If the novel can be said to have a centre, a still point upon which the seer intensifies its focus until it loses interest in other people and other places, that centre would be the grotesque monstrosity known only as Judge Holden. A man very literally larger than life, Holden is a seven-foot-tall albino, “outsized and childlike” and “bald as a stone,” with a command of apparently every language ever spoken and with knowledge of every subject ever considered by the human mind. It is said of the Judge that he is “a hand at anything,” able to “turn to a task but what he didnt prove clever at it.” He can “outdance the devil himself” and he can play the fiddle more gracefully than anyone else who picks it up. “He can cut a trail, shoot a rifle, ride a horse, track a deer,” and, according to hearsay, “[h]e’s been all over the world.” He is, in addition, a paedophile, a murderer, a man who kills puppies for fun, and he demonstrates a store of supernatural abilities. He seems able to teleport from place to place and to manipulate reality to suit his needs. He can stand in raging flames without doing harm to himself and he can wield a Howitzer cannon as if it is only a pistol. He hurls a downed meteorite an impossible distance through the air, he concocts a fistful of gunpowder from the elements of the desert sand, and, by the end of the novel, he appears to have not aged a day despite the passage of some thirty years. In his presence other men speak “with circumspection among themselves as if they would not waken something that had better been left sleeping.” The seer bestows lavish attention upon him, far more than upon anyone else, and thus enables the Judge alone to articulate a unique worldview that echoes the way in which the seer itself seems to see the world. Continue reading
Imperative statements instruct, demanding immediate action, and thereby make gestures towards an instructor who stands as the source of the words on the page. When Blood Meridian bursts into being by latching onto a nameless boy, “pale and thin” and “wear[ing] a thin and ragged linen shirt,” the description that enables the reader to begin to perceive the boy is rendered subordinate to the instruction for the reader to simply perceive. “See the child” is the brusque demand with which the novel opens. “See the child,” it begins. “He is pale and thin, he wears a thin and ragged linen shirt.” From where, from what, from whom, does that demand originate? What disembodied consciousness owns that imperative voice? What is this perceiving wraith, this unseen seer of other things, which must itself have seen the child in order to now instruct others to see? Continue reading
Literary rejoinders don’t often appear as bluntly as this one in Philipp Meyer’s American Rust.
From Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, published in 2005, the soft-spoken Sheriff Bell wallows in soul-searching nostalgia as he approaches retirement:
I think we are all of us ill prepared for what is to come and I dont care what shape it takes. And whatever comes my guess is that it will have small power to sustain us. These old people I talk to, if you could of told em that there would be people on the streets of our Texas towns with green hair and bones in their noses speakin a language they couldnt even understand, well, they just flat out wouldnt of believed you. But what if you’d of told em it was their own grandchildren? Well, all of that is signs and wonders but it dont tell you how it got that way.
From Meyer’s novel, published in 2009, here’s Glen Patacki, chief of police in Buell, Pennsylvania, indulging in nostalgia with the world-weary sergeant Bud Harris:
“You should have been here for the seventies, Bud. The department was buying new cruisers with Corvette engines maybe every three years. And then came the eighties, and then it wasn’t just that we lost all those jobs, it was that people didn’t have anything to be good at anymore. … We’re trending backwards as a nation, probably for the first time in history, and it’s not the [fault of the] kids with the green hair and the bones through their noses.”
Meyer’s novel is pretty clearly a response to McCarthy’s, an attempt to provide a corrective to Sheriff Bell’s assessment of what ails the United States. Continue reading
Less appreciated [than Cormac McCarthy’s work as a novelist] is [his] work as a dramatist. Having initially written both Cities of the Plain and No Country for Old Men as screenplays, and having published an earlier screenplay, The Gardener’s Son, as well as a stage play, The Stonemason, McCarthy is no stranger to the dramatic form. Nevertheless, his dramas continue to lurk in the shadows cast by his novels.
To what extent is prose therefore the medium that best allows McCarthy’s particular talents to manifest? To what extent do his skills as an author depend upon setting down words on a page in order to coax out a distinct voice that mediates dialogue, character, and story with its own idiosyncratic ruminations? These questions seem speculative, I admit, but they must be asked because they haunt McCarthy’s latest book from the first page to the very last. That book is The Sunset Limited, a verbatim reproduction of the script for a stage play McCarthy wrote in 2006 — verbatim except for the addition of a cryptic subtitle, A Novel in Dramatic Form, with which it distinguishes itself from the stage play by making an issue of its own novelistic capacity for prosaic meditation.
My review of Cormac McCarthy’s The Sunset Limited is online at The Quarterly Conversation.
During the audience question time at the end of the lecture I gave last week, a questioner contended that, with regard to the narrative voice in The Road, my entire argument was fatally flawed. The narrator, she said, cannot be some omniscient entity wounded by the apocalypse because the narrator is plainly and obviously the boy at the heart of the narrative, looking back as a grown man on his survival ordeal and retelling it in a faux third-person voice: a displacement technique that suggests ongoing psychological trauma.
That contention seemed to me to be unjustifiably speculative, but the questioner insisted that it was the case and cited as evidence a passage from The Road in which the third-person narrator inexplicably slips into the first-person voice. Continue reading
A couple of days ago, I gave a brief public lecture on the narrative voice in two recent and highly-acclaimed works of post-apocalyptic dystopian fiction: Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Steven Amsterdam’s Things We Didn’t See Coming. Beginning with Henry James’ assertion that a work of fiction can only be credible in a way that induces the reader to suspend disbelief if it filters its fictional events through the eyes of an embodied first-person narrator, I argued that McCarthy’s third-person narrator in The Road actually generated that sort of credibility with far more sophistication than did Amsterdam’s first-person narrator in Things We Didn’t See Coming. In that novel, the narrator ostensibly endures a series of episodic disasters — an apocalypse that unfolds by degrees — but because he discusses his experiences in an entirely coherent and colloquial voice, his voice itself fails to suggest that he has actually experienced those events and thus robs his words of their truth. In McCarthy’s novel, by contrast, the narrator speaks in a voice that does not undermine the truth of what he says but instead augments it. Continue reading
Something woke him in the small hours of the morning. Things moving in the dark. He took his flashlight and trained it out along the trees until it ghosted away in the dark fields downriver. He swept it toward the woods and back again. A dozen hot eyes watched, paired and random in the night.
He held the light above his head to try and see the shapes beyond but nothing showed save eyes. Blinking on and off, or eclipsing and reappearing as heads were turned. They were none the same height and he tried his memory for anything that came in such random sizes. Then a pair of eyes ascended vertically some five feet and another pair sank slowly to the ground. Weird dwarfs with amaurotic eyeballs out there in the dark on a seesaw sidesaddle. Others began to raise and lower.
Cows. He agreed with himself: it is cows. He switched off the flashlight and lay back. He could smell them now on the cool upriver wind, sweet odor of grass and milk. The damp air was weighted with all manner of fragrance. You can see it in a dog’s eyes that he is sorting such things as he tests the wind and Suttree could smell the water in the river and the dew in the grass and the wet shale of the bluff. It was overcast and there were no stars to plague him with their mysteries of space and time. He closed his eyes.