the “grim quiet voice” of aging family friend Miss Coldfield as she recounts the story of her life.  That a person’s hearing might “renege” under such an assault seems like a natural enough defense mechanism, but Quentin is a man possessed of selective auditory abilities in all variety of circumstances.

In a different scene, he is having a conversation with his father—or conversation-of-sorts, I should say, since, as can be seen in this snapshot from the exchange, “Mr. Compson’s voice [was] speaking on while Quentin heard it without listening.”  Whereas this one moment might be mistaken for a garden-variety case of tuning the old man out, the young fellow’s ersatz-Buddhist state of non-aware awareness is remarked upon a second time—“Quentin hearing without having to listen”—and then finally reaches its silent crescendo in a vignette involving a college roommate and some courtyard chimes: “Quentin lay still too, as if he were listening too, though he was not; he just heard them without listening as he heard Shreve without listening or answering, until they ceased.”

Nor is Quentin the only character with this ability to hear trees falling in forests.  Thomas Sutpen, brother-in-law of the riveting raconteur Miss Coldfield, relates a three-way conversation of his own that failed to hold him spellbound: “he just listening, not especially interested he said, hearing the two of them without listening.”  Boring people to tears is, apparently, something that runs in the Coldfield family, as Miss C.’s nephew Henry is similarly given the deaf-ear treatment by a college chum he’s spent all semester chatting up, who dismisses “what it was that came out the three months of Henry’s talking that he heard without listening to.”  Even Miss Coldfield herself had, as a nosy child “lurking in dim hallways,” a counterintuitively attuned sense of hearing, always “listening beyond closed doors not to what she heard there.”  (That’s right—not to what she heard there.  Is that the sound of one hand clapping somewhere off in the distance, Grasshopper?)

It only stands to reason that, if there was listening-free hearing, there was speaking-free talking.  Miss Coldfield and her kinda-sorta niece Clytie (she’s Thomas Sutpen’s illegitimate daughter…this is a pretty gnarled family tree we’re talking about, here) “spoke to one another free of the limitations of speech and hearing.”  Quentin berates himself for not attending more closely to what he was told as a child: “[Y]ou were not listening,” he self-scolds, “[you had] absorbed it already without the medium of speech.”  Sutpen and his “official” daughter Judith commiserate “without the need of the medium of ear or intellect.”  (They do this to the degree that—as is reported not-at-all hyperbolically—“speech atrophies from disuse and…they no longer understand one another’s actual words.”  Which makes you think that maybe one of those greeting cards that plays music would be Judith’s best bet for Father’s Day.)

Henry and his college pal have their dorm-room powwows in “a dialogue without words, speech”—probably why the guy has been all but ignoring him these past three months.  Eventually this chap does deign to respond to Henry: “[He] would say…perhaps with words now.”  (Oh, with words this time, eh, fella?  Yeah, that might help facilitate the communication process a bit.)  In a moment of shock, Miss Coldfield cries out to her semi-niece Clytie, “‘And you too, sister, sister?’” (I told you the family tree was gnarled), although, to hear Miss C. tell it: “I cried—perhaps not aloud, not with words.”  A similar paradox informs interspecies confabs as well, as a buggy driver addresses his and his fellow drivers’ steeds with an equine version of this speaking-without-speaking routine: “[I]n the act of passing another carriage [he] spoke to that team as well as to his own—something without words, not needing words.”  (You’d think, since they’re called “horse whisperers,” that they’re actually whispering something, but no.)

Sometimes you wonder if there’s anybody in Absalom! whose ears just work normally.  Clytie, for example, displays—somehow—“a profoundly attentive and distracted listening” (the sort of description to which it is almost irresistible to reply, “Sorry, say again?”).  Miss Coldfield, as she tells her life story, reflects on her early education: “[M]y childhood…taught me…to listen before I could comprehend and to understand before I even heard.”  (The first half of which sounds very wise; the second half of which sounds like she grew up sharpening her ESP chops at the X-Men Mutant Academy.)  Some characters find it so hard to demonstrate active listening skills that their exchanges are no more intelligible “than the sounds which a beast and a bird might make to each other.”  Maybe the horses can translate.

