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.

Limit One per Customer, Two

I’ve mentioned before certain words in Absalom, Absalom! that seem “overused,” not in the sense of racking up disbelief-inviting tallies on the stat sheet (does curious really merit nearly 40 times at bat?), but in the sense that their being used even more than once feels excessive—words like brigandage, cherubic, circumambient, effluvium, ratiocination, shibboleth, and substanceless.  Words that make readers—I assume I am not alone in this boat?—say, “Hold on a second…didn’t I see ‘substanceless,’ like, 15 pages ago?”*

As I speculated then (so now who’s repeating himself?), I may just be parading my ignorance—maybe purlieu, for example, is more of an around-the-dinner-table kind of word than I realize.  But, still, I would think it incumbent upon any self-respecting editor to say to his or her client, “You know how you have ‘purlieu’ in Chapters 2, 3, and 4?  Maybe we could think about losing one or two of those, what do you say?”

Perhaps I am being too touchy about purlieu.  And maybe I shouldn’t be so ticklish about the book’s four total uses of miasma, either (as in “the shadowy miasmic region something like the bitter purlieus of Styx”).  But when it appears twice in one sentence?**  When that happens, you’ve got to figure that somebody’s red pen has run out of ink.

Outside of a science-fiction novel, sentient strikes me as a one-per-book word.  That is not an opinion shared by the author of Absalom, Absalom!, which features “sentient forces,” a “sentient victim,” one traumatized personage’s “sentient though nerveless shell,” and “the old mindless sentient undreaming meat that doesn’t even know any difference between despair and victory.”  (Is undreaming what happens while you’re unasleep?)  And speaking of un-words, there is also “the blind unsentient earth” (emphasis, I am ethically obliged to add, mine); the human body described in a similarly sightless metaphor as a “blind unsentient barrow of deluded clay and breath”; and—in some kind of bizarre agrarian instance of seeming mind-transference that does sound like it’s from a sci-fi novel—a farmer “stopped dead…the unsentient plow handles in his instantaneous unsentient hands.”***

Just as sentient is maybe a 4 or 5 on the “Hey, check out this fancy word” meter and then adding the un- prefix bumps it up to a 7 or an 8, satiated does not in and of itself register all that high on the scale of lexical grandstanding—whereas the cumulative effect of satiated, satiations, satiety, insatiation, and insatiability definitely gets the needle twitching.  Ditto for the relatively anonymous volition, which only calls progressively more attention to itself as it is cycled through a series of variations—volition, volitional, volitionless, and—but of course—unvolition.

Sometimes it’s less a matter of frequency than density.  I don’t suppose it’s so terribly egregious within a single book to read “the granddaughter…asked querulously what it was” and then later “the granddaughter spoke querulously again” and then “they heard the granddaughter’s voice, fretful and querulous”—just not so good within the space of two pages (232-233).  And it’s bad enough that Absalom! could manage to contain the “lost cause’s unregenerate vanquished,” an “aura of unregeneration,” and a character “chivalrous for the instant even though still unregenerate”—but it contains them all in the first chapter!  I would say that it beggars belief for this sort of redundancy to occur with no editorial redress, but maybe none of this is for real and I’m just undreaming the whole thing.

• • •

* “He seems to hover, shadowy, almost substanceless, a little behind and above” (page 74); “the beam filled with substanceless glitter of tinsel motes” (page 59).

** There is no way—within the limited purlieu of my own excerpting abilities, at least—to excise from the body of the original sentence the twin miasmas (or in this case, miasmals) at an appropriately abridged length while still maintaining their sense.  I offer it here in its entirety, then, although be warned—it just so happens to be among my personal nominees for the book’s very most opaque, aneurysm-inducing head-scratchers.  (Yes, I realize what sort of first-among-equals rarefied company that places it in and, no, it is not a contention I would make lightly.)  Were there any explanatory context that I thought could possibly lend assistance in negotiating its meaning, I assure you I would provide it.

