‘An Error In Chemistry’ by William Faulkner

An Error In Chemistry by William Faulkner, 1946

The magic trick:

Encapsulating all the story’s central comparisons and conflicts in one character – Uncle Gavin

It’s really unfair.

There are writers who spend lifetimes working to master the art of detective fiction. Then you get someone like Faulkner who comes along, plays around with the genre for a few hours and produces a gem like this. OK, this probably took longer than a few hours to write, but one gets the sense that it’s just something that Faulkner can churn out at will. As I said, it’s unfair.

The detective mystery part is fine. That’s the thing. It’s good, actually. Not just fine. It’s woven pretty tight, and the ending certainly surprises.

But this being Faulkner, the story transcends genre fiction. There are all kinds of considerations and comparisons of old and young, north and south, city and country. My favorite part is the character of Uncle Gavin. He’s the embodiment of every extreme – country but Harvard-educated, pure but realistic, wise but still intellectually anticipatory. Some of his monologues are simply brilliant. His summary of the three ruined lives, in particular, is beautiful, putting this pulp fiction into its proper context of Southern tragedy. And that’s quite a trick on Faulkner’s part.

The selection:

“As though none of it had ever happened.” Uncle Gavin said. “As if Flint had not only never been in that cell but had never existed at all. That triumvirate of murder, victim, and bereaved – not three flesh-and-blood people but just an illusion, a shadow-play on a sheet – not only neither men nor women nor young not old but just three labels which cast two shadows for the simple and only reason that it requires a minimum of two in order to postulate the verities of injustice and grief. That’s it. They have never cast but two shadows, even though they did bear three labels, names. It was as though only by dying did that poor woman ever gain enough substance and reality even to cast a shadow.”

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