Hip Hip Hooray

I’ve referred elsewhere to the disproportionate amount of will in Absalom, Absalom!will as in the “free will,” “ruthless will,” “constant will,” “desperate will,” “unbending will” kind of will—and even mentioned then that, among the various will-pairings to be found in the book’s pages—e.g., “will and courage,” “will and intensity,” “will and strength”—there was some “will and endurance” to be had as well, but I don’t think I paid nearly enough attention at the time to the endurance component of that twin set…because we’re talking, like, Shackletonian levels here.

Turns out that will and endurance make for a pretty well-coordinated outfit—Absalom! dresses itself up in the combination repeatedly, showing off both an unadorned “will to endure” and the more colorful “blind instinctive will to endure.”  It sports some existential accessorizing with “the will to exist, endure” and also exhibits—although here it would seem our items may be starting to clash—“not the will but just the ability, the grooved habit to endure” and “the passive ability, not the volitional will, to endure.”  (Apparently ability will go with anything.)

I’ve also made light on another occasion of how much suffering goes on in Yoknapatawpha County—suffering as in the one character ill-served by life who reminisces about “all that he had suffered and endured in the past” or the other unhappy fellow who has gone the extra mile and “suffered beyond endurance.”  (A different gentleman is described as “exasperated beyond all endurance”—which is similarly phrased but frankly sounds much preferable as far as endurance-exceeding goes.)

Others in this overburdened assembly include a woman of constant labor whose “toil…only a beast could and would endure”; battle-fatigued soldiers who must “endure musketry and shelling”; and a hard-rode but taciturn hombre, the extent of whose “sacrifice and endurance and scorn…only he knows” since—as might be reasonably inferred—“he never told…how much he must have had to endure.”  (And some unfortunates aren’t even this lucky—some simply have “an inability to endure.”)

So stretched thin are these people that even their living areas are put to the endurance test, including a “plantation that supported and endured that smooth white house” and, elsewhere, another house—it would be funnier if it were the same house, but it’s a different house—“with an air, a quality of grim endurance.”  So constant are these people’s trials that the womenfolk seek rueful, Pyhrric consolation: “female victory,” says one, “is: endure and then endure, without rhyme or reason or hope of reward—and then endure.”  (This is officially the Yoknapatawpha High pep squad’s Worst. Cheer. Ever.)

In such soul-trying times as these, you can see why people would need to be drawing upon their reserves of will—their “implacable will,” drawn from a “bitter and implacable reserve.”  In an atmosphere of such “implacable and unalterable grief and despair,” one must seek inner strength—“something fierce and implacable and dynamic”—to make one’s way through this fallen world of “grim and implacable unforgiving.”  One regards the universe’s cruel tests through “implacable pouched black eyes” and either meets the challenge head-on with “terrified yet implacable determination” or withdraws into a protective shell of anger and numbness, cocooned in “fury and implacability and physical imperviousness to pain.”  In any case, one does one’s best to maintain one’s “stern implacable presence.”

Such ordeals as these could turn a person into “a character cold, implacable, and even ruthless.”  A person could become “imbued with cold implacable antipathy.”  A person could lose his or her identity and become a “cold implacable mindless…replica.”  (Whichever way it goes, the person’s gonna be pretty cold.*)  If nothing else, these tribulations—and all the “sullen implacability” and “hatred and implacability” that they elicit—seem to have growth-stunting side effects: Our Miss Coldfield is described alternately as an “implacable doll-sized woman” and a “small furious grim implacable woman not much larger than a child.”  And yes, boys, she’s single.

The oh-so-versatile implacable figures also in another real estate listing, this time in Miss Coldfield’s (ever-so-slightly convoluted) recollection of returning to a house from her past—which is now in a state of “desolation more profound than ruin, as if it had stood in iron juxtaposition to iron flame, to a holocaust which had found itself less fierce and less implacable.”  (Whatever you say, ma’am.)  As it happens, this is one of Absalom!’s three occasions of the word holocaust (Miss Coldfield is described, post-Civil War, as “a young woman emerging from a holocaust,” and her despised brother-in-law, a Colonel in the Mississippi Infantry, is “emerging from the same holocaust”).  In any ordinary book, multiple such uses of the word would surely border on the excessive, and yet here—Really? Only three?—it almost feels like a rare case of restraint.

