It’s Not You, It’s Me

Thomas Sutpen is the malevolent colossus that bestrides the narrative of Absalom, Absalom! (he’s referred to in the course of the book as a “demon” about sixty-five times—not really the most nuanced of characterizations).  So when it’s revealed in a flashback near the end that, as a younger man, he turned his back on his first wife and child, it’s almost anticlimactic: After other characters have called you things like “this Faustus…this Beelzebub” and even your coterie of underlings has been described—in an amusingly stiff-sounding dab of legalese—as “twenty subsidiary demons,” the bar for rottenness has been set fairly high.

Still, it’s pretty rotten, even if you provide for them financially, for a man to have “repudiated that first wife and that child.”  Especially when it’s done with calculation: “[He] got engaged and then…had a wife to repudiate later”; “he would certainly need…to repudiate the wife after he had already got her.”  The post-separation support might provide some salve—his son will later reflect that Sutpen “‘must have surrendered everything he and Mother owned to her and me as the price of repudiating her’”—but it hardly improves the giver’s diabolic reputation, being “the money…that he (the demon) had voluntarily surrendered, repudiated to balance his moral ledger.”  (The moral ledger is better left to Satan’s accountants than to his subsidiary demons, I would assume.)  The intervening years will cloud Sutpen’s conviction at the wisdom of his decision, though, as he finds when later struggling with a similar quandary: “[T]his second choice [was] as obscure…as the reason for the first, the repudiation.”

Karma’s a you-know-what, though, and Thomas Sutpen eventually winds up on the boomerang end of some really primo repudiation himself at the hands of his second, “real” son, Henry.  When Sutpen makes an incendiary accusation against a cherished college friend of Henry’s named Charles Bon, it sparks “Henry’s violent repudiation of his father and his birthright.”  Furious at the allegations leveled at his comrade, Henry leaves his home without a trace, “vanished, his birthright voluntarily repudiated.”  So angry is Henry on behalf of his friend that “he repudiated blood birthright and material security for his sake.”  Naturally, it becomes the talk of the town, as one relative recounts (albeit without providing much in the way of additional detail), “‘I saw Henry repudiate his home and birthright.’”*

So Henry leaves his home (and birthright), “his back rigid and irrevocably turned upon the house, his birthplace and all the familiar scene of his childhood and youth which he had repudiated for the sake of that friend.”  All for his friend—“the man for whose sake he had repudiated not only blood and kin but food and shelter and clothing,” “the friend for whom he had already repudiated home and kin and all”—the man that Henry felt he must defend “to the extent of repudiating father and blood and home,” the friend for whom he would muster the “strength to repudiate home and blood in order to champion,” the compadre whose honor would justify Henry’s disavowal of his family and “the irrevocable repudiation of the old heredity.”  Together, Sutpens père and fils are “the father who decreed and forbade, the son who denied and repudiated.”

All of which makes for a total of four birthright-repudiations (six if you count abjurals), three blood-repudiations, three father-repudiations, three home-repudiations, two kin-repudiations, one “roof under which he had been born”-repudiation, and an assortment of general-category creature-comfort-repudiations (“food and shelter and clothing,” “material security”) and life-history-repudiations (“the familiar scene of his childhood and youth,” “the old heredity,” “and all”).  Repudiation, repudiation—yeah, in my head now, it totally just sounds like nonsense.

• • •

*Other such rebuffs also include two instances of birthright abjuring—a word surely not best behooved by being used more than once in a book (no matter how formally you dress it up): “Henry had formally abjured his home and birthright” and, fewer than 25 pages away from this, “Henry had formally abjured his father and renounced his birthright and the roof under which he had been born.”  Nor did that roof get off with mere formal abjurement, either: Henry also “had repudiated the very roof under which he had been born.”  So there.

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.

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.”

Foe News

The rather extravagant malignance of Absalom, Absalom!’s tryannical big daddy Thomas Sutpen is not a character trait evoked with much in the way of what you would call finesse (he’s referred to as a “demon” four times in the book’s first six pages and described upon his introduction as having a “faint sulphur-reek”).  That he is so offhandedly loathsome as to be oblivious to the enraging effect he has on others is not something meant to escape our attention: At a family get-together in which everyone else is united against him in a “grim embattled conspiracy,” for example, the blissfully ignorant Sutpen “did not even know that he was an embattled foe.”  This we are told, for the first time, on page 49.

On page 50, Sutpen’s sister-in-law (not a fan) stares at him across the dinner table, into “the face of a foe who did not even know that it was embattled.”  One might think this quick-on-the-heels corroborating statement would cement fairly conclusively Sutpen’s inability to take the emotional temperature of a room (not to mention the author’s predilection for the word “embattled”) but, later on the very same page, our unwitting combatant is designated yet again “a foe who did not know that he was at war.”  And six lines after that, even as family hostilities are subsiding, the portraiture remains essentially unchanged: He is “the foe who was not even aware that he sat there not as host and brother-in-law but as the second party to an armistice.”  (To which any reader would surely be entitled to respond, “All right, all right, he didn’t know he was a foe—sheesh.”)

One could view this charitably and chalk it up to unbridled writerly enthusiasm—apparently Faulkner just really, really wanted to convey the lengths of Sutpen’s social disengagement, broken-record concerns be damned.  Maybe he thought this was a super-important aspect of the character and argued about it passionately with his editor—“No, I want it in there four times!  What?  No, three is not enough!  Three?!  Are you mad?”  However charitably inclined, though, one could find oneself harder pressed to rationalize the motives behind other, later such occasions of deja vu.

