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)
|Faulkner vs. Hemingway: p. 91 of Absalom, Absalom! next to page 92 of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.|
…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
Faulkner, William. Absalom, Absalom! New York: Vintage International, 1986. Print