• • •

*In Absalom, Absalom!, cold and ruthless characters are likely to display “cold and ruthless deliberation”—and also probably “cold alert fury,” “cold and inflexible disapproval,” “cold and attentive interest,” “cold and catlike inscrutable calculation,” and—every so often, and only if you’re lucky—“cold unbending detached gentleness.”  (They also speak with a “cold level voice,” have a “face calm, cold and tranquil,” behave with “grim and cold intensity,” and react with “alertness and cold detachment.”)

Poof!

In Absalom, Absalom!, there is a major character, Henry Sutpen, who kills a man who is not only his best friend but also engaged to marry Henry’s sister, Judith.  This may sound like I’m revealing a big plot twist, but we actually learn this information early on—it’s only page 6, and already old Miss Coldfield is sharing about her nephew and how he “shot the fiance to death…and then fled, vanished, none knew where.”

Henry the shooter may have vanished, never to be heard from again, but it’s hardly the last time we’ll hear about the fact that he’s never heard from again.  “Henry had just vanished,” we’re told on page 61.  And then a page later: “Henry just vanished.”  And five pages after that: “Henry up to now was just vanished.”

The incident is also revisited from Judith’s perspective: “her brother had quitted the house in the night and vanished, none knew why or where.”  The incident is also revisited from their father’s perspective—repeatedly: “[he] had been told that his son had done murder and vanished”; “one of [his] children vanished…doomed to be a murderer”; “[his] son gone, vanished.”  The incident will even be revisited many years hence: “was it…four years since Henry vanished [?]”

Funny, considering that it’s Miss Coldfield who first tells the story about her nephew Henry, because she once, as a much younger woman, lived with her own aunt—that is, until the occasion of her aunt deciding to abandon the family, i.e., “the night the aunt climbed out the window and vanished.”  (Miss Coldfield doesn’t seem to have a lot of luck in the kin-constancy department.)  Yes, she shared a house with her aunt “up to the time the aunt vanished”—although the older woman’s departure might not have been too heartbreaking, considering that, till then, the niece had been “the object and victim of the vanished aunt’s vindictive unflagging care and attention.”

Miss Coldfield also has a sister, Ellen—Henry and Judith’s mother.  And Ellen…?  Yes, vanished.  Metaphorically, though, in her case: The sublimation of her own personality into that of her horrible husband is described as her being “vanished into the stronghold of an ogre.”  As Miss Coldfield sees it, “her sister [was] a woman who had vanished not only out of the family and the house but out of life too.”  Like a brief-lived insect, “Ellen…completed…the butterfly’s summer and vanished.”*

As for Miss Coldfield’s niece, Judith?  In her life, “she had seen almost everything else she had learned to call stable vanish like straws in a gale.”  And Charles Bon, the fiance whom Henry shot?  Well, he was a very colorful character to say the least, a man to inspire such wildly poetic descriptions as “almost phoenix-like…born of no woman and impervious to time and, vanished, leaving no bones nor dust.”

And what of Charles Bon’s son, whom we meet later in the story as he is being abruptly plunged into alien circumstances?  “[A]ll that he had ever been familiar with was vanishing about him like smoke,” we learn of that moment, as he is stripped even of his clothing: His “shirt and stockings and shoes…vanished”—in a cloud of seemingly prerequisite vapor—“as if they had been woven of chimaeras or of smoke.”  (This character will fall out of the narrative for many years, only to reappear much later, now hitched: “a grown man…who had vanished and then returned with an authentic wife.”)

