Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! and Me
Back after a much-needed break and ready to blog — this time about my favorite author and novel, William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, and its influence on my own novel, The Lies That Bind.
I had the chance to talk about Faulkner at a videotaped interview prior to my most recent reading at Left Bank Books in St. Louis, where I was asked: What are you reading now?”
Knowing I would be asked the question allowed me to think about my answer in advance. The exercise gave me quite a few insights about myself — and about the nature of literature.
As I say in the interview, I am re-reading Absalom, Absalom! for the umpteenth time. Published in 1939, Absalom, Absalom! is considered one of—if not the—greatest novels of all time, voted the best Southern novel of the 20th century by Oxford American. My copy (above) is well-annotated and -worn (as you can see).
What is it that makes this book so great, you may ask? and how has it influenced my novel?
Absalom, Absalom! breaks many of the rules of novel-writing. Yet, these supposed “violations” of accepted literary norms are a real strength of Faulkner’s narrative, making the novel unique — and very powerful. Power, yes. Like any Faulkner work, but even more so in Absalom, Absalom!, you have to work a bit to get through it. But as I said in the interview, when you are done, you are satisfied, in a profound way, emotionally and intellectually.
See video, “Ed Protzel Talks Faulkner.”
Two Distinct Norms
Two unique ways that Faulkner defies norms in Absalom, Absalom! First, instead of an economy of words, he deluges the reader with the most diverse and incisive language I’ve ever read. Matchless. Second, and as importantly, Faulkner doesn’t present the story in linear fashion. Rather, each chapter tells the story repeatedly, often by different narrators, relating events over and over, and in each new telling he reveals new insights. In Absalom, Absalom!, Faulkner found a whole new way to tell a story, to write a novel. It takes getting used to, but it’s worth it.
Absalom, Absalom! was a major inspiration for The Lies That Bind — but sometimes I reversed his concepts. As far as language goes, no one can duplicate Faulkner, and shouldn’t even try. Rather, operating on my own literary theories and style, I try to be as economical as possible, using impressionistic descriptions to set the scene and the mood.
Take this example from The Lies That Bind:
Dusk rapidly closed in, the sun’s retracting tendrils leaving bloody claw-marks upon the clouded sky. The final residue of daylight drained quickly behind the western hills, drawing with it what little warmth remained of the day.
Like Faulkner’s tale, in Lies, as the plot moves forward chronologically, revelations about the characters’ pasts move back in time, revealing the novel’s themes. You can see the Faulkner influence there.
But there is one major difference at the heart of my novel that is entirely contrary to Faulkner’s tale: I give credit and identity to the slaves. He did not.
That always troubled me about Faulkner’s great work. The central character in Faulkner’s novel is Thomas Sutpen, who built a great plantation out of a swamp, called Sutpen’s Hundred, a man who is emblematic of the antebellum South and its slave society, its rise to power, and its fall. While the narrators boast of Sutpen’s success, they barely mention his slaves. Had they nothing to do with the creation of Sutpen’s Hundred?
Thus, one of my motivations for writing The Lies That Bind, my whole concept for the novel, was to correct that racial omission. In fact, in The Lies That Bind, the townsfolk (in antebellum Mississippi) give the protaganist, Durksen Hurst (a free, mixed-blood white-Seminole charlatan), credit for the success of his DarkHorse plantation. But the reader knows the truth: that it’s Durk’s secret partners, former slaves, who conteribute the agricultural expertise to their mutually owned plantation. In fact, one of the slaves, Big Josh, who had once run the plantation for his former dissolute master, was the real brains of the operation, something that actually happened historically.
No, no writer can match William Faulkner or compare his writing to the great man. Lies is a much faster, easier read than Absalom, Absalom!, and I use very different techniques to tell a very different story, with more modern themes. But seeing how I play off Faulkner’s novel is a lot of fun—and, I hope, enlightening, as well.