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.”

Unsleeping Beauty

If you’re going to use a word like ratiocination more than once in a book—five times, for example—you might try to gussy it up a bit for its assorted recurrences: not just plain old ratiocination every go-round, but maybe an “amazed and fumbling ratiocination” once in a while for variety’s sake.  But, then, I probably shouldn’t say “variety’s sake,” considering how much amazement there is in Absalom, Absalom!

Miss Coldfield from Chapter 1, as has been noted, has a grim voice—or, to be more specific (or, at least, more prolix), a “grim haggard amazed voice.”  Which puts it in the same category as the book’s numerous other amazed elements, such as “amazed determination,” “amazed speculation,” “amazed outrage,” “amazed recapitulation,” “amazed self-pity,” “amazed and tearless grief,” “amazed and passive uncomprehension,” and an “amazed and desperate child.”

Amazement, it seems, is a very nuanced thing—who knew it had so many fine shadings?  “Unbearable amazement,” “tentative amazement,” “embittered amazement,” “shocked amazement,” “uncomprehending amazement,” “aghast amazement,” “unalarmed amazement,” “erudite amazement,” and, lastly—anticlimax alert—“mere amazement.”

One other amazing bit of usage to raise the eyebrow comes at the beginning of this sentence: “Then in the long unamaze Quentin seemed to watch them overrun suddenly the hundred square miles of tranquil and astonished earth….”*  If you read that and thought, “‘Then in the long ’… what ?,” then you and my spell-check have something in common: unamaze is a new one on it, too, just as it is a bit puzzled by the likes of Faulkner’s undefeat and unregret.  And, while we’re at it—although they do not all turn up a goose egg in a dictionary search, together they certainly constitute an odd linguistic tic—unbelief, unchastity, undreaming, unkin, unorganism, and unvolition.  Plus such un-adjectives as unbrided, uncomplex, unchinked, unfree, unmaimed, unmediant, unobscure, unpaced, unrancorous, unrational, unravished, unreally**, unscarified, and unsistered.  (No, that first adjective is not unbridled, i.e., a word anyone has actually heard of, but instead in reference to “unbrided widows.”)

Unbelief, undefeat, and unregret are the favorites among these, appearing each more than once, but the alpha in this pack of underdogs has to be unsleeping—“unsleeping itch,” “unsleeping viciousness,” “unsleeping candle,” “unsleeping blood,” “unsleeping cabal”…“unsleeping care” is thought of highly enough to be pressed into service in both Chapters 2 and 4.  Unsleeping also pairs up with a fellow un-gerund for the spaghetti-western lineup of “the hate and the fury and the unsleeping and the unforgiving,” and, with its close cousin unasleep, even manages a multiple showing within a single sentence:

Yes, sleeping in the trundle bed beside Judith’s, beside…the Negress who…slept on a pallet on the floor, the child lying there between them unasleep in some hiatus of passive and hopeless despair…lying there unsleeping in the dark between them, feeling them unasleep too….

As the ellipses suggest, the above is whittled down (you’re welcome) from a much longer sentence—much, much longer, about 425 words or so (possibly even more, depending, as mentioned elsewhere, on how you interpret Absalom!’s wonky punctuation).  So maybe I shouldn’t tease: within the space of that many words, perhaps some vocabulary repetition is unevitable.


*One of the book’s eight uses of the word tranquil, but that can wait for another day.

**Unreally?  Really?