And getting back to Miss Coldfield—when we first meet her, we are told of an odd vocal characteristic that she has: “Her voice would not cease, it would just vanish.”  Or, to put it another way (which is pretty much the same way), hers was a “voice not ceasing but vanishing.”  A.k.a. a “vanishing voice.”  (Near the end of the book, there is a scene in which she is propositioned by her brother-in-law, Thomas Sutpen; so outraged is her response that she immediately takes her leave of his eponymous plantation—which is to say, she “vanished from Sutpen’s Hundred.”**)

It is not only members of the extended Coldfield/Sutpen family that can pull this vanishing act: In one crowd scene, a “circle of faces…seemed to advance and waver and shift and vanish” until the participants have—same page—“vanished back into the region from which they had emerged.”  (This rather undulatory, literal-sea-of-faces facial aspect will recur in a later episode—“like a tide in which the strange harsh rough faces…swam up and vanished.”)

Vanish naturally lends itself to descriptions of ephemeral and indefinite phenomena: “an explosion—a bright glare that vanished and left nothing”; “events [that] transpire…and fade, vanish”; “all truth, evidence vanished into a moiling clump”; an idea that “touched and then vanished from…[the] mind”; and the “prisoner soul” that “dies, is gone, vanished.”  In that same and-to-dust-we-shall-return vein, we have a collapsing grave (“that mound vanishing slowly back into the earth”), some sinking tombstones (“slabs…vanishing into the hole”), and further proof—this time more sanguinary than cemetery—of the ground’s absorptive capabilities (“old unsleeping blood that had vanished into the earth”).

Also making (dis)appearances are—and if I may, for just a moment, before I begin this inventory, let down my otherwise devoutly maintained facade of cool scholasticism and say, What is the deal with this guy and the word “vanish”?!—handwriting so faint that it “might fade, vanish, at any instant”; “snow on [an] overcoat sleeve…vanishing”; a person gone missing who “seemed to vanish in broad daylight”; transients in a shelter who “lived beneath [the roof] and vanished”; “some tree, vanished, burned for warmth”; tears that are “vanishing, disappearing instantaneously”; “red spots [that] wheeled and vanished across the retinae”; an imploding house afire whose “whole lower hall vanished”; and a man reaching for a hidden weapon whose “hand vanishes beneath the blanket and reappears, holding his pistol.”

At one point, a character reflects on a piece of vanishment-related advice handed down through his family—how, in life, it was best to avoid “that picayune splitting of abstract hairs while (Grandfather said) Rome vanished and Jericho crumbled.”  To this I can only reply that, when the occasions of a certain V-word in a certain novel start to near the half-century mark, maybe it wouldn’t hurt for the editor to be just a teensy bit more picayune.

• • •

*Mind you, to call Ellen’s vanishing metaphorical is not to suggest that Henry or his aunt’s aunt literally, you know, vanished.

Also, that same ogre (which is some kind of symbol of how Judith’s youthful traumas are being replayed through her relationship with her husband) has a few more magic tricks up its sleeve: “in which the ogre-face of her childhood would apparently vanish so completely that she would agree to marry the late owner of it”—until it finally steps off the stage for the last time: “[there] was no ogre, because it was dead, vanished.”

**During a flashback, it is mentioned that the young Thomas Sutpen had two brothers—“two brothers who had vanished.”

Less Is More

I don’t think anyone has ever accused William Faulkner of being the possessor of a light touch (not, at least, as evidenced by Absalom, Absalom!, a work whose crushing solemnity could convert coal into diamond).  So perhaps instead we could say that his is a delicate touch: The book, certainly—like the flowerbed which is depicted in its pages displaying ample evidence of a light-footed ruminant visitor—has its author’s “delicate prints” all over it.

For all their operatic histrionics—the outrage, the fury, the despair—the denizens of Yoknapatawpha County can be a pretty fussy lot, with their “various delicate scruples” and their “entire delicate spirit’s bent.”  This is, after all, a place where people give birth to “morose and delicate offspring”—a place where the girls are “not only delicate but actually precious,” the boys are “light in the bone and almost delicate” with “limbs almost as light and delicate as a girl’s,” and the Stepford spawn—or whatever you would call the “thin delicate child with a smooth ivory sexless face”—is apparently awaiting final gender-stamping by the lab.