In Chapter 7, Quentin, our audience proxy, is regarding a piece of correspondence.  Here is the tableau:

He sat quite still, facing the table, his hands lying on either side of the open text book on which the letter rested: the rectangle of paper folded across the middle and now open, three quarters open, whose bulk had raised half itself by the leverage of the old crease in weightless and paradoxical levitation.

One might roll one’s eyes at even so prosaic a phenomenon as a letter not lying flat meriting the poetic curlicues of “weightless and paradoxical levitation,” but, hey, this is page 176—complaining at this point would be like grumbling about the barn door lock with the horses already in the next county.  Here, Faulkner’s enthusiasms seem to be focused on the precise rendering of object orientation, as he reiterates the stacking order on page 177—describing Quentin speaking distractedly, as if “to the table before him or the book upon it or the letter upon the book or his hands lying on either side of the book.”

Faulkner proceeds to drill this in like a schoolteacher hitting the bullet points he knows are going to be on the standardized test that will determine his future salary.  When the narrative, having shifted into flashback mode to relay the contents of the letter, returns to Quentin 15 pages later, we get a refresher course:

Quentin [looked with] brooding bemusement upon the open letter, which lay on the open textbook, his hands lying on the table before him on either side of the book and the letter, one half of which slanted upward from the transverse crease without support, as if it had learned half the secret of levitation.

(Clearly this letter-levitation jazz was deemed way too snazzy to be squandered on a one-time usage.  And what exactly is half the secret of levitation?  The getting-up-in-the air half?  So, like, good luck on getting yourself down?)

Thirteen pages on, and Quentin is still “talking apparently (if to anything) to the letter lying on the open book on the table between his hands.”  And 16 pages after that, his posture remains fixed and his bemusement remains brooding, “still brooding apparently on the open letter upon the open book between his hands.”  Harder indeed to imagine exactly what impassioned argument Faulkner would have made for the necessity of belaboring this particular imagery—“No, his hands can’t be in his lap! In his lap?! Are you insane?”

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.)

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.

Throwing Down the Gauntlet

DonquixoteWhen I read, in Absalom, Absalom!, of “the regiment moving no faster than the wagon could, with starved gaunt men and gaunt spent horses knee deep in icy mud,” the image of Picasso’s famous Don Quixote sketch pops into my head.  When I read, from a later chapter, “They faced one another on two gaunt horses, two men, young, not yet in the world, not yet breathed over long enough, to be old but with old eyes, with unkempt hair and faces gaunt and weathered,” I get the image of an editor on a lunch break.

To say that the repetitive use of gaunt in these excerpts seems, in the first case, purposefully crafted for pleasing rhythmic effect and, in the second, an oversight is, certainly, de gustibus territory—but what can be argued is that the landscape of Absalom! feels populated to excess by skeletal figures such as these, both two-legged and four-.

Other equine examples include a “gaunt and jaded horse,” a “strange gaunt half-wild horse,” and a “gaunt black stallion.” Among their human counterparts are “gaunt and ragged men,” “a gaunt gangling man,” “a man with a big frame but gaunt now almost to emaciation,” and an old woman who manages to be “not thin now but gaunt” (that’s a good trick—presumably she was more of the pleasantly plump variety of gaunt?).

As would be expected, these lanky players have accordingly angular features: an architect with a “gaunt face, the eyes desperate and hopeless,” soldiers with “gaunt powder-blackened faces,” a student with a “gaunt tragic dramatic self-hypnotised youthful face like the”—makes sense, what with the tragic face—“tragedian in a college play.”  One gentleman has a “gaunt worn unshaven face” while another’s face is “gaunt and ragged and unshaven.”  (Nonfacial gaunt items include a “gaunt and barren household” and an anthropomorphized wagon that shares with its driver “that quality of gaunt and tireless driving.”)

Absalom!’s evil overlord Thomas Sutpen is himself the possessor of a “gaunt ruthless face,” and we are told that the aforementioned big-framed but gaunt man is also “ruthless and reposed”—neither of which description surprises much since Sutpen isn’t exactly on the receiving end of a lot of flattering characterizations in this book, and it is furthermore a novel with a generous helping of ruthlessness.

[O]nly an artist”—this being the gaunt architect—“could have borne Sutpen’s ruthlessness.”  “We talked of him, Thomas Sutpen…and when he would return…he would undoubtedly sweep us up with the old ruthlessness.”  “They did not think of love in connection with Sutpen.  They thought of ruthlessness.”

Sutpen—a.k.a. “the Sutpen with the ruthless Sutpen code,” wielder of “Thomas Sutpen’s ruthless will”—does not, however, have the market completely cornered in this area; other characters have “ruthless eyes,” display “ruthless pride,” command “ruthless tactical skill,” suffer “the ruthless agony of labor,” and offer—like the services of some kind of ninja nanny—“fierce ruthless constant guardianship.”

Rounding out the cast are “the ruthless and the strong,” those who are “generous but ruthless,” one man who acts with “cold and ruthless deliberation,” and another frosty fellow with a “character cold, implacable, and even ruthless.”  Wherever that editor has been, I just hope lunch was good.