On Narrative Voice (2): For the Record

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

On Narrative Voice (1): The Wounded God

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

Eyes Open, Eyes Closed

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.

Cormac McCarthy
Suttree

In Pursuit

The hounds crossed the snow on the slope of the ridge in a thin dark line. Far below them the boar they trailed was tilting along with his curious stifflegged lope, highbacked and very black against the winter’s landscape. The hounds’ voices in that vast and pale blue void echoed like the cries of demon yodelers.

The boar did not want to cross the river. When he did so it was too late. He came all sleek and steaming out of the willows on the near side and started across the plain. Behind him the dogs were falling down the mountainside hysterically, the snow exploding about them. When they struck the water they smoked like hot stones and when they came out of the brush and onto the plain they came in clouds of vapor.

The boar did not turn until the first hound reached him. He spun and cut at the dog and went on. The dogs swarmed over his hindquarters and he turned and hooked with his razorous tushes and reared back on his haunches but there was nothing for shelter. He kept turning, enmeshed in a wheel of snarling hounds until he caught one and drove upon it and pinned and disemboweled it. When he went to turn again to save his flanks he could not.

Cormac McCarthy
Child of God

A Lover of Storms

Curled in a low peach limb the old man watched the midmorning sun blinding on the squat metal tank that topped the mountain. He had found some peaches, although the orchard went to ruin twenty years before when the fruit had come so thick and no one to pick it that at night the overborne branches cracking sounded in the valley like distant storms raging. The old man remembered it that way, for he was a lover of storms.

Cormac McCarthy
The Orchard Keeper