This is a place of such topographical fragility that a farmer’s crops are planned for “a narrow delicate fenced virgin field” and even “roadside undergrowth” stands “delicate and rigid and immobly upward.”  Down these gentle byways, passengers ride in coaches (of questionable-sounding roadworthiness) that sport “proud delicate wheels.”  Any one of these hothouse flowers may be found at any moment putting up the pinkie on his or her “delicate hand” and making a gesture that is “delicately flattering.”  They possess wind chimes whose tones are “delicate and faint and musical.”  (OK, actually, all wind chimes sound like that.)

But get a load of their “delicate garments”—like one fellow’s coordinated getup seemingly from the underfed-Garanimals section (“his delicate shirt and stockings and shoes”) and another’s that manages to be both ethereal and hobo-esque (“delicate and overgrown tatters”).  This delicate sensibility informs everything from mystical thinking (“the delicate and perverse spirit-symbol”) to philosophical debate (“supported by legal and moral sanction even if not the delicate one of conscience”), from perceptual similes of looking at girls (“girls appear as though seen through glass…their very shapes fluid and delicate”) to animal similes of looking at women (“the woman…upon whom he had already come to look as might some delicate talonless and fangless wild beast crouched in its cage”*).

And speaking of that poor creature and its sorry state of talonless-ness and fangless-ness, it is yet another twisted creation of Dr. Faulkner-stein and his odd inclination for stitching words together, whether grafting un to the head of any number of seemingly inapt transplant recipients (to produce the likes of unamaze, unchastity, unfree, unkin, and unorganismamong many others) or, as in this case, affixing a less to the hindquarters of each ill-fated patient.  The results of these mad experiments I itemize here in ascending order of eccentricity, from the merely everyday (“soulless,” “pointless”) to the crimes-against-nature, locked-up-in-the-basement variety (“oxygenless,” “climaxless”).

Lab rats from the doctor’s operating theater, then, include one character’s “soulless rich surrender,” a “pointless formal door,” “moonless September dust,” a “sentient though nerveless shell,” a “blank fathomless stare,” “incomprehensible and apparently reasonless moving,” “busy eventless lives,” a “tearless and stone-faced daughter,” a “sonless widower,” “the fear of dying manless which…old maids have,” “fitless garments” and a “fitless house” (I don’t know if it’s better or worse that these appear in the same sentence), a “carpetless room,” “murdered women and children [who are] graveless,” a “masculine hipless tapering peg,” both “the saddleless mule” and “the spavined and saddleless mule,” “soilless and uncompelled peasantry,” “a sort of dreamy and destinationless locomotion,” a “dreamy and heatless alcove,” a—triple dreamy alert!—“dreamy and volitionless daughter,” “impossible and foundationless advice,” “the abashless and unabashed senses,” “water refined to the oxygenless first principle of liquid,” and—as was touched upon in a recent mention of epicene—“one anonymous climaxless epicene and unravished nuptial.”  It’s alive…alive, I tell you!

Obviously, the nuptial which is both climaxless and unravished (as well as the peasantry both soilless and uncompelled) manages to incorporate displays of both phenomena, but it is with a touch of surprise that I have to report that Absalom! does not feature any combinations of the two—no delicate young girls who are unchastityless, for example—so you are, if nothing else, spared here a Human Centipede joke.

• • •

*Talk about a sad-sounding line of Garanimals!

Skins Game

I’ve noted before the recurrence in Absalom, Absalom! of a particularly pungent line of description regarding the elderly Miss Coldfield—twice mentioned is the odor of her “female old flesh” (a.k.a. “old woman-flesh”), which is depicted as, alternately, “rank” and “heat-distilled.”  This, we are told, is the smell of “female old flesh long embattled in virginity” (a campaign her hard-fighting epidermis has apparently been waging for quite some time now, as her birthday suit is also characterized as “lonely thwarted old female flesh embattled for forty-three years”).

Elderly skin—and its relative elasticity—is discussed furthermore elsewhere (we meet a different grande dame, “more than seventy now yet…whose flesh had not sagged”) and additional time is given to contemplating the scent of a woman (a minor female player is notable for “the heavy fainting odor of her flesh”), but these are only a small handful of samplings from the wide array of fleshy delights to be had in Absalom!’s pages.

