Mary Trump’s potentially explosive book about her famously dysfunctional family, Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man, comes out next month. As The Daily Beast was the first to report, the ever-litigious Donald Trump is doing everything he can to suppress his niece’s tell-all memoir before it hits stores.
Maybe he should have attacked William Faulkner instead.
According to a story in The Washington Post about Mary Trump’s tangled and contentious relationship with her family, she discovered Faulkner’s fiction while an undergraduate at Tufts: “In a seminar with English professor Alan Lebowitz, Mary and her 15 or so fellow students analyzed the Compson family portrayed in novels such as The Sound and the Fury” and Absalom, Absalom!
“The Compsons,” the Post points out, “bore some similarities to her own family," whose maternal side had migrated from Scotland. And both Compsons and Trumps were families "riven by dysfunction.”
In an interview with the Post, Lebowitz called Mary Trump “exceptional,” a claim supported by the fact that at her commencement she copped the university’s award for top English student. (No slouch as a scholar, Mary would go on to earn three post-graduate degrees, including a doctorate in clinical psychology.)
“She was just as smart and accomplished as any I’ve taught in 40 years,” Lebowitz told the Post. “She took a seminar on William Faulkner with me and she wrote two absolutely stunning papers, long, deep and elegant. We studied an enormously complex, interesting writer, and she got deeply into it because she is a deep thinker.”
She surely got deeply into it as well because the Compsons, like the Trumps, are one hot mess of a family, a clan plagued by alcoholism, depression, suicide, hypochondria, teen-age pregnancy, and incestuous urges.
But here’s the best part: Mary Trump’s obsession with Faulkner was no passing crush. Just last year she formed a company that took its name, Compson Enterprises, from the name of the tragic family at the heart of The Sound and the Fury. And for an early announcement of her book, she used the pen name Mary Compson to disguise the book’s authorship.
Whoa. Anyone who names their company—and themselves—after one of literature’s most dysfunctional fictional families has taken this story to heart in a big way. Doing it once could be chalked up to an inside joke. Doing it twice? That’s as good as saying, this is not just a story. This is her story.
That, in turn, can’t help but inspire a literary guessing game as to who’s who in the Trump v. Compson genealogies. The possibilities are rich. Both families had powerful founders whose descendants squabbled over their inheritance. Both families had alcoholics. And both featured sons consumed by materialism who struggled and connived to hold onto as much of their families’ money as possible.
Some of the parallels are more striking than others, but one in particular was bound to have caught the precocious Mary’s eye: When Faulkner created the character of Jason Compson in his 1929 novel, he introduced us to Donald Trump almost two decades before baby Donald drew his first breath.
Cynical, rapacious, dishonest, bloated with self-regard and disdain for everyone around him, Jason Compson must have looked mighty familiar to Mary Trump, who, were she a Southerner, would have been muttering under her breath, I know his people. If she needed further convincing, Jason is an angry, garrulous bore who can’t stop talking about the way the world has let him down.
Jason is one of The Sound and the Fury’s four narrators. His brothers Benjy and Quentin and an omniscient narrator recount the rest of the Compson family’s tragic disintegration. Benjy and Quentin’s sections are told with a stream-of-consciousness technique that spares no thought for grammar, syntax, or chronological order. So when you reach Jason’s more plain-spoken section, which comes third in the order, it’s like climbing aboard a moving train doing 80 mph.
Jason is a liar and a thief who cloaks his sins beneath a mask of respectable outrage and self-pity. To hear him tell it, the family would have gone to ruin years before. He’s the only responsible Compson, the only one willing to work. Everyone else is a fool.
Of all the idiots in Faulkner’s Southern Gothic masterpiece, and there are several, Jason is the biggest—a man completely blinded by greed and self-interest and a virulent racist in the bargain.
“Once a bitch always a bitch, what I say,” Jason’s first-person section of the novel begins. “I says you’re lucky if her playing out of school is all that worries you. I says she ought to be down there in that kitchen right now, instead of up there in her room, gobbing paint on her face…”
Jason is speaking here of—wait for it—his teenage niece, who would have been just about Mary Trump’s age when Mary first encountered The Sound and Fury. Moreover, in a move eerily similar to Trump’s attempts to control his father’s estate, Jason does everything in his power to steal what little money is rightfully his niece’s. But then, in the end, she turns the tables on him and runs off not only with the money he’s stolen from her but with his savings as well. You can see why Mary Trump might be the only Faulkner fan who ever thought that The Sound and Fury had a happy ending.
So, it’s tempting to say, skip Mary Trump’s book and just read The Sound and the Fury. Or maybe not, since this is Faulkner we’re talking about, the writer who’s probably scared more college students out of English departments than anyone. Luckily Mary Trump was not one of them.
But Mary Compson? That, to borrow one of her uncle’s favorite adjectives, is perfect.
Postscript 6/29/2020: Many thanks to Daily Beast contributor Ronald K. Fried for pointing that The Sound and the Fury begins at a golf course! A golf course built on land sold by the Compsons so that Quentin could go to Harvard.