Or perhaps it is no lack of courage either: not cowardice which will not face that sickness somewhere at the prime foundation of this factual scheme from which the prisoner soul, miasmal-distillant, wroils ever upward sunward, tugs its tenuous prisoner arteries and veins and prisoning in its turn that spark, that dream which, as the globy and complete instant of its freedom mirrors and repeats (repeats? creates, reduces to a fragile evanescent iridescent sphere) all of space and time and massy earth, relicts the seething and anonymous miasmal mass which in all the years of time has taught itself no boon of death but only how to recreate, renew; and dies, is gone, vanished: nothing—but is that true wisdom which can comprehend that there is a might-have-been which is more true than truth, from which the dreamer, waking, says not ‘Did I but dream?’ but rather says, indicts high heaven’s very self with: ‘Why did I wake since waking I shall never sleep again?’

*** For completeness’ sake: There is also, in Chapter 1, a from-beyond-the-grave essence that “seem[s] to possess sentience” and, in Chapter 3, an if-these-walls-could-talk house that is described “as though [it] actually possesses a sentience.”  Neither of which, of course, is even close to being as enticingly nutjob as “unsentient plow handles.”

101 Uses for a Dead Cat

The character of Judith in Absalom, Absalom! is described as “cold” and “absolutely impenetrable” (a lot of fun at parties, this one), with an equally fetching physique to complete the package: “this small body with its air of curious and paradoxical awkwardness.”  With her brother Henry, the provincial puritan, she has a “curious relationship.” (Or, as it is helpfully elaborated upon, a “curious and unusual relationship.”)  When she looks at him, it is with “curious and profound intensity.”

She’s not the only one.  When Quentin, our audience surrogate from Absalom!’s first page on, is in a serious conversation with his college roommate Shreve, they pause and “[look] at one another, curious and quiet and profoundly intent.”  During the same exchange, Shreve also watches Quentin “with thoughtful and intent curiosity” and, later, “with intent detached speculation and curiosity.”

Perhaps it is Quentin’s style of speaking that invites these curious stares—“his voice [is] level, curious, a little dreamy.”  Elsewhere, it is a “curious repressed calm voice.”  (I say “elsewhere”—it’s actually in the same paragraph.)  It is also a “flat, curiously dead voice.”  (This, in all fairness, is 30 pages later.)

Other curiosities include characters sitting “in a curious quiet clump,” the “curious pleasures of the flesh,” a “curious lack of economy between cause and effect,” an unfortunate child “born into some curious disjoint of [his] father’s life,” “curious serene suspension,” and a “curious blend of savageness and pity.”  There is “curious and outraged exaggeration” and “curious terrified yet implacable determination.”  We meet “the curious and the vengeful.”  Settings include “architecture [that is] a little curious, a little femininely flamboyant”—on page 88 we behold a “closed and curiously monastic doorway” and then, three pages later, “inscrutable and curiously lifeless doorways.”

Charles Bon, he of the phony grin and the dull foolishness (or foolhardy dullness, as the case may be), also has his own distinctive vocal style, “the bland and cryptic voice with something of secret and curious and unimaginable delights.”  (“Secret and curious and unimaginable delights”?  Is that the sort of voice that most people would describe as “bland”?*)  One character has “something curious and strange in his face,” while the face of another is “quiet, reposed, curiously almost sullen.”  One character finds himself in “a curious position”; one looks “curiously smaller than he actually was.”

Those seeking privacy try to “hide from the world’s curious looking”; those trying to repress painful historical memories are “talking not about the war yet all curiously enough (or perhaps not curiously at all) facing the South.”  One character with a philosophical bent offers “a curious and apt commentary on the times,” while another waxes existential about life, “the curious factor of which is…either choice…leads to the same result.”  At one point, Judith’s mother Ellen “did not know where her husband had gone and [was] not even conscious that she was not curious.”  Which is to say, I guess, that she wasn’t thinking about what she wasn’t thinking about.  I wonder what Descartes would make of that one?

• • •

*It seems there is no aspect of Charles Bon’s character that can ever be depicted without repetition: He is described as “talking now, lazily, almost cryptically”; instances of his subtly corrupting influence on his friend Henry are “so brief as to be cryptic”; his voice is, as mentioned above, “bland and cryptic”; and, eleven lines later, “the mentor’s voice [is] still bland, pleasant, cryptic, postulating still”—and this is all in a single paragraph.