Some of the book’s flesh is sensual and valiant (“curious pleasures of the flesh,” “passionate and inexorable hunger of the flesh,” “brute inexplicable flesh’s stubborn will to live”), while some is merely poundage (“the leisure and ease put flesh on him,” “the flesh came suddenly,” “Ellen had lost some flesh”).  Some is symbolic (an independent young man “free of the flesh of his father”) and some idiomatic (a past-his-prime older gentleman who feels “nobody would want him in the flesh”).  Some occupies a gray-area intersection of the weight-related, the symbolic, and the perplexing (“he was not fleshier…it was just that the flesh on his bones had become quieter”).  Some is icky (“rotten flesh,” “sweating flesh,” “dead flesh”).

When there’s metaphorical heavy lifting to be done, flesh will often partner up with its frequent companion blood to make lighter work of it: A woman uncomfortable with her own body is “a maidservant to flesh and blood”; an adolescent’s imaginary suitor is “some walking flesh and blood … in some shadow-realm of make-believe”; otherworldly spirits are “shadows not of flesh and blood”; a war-weary man fantasizes a future free of conflict in which there will be “no flesh and blood of his to suffer by it”; soldiers in uniform are “deluded blood and flesh dressed in martial glitter”; the same soldiers are overseen by calculating generals who will “swap them blood and flesh for the largest amount of ground.”

Sometimes flesh swaps blood for bone—“willing flesh and bone”; “flesh and bone and spirit”; “black bones and flesh”; a brave man who has “no more doubt of his bones and flesh than he did of his will and courage”; a driven man who, despite pushing sixty years, will not let “the bones and flesh of fifty-nine recuperate”; beleaguered long-sufferers who are “bearing more than they believed any bones and flesh could or should”; devoutly treasured illusions that are “a part of you like your bones and flesh and memory.”

Naturally, with all this flesh on display, things are bound to get a bit touchy-feely, even among unlikely participants.  After all, “there is something in the touch of flesh with flesh…which enemies as well as lovers know”—“let flesh touch with flesh, and watch the fall of…caste and color too.”  One love-starved, incest-minded fellow craves “the living touch of that flesh warmed…by the same blood which…[warmed] his own flesh.”  Another gent, in eager anticipation of an upcoming encounter, says, “‘He will not even have to ask me; I will just touch flesh with him’” (this promised man-on-man action is, anticlimactically, only in reference to a handshake).

There is all of this as well as the “pigmentation of … flesh,” a “smooth cupid-fleshed forearm,” and “a face whose flesh had the appearance of pottery.”  There is “boy flesh” and “white woman’s flesh.”  There is “weak human flesh” and “human flesh bred…for that sale” into slavery.  There is “tender flesh” and “tired flesh,” “living flesh” and “lifeless flesh.”  There is—deep breath—“dreamy flesh,” “articulated flesh,” “incorrigible flesh,” “hot communicated flesh,” “annealing and untroubled flesh,” and “surprised importunate traitorous flesh.”  There is the “vain evanescence of the fleshly encounter,” instincts that are “as rooted in the flesh’s offices as the digestive process,” more otherworldly spirits “serene and untroubled by flesh,” and a house that burns with “the smell of desolation and decay as if the wood of which it was built were flesh”—and whether or not that is the distinctive smell of old-woman flesh is left to one’s imagination.

Two, Four, Six, Eight …

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!

It Is What It Is

Each of Absalom, Absalom!’s various conspicuously repeated words is like a little weight with its own distinct measure of flamboyance: The degree to which any one of them tips the scale into flagrant exhibitionism is the product of how showoffy it is, multiplied by the number of reiterations you stack up on the weighing platform.  Fierce, for example, is hardly a vocabulary peacock, but—used over thirty times in a single novel—it does begin to call attention to itself.  (On our scale, fierce is, like, 2 grams.)  On the other hand, something like epicene—defined as “having the characteristics of both sexes”—even if used only twice (a stylish college dandy likened to an “almost epicene object d’art” and a period of prepubescence characterized as “one anonymous climaxless epicene and unravished nuptial”)—well, it very much tips the scale.  (Epicene: kilo and a half.)  Especially if its appearances are in two successive chapters, only 35 pages apart.

