“Absalom, Absalom!” and other September Reading

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Here’s what I read in September.

1. Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner
As I sit here typing, the Pittsburgh Pirates have just won home field advantage in the National League wildcard game, their first such game since I was 15 years old. It seems appropriate to write about finishing Absalom, Absalom!, an accomplishment that stymied me for the better part of a decade, on a day when the Buccos would be doing something that has taken the better part of my life to accomplish. That’s two monkeys off my back this weekend.

Absalom, Absalom! is, along with A Tale of a Tub and Infinite Jest, one of the most conspicuously difficult texts I’ve ever read. For an idea of how dense the text is, just look at the first sentence:

From a little after two oclock until almost sundown of the long still hot weary dead September afternoon they sat in what Miss Coldfield still called the office because her father had called it that–a dim hot airless room with the blinds all closed and fastened for forty-three summers because when she was a girl someone had believed that light and moving air carried heat and that dark was always cooler, and which (as the sun shone fuller and fuller on that side of the house) became latticed with yellow slashes full of dust motes which Quentin thought of as being flecks of the dead old dried paint itself blown inward from the scaling blinds as wind might have blown them. (3)

And that’s not even a particularly difficult sentence for this book. They frequently drag on for one, two, or three full pages at a time (the Guinness Book of World Records once noted the sentence from 148-150 as the longest such one in literature), and certain paragraphs go on for seven pages. 
Faulkner vs. Hemingway: p. 91 of Absalom, Absalom! next to page 92 of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.
More difficult than the syntactical challenges of the book are the narrative challenges. About ten years ago, I made it to page 227 before throwing my arms up in utter confusion over who exactly was telling the story. As the book skips forward and backward in time, through the points of view of many characters, the narration becomes a “vanishing voice” (8) that is impossible to peg down with any certainty. A letter that begins on page 124 is cut off midsentence only to return, without introduction, on page 301. Sometimes it’s just very hard to tell who is speaking at any one point, but sometimes it’s unknowable. The third person narrator who infrequently (and problematically) imposes on the action tells the reader as much. 
In chapter 7, for instance, it becomes uncertain which character–Shreve or Quentin–is telling us of the events that may or may not have happened 50 years ago. The distinction of who is doing the talking is significant, and the narrator steps in to help us out 

…it might have been either of them and was in a sense both: both thinking as one, the voice which happened to be speaking the thought only the thinking become audible, vocal; the two of them creating between them, out of the rag-tag and bob-ends of old tales and talking people who perhaps had never existed at all anywhere… (243)

The hallmark of modernist art, whether it’s Faulkner, Hemingway, Joyce, or Picasso, is that it challenges traditional points-of-view as being false and incomplete. However, no book I have ever read shatters the conventions of narration as completely as Absalom, Absalom! The point of view becomes not a device of telling a story, but the story itself. It makes As I Lay Dying look like finger painting in comparison.

So, having said all of that, what about the novel? It’s an incredibly powerful tale of the creation of a man. Henry Sutpen raises himself from the mud of western Virginia in the first decades of the 19th century to build an enormous fortune in Yoknapatawpha County. He is King David, God the Creator, and Adam rolled into one, and the book takes on a biblical gravity. He forges his own destiny in the way that James Gatz does in Gatsby, and, like Gatsby, he is thwarted in his ultimate attempts to create his own destiny. In this novel, it’s the inescapability of fate (especially tied to race–race is a constant factor in every turn of the story) that leads to his ignominious end.

All of this climaxes during the south’s destruction at the end of the Civil War, though, giving it a larger, almost allegorical scope. It’s not just Sutpen’s undoing that takes place in Absalom, Absalom!, it’s also the undoing of southern society at large. There’s murder, fratricide, infanticide, incest, jealousy, and huge doses of racism in Absalom, Absalom!, and it ends with the question, “Why do you hate the South?”

Do you understand what is going on in this book?

2. I’m Dying Up Here: Heartbreak and High Times in Stand-Up Comedy’s Golden Era by William Knoedelseder 

A much easier read was I’m Dying up Here, by former Los Angeles Times writer William Knoedelseder. It tells how L.A.’s The Comedy Store, run by Mitzi Shore, became the focal point for stand-up comedy in the mid to late 1970s. The list of comics that became famous there include the four guys on the cover of the book (Letterman, Leno, Lewis, and Kaufmann), as well as Tom Dreesen, Elayne Boosler, and, to an extent, Robin Williams.

The Comedy Store had a policy of never paying its comics, and as these stars became more and more famous, a rift grew between ownership and labor. The comics staged a strike in 1979, causing lots of hard feelings and loss of revenue among all involved. The pressure kept up until it culminated in a truly tragic event that Knoedelseder relates with sensitivity and pathos.

I was halfway through this book before I realized that it wasn’t funny, and wasn’t meant to be. The huge jokes I was waiting to hear weren’t coming, and what I was reading was more about economics than humor. I probably should have seen the ending coming, but I didn’t, and I wasn’t prepared for how much it affected me. Definitely worth reading.

3. “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense” by Friedrich Nietzsche

I don’t read Nietzsche very often, and I don’t suggest that you do, either. The last time I read him was during a humanities survey class about sixteen years ago, and sixteen years is about how long you should take off after each time you read him. However, if you do find yourself reading Nietzsche, it’s advisable that you tell everybody you know that you are reading Nietzsche. You’ve earned it, baby.

Here are some things you can say to let your friends and colleagues know you are reading Nietzsche:

  • “I’d love to go out with you guys tonight, but I just have so much damn Nietzsche to read!”
  • “I’m sorry, what did you say? I guess I just zoned out there for a minute. I’ve been reading a lot of Nietzsche lately, and he really has me thinking about our subject notion of reality.”
  • (Nietzsche book “falls” out of your briefcase) “Oh, Friedrich, you scamp!” 

4. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

I read this book again. Here’s what I had to say about it.

Work Cited

Faulkner, William. Absalom, Absalom! New York: Vintage International, 1986. Print

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