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knovella 9th Jan 2006 20:06

Cormac McCarthy
I posted this a couple of weeks back on TBF, when I finished the book, but nobody over there cares about decent books or critical analysis (albeit speedy off-the-cuff analysis). Hope you don't mind if I repost here, as there seems a better appreciation of actually reading, and this is a well-written novel:

It took me a while to adjust to the author's omission of quotation marks. This stylistic tic can be very confusing, and while all of my confusion didn't dissipate, I did settle in after a while and the book does have certain rewards.

McCarthy's language is extremely interesting. He rides somewhere between idiom/dialect and poetic license, particularly in character's speech, but also in the overall narrative, which tends to give the book more of a whole feel. That is, the characters are not separated from the narrative by their idiom, so you feel the whole is more organic.

But the author has other stylistic affectations that hogtie his exposition, which results in a very jumbled denouement. I won't spoil here, but it feels like there is a scene or two missing toward the end.

The story is set in 1980, which seems at first to be an odd choice, but it gives the author a wide horizon for his characters—there are the old-timer WWII gen guys who remember the really old-time Western characters from their childhoods, and there are the Vietnam vets who are just hitting middle age, and there are the contemporary kids who seem to come from an entirely different place (all in Texas or thereabouts).

If you like McCarthy, you'll like this. It's punchy and rugged and a bit sentimental, sort of marking the end of a time in the West in ways that he hasn't before.

HP 9th Jan 2006 20:22

Re: Cormac McCarthy: No Country for Old Men
I've heard many good things about Cormac McCarthy, but was severely put off when dipping into All The Pretty Horses, I was confronted with page after page where every other word seemed to be 'and'. Sentences went on forever; full stops and commas, semi-colons - all replaced by yet another 'and'; actions and thoughts separated only by 'and' - so they read like endless lists. It was a stylistic tic that annoyed the hell out of me, to be honest, and one I couldn't help but class as pure affectation. Which I guess ties in with that comment of yours, knovella, of ...

But the author has other stylistic affectations that hogtie his exposition.
While I'm a sucker for stylish writers, it's a crime I think, if the style gets in the way of the flow or becomes an irksome mannerism - or if you can see the sweat dripping off the page from trying too hard - which is something I think Amis is also guilty of.

Anyway, based on this review of yours, and given that is was a long time ago since I first tried him, I'll give