So, upon first encountering a word like fatalistic—there’s a mention early on in the book of someone’s “expression of fatalistic and amazed determination”—one might not even register its heft.  (We’re talking 10 grams here; 15, tops.)  But even if each minor shift in a scale’s balance is unnoticeable with the addition of every tiny incremental weight, that scale is shifting nonetheless; eventually, it may just clonk over onto the table.

It is with the Chapter 4 introduction of Charles Bon—the epicene object d’art mentioned above and also an “indolent fatalist” who befriends Henry Sutpen at school—that one may begin to sense a serious tilt in the equilibrium; resignation may start to set in at the inevitability of this particular overuse as Bon is said to possess “fatalistic and impenetrable imperturbability” and is referred to as “the fatalist to the last” and “Bon the fatalist.”  (This all within a single chapter, which furthermore concerns Bon’s complicated relationship with Henry and his sister Judith—“[p]erhaps in his fatalism he loved Henry the better of the two”—and also establishes the chronological limitations of his deterministic influence—“[s]urely Bon could not have corrupted her to fatalism in twelve days.”*)

Bon may not be Absalom!’s sole bearer of the weight of this weary surrender—another character at one point regards an unwelcome sight with “aghast fatalistic terror”—but he is certainly its standard bearer: In later chapters, others will recall his memory (“Bon whom Mr Compson had called a fatalist”), reminisce about his salient characteristics (“the weariness, the fatalism”), and gauge themselves by his standard (“[he] maybe even turned fatalist like Bon now”**).

Of course, Bon’s solemn perspective makes perfect sense within a fictional cosmos of such desperately tragic preordination that the word doom appears as many times as fierce.  It’s probably hard to lighten up when your every step is so perilously permanent and life offers no do-overs—every “decision instantaneous and irrevocable,” every move leading to “subsequent irrevocable courses of resultant action,” every positive development in the grand scheme of things met with the “irrevocable negation of the design.”  Here you are, trying to make your way in “the irrevocable world,” ever mindful of the passage of “all irrevocable time,” standing on the threshold—“that irrevocable demarcation”—of the rest of your life, serving the “irrevocable sentence” of your years on this planet, doing your best to protect yourself from “irrevocable and incalculable damage,” seeking to forge your own identify after “the irrevocable repudiation of the old heredity,” chasing after some “lost irrevocable might-have-been,” and trying to plumb—unsuccessfully—the “irrevocable and unplumbable finality” of your destiny.  You’ve got a right to be a little tetchy.

After all, things are tough all over—for the fatalistic female as much for the fatalistic fellow: a gal could find herself “irrevocably husbanded,” but then later (not so irrevocable after all, the husbanding, it would seem) “irrevocably estranged”—“not only divorced from, but irrevocably excommunicated from all reality,” just praying that her latest travail might fall “irrevocably outside the scope of her hurt or harm.”  Maybe the family home is threatened because the once-husband has “his back rigid and irrevocably turned upon the house”; maybe he suffers from Peter Pan Syndrome and has “irrevocably lost count of his age.”

This can lead a person to say things like “it is irrevocable now” (p. 252) and “it was done, irrevocable now” (p. 272).  This can result in curiously tangled concepts such as “irrevocable undefeat” (it may not be clear what, precisely, undefeat is, but we do know that it’s permanent).  This can produce such snake-eating-its-tail configurations as “a curious and outrageous exaggeration in which was inherent its own irrevocability,” which, if a touch baffling, sounds way too self-contained to argue with.

To close, it would feel appropriate here to make some fanciful suggestion as to how much irrevocable would weigh on my proposed metaphorical scale—but I’m just afraid that once I suggested it, I wouldn’t be able to take it back.  Ever.

• • •

*Surely not.  She remains—next sentence—“anything but a fatalist.”

**For whatever reason—whether it’s regarding his fatalism, his “expression which was not smiling but just something not to be seen through,” his “cryptic” vocal stylings, or his fool/not-a-fool dualism—Bon’s is the character who really seems to kick Faulkner’s descriptive Xerox into high gear.