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.”