Top 10 books I read in 2012: Absalom, Absalom! (#1)

Absalom, Absalom!

Absalom, Absalom!

WILLIAM FAULKNER
Vintage, 1991; 320 pages.

“Tell about the South. What’s it like there. What do they do there. Why do they live there. Why do they live at all. — Absalom, Absalom!

I don’t want to write this review.

I don’t know how to even talk about this book, except to say that I feel like it changed my life.

I don’t think it should be surprising that this is my best book of 2012, the best book out of the 142 that I read. Absalom, Absalom! is called the best Southern novel over and over again and I think it should be called the best American novel.

This is the second time I read this book. The first time I read it, I was probably 18, and I swore I’d never read Faulkner again. I didn’t understand even a third of it. But this time around, I took it seriously. I spent hours with it. I took copious notes. I treated it like a class. It is not easy to read. (Some liken it to the American Ulysses.) But don’t take that to mean that this novel isn’t enjoyable, beautiful, profound, or moving. It is all of those things in full volume.

Absalom, Absalom! is the ultimate testament to memory. Particularly, are our family histories reliable? Is anyone’s history reliable?

Faulkner’s prose is unbearably vivid and alive. His language is precise and startling. His images are disturbing and resonant. He writes with a breathlessness that sweeps you up, into the dusty plantation hallway, into the dark bedchamber of a dying man, into the cold space of a New England dorm room.

Absalom, Absalom! is remarkably relevant. As John Jeremiah Sullivan writes in his essay about the novel, published in the New York Times, regarding Faulkner’s choices:

Even when he does tell you everything, you can’t entirely trust it. No surer sign exists of the book’s greatness than how it seems to reconfigure itself and assume a new dimension, once we feel we know it, and these shifting walls of ambiguity were designed by Faulkner himself. They allow the text a curious liquid quality, so that it can seem alive, as if it might be modified by recent history too.

America’s preoccupying obsession with race is still present. It is dangerously present in Absalom, Absalom! and it is dangerously present today. Faulkner won’t let us forget this. Let it sit with you now. Let this novel bring a historical consciousness to life. Let it make you see that we have not progressed with any great strides.

Babies and old men

Nettles at The Southern.
Happy Phinehas and his dear mother.
Baby buns! Phin is clearly appalled to be embarrassed in this way.

Oh, this schizophrenic half-winter of ours: Snowstorm this morning and now, at noon, it has ceased and the sun is coming out.

This weekend: Nettles, the Hill and Wood, and Luke Wilson played at The Southern; Matt Kleberg had a really wonderful opening at McGuffey; I began to re-read and fall in love with Absalom, Absalom! and retract every bad thing I ever said about it; and we got to watch UNC gloriously shame Duke at the McDermott’s on brew day. A very good weekend, by my estimation.

On Friday, I transcribed a painstaking, largely unsuccessful interview with a 106-year-old man, a legend in the industry. These were the important takeaways to me: If you are 106, you have the right to say things like, “Are you here just because you failed in the movie business?” to the unctuous young videographer coaxing you for an answer you thought you already gave. If you are 106, you don’t have to do anything if you don’t feel like it. If you are 106, your brain will start to winnow out all of the unimportant things, so that when the interviewer asks you to talk about your big career highlights, you will instead talk about your sons and how they graduated at the top of their class and how they tried to avoid going to war and how you named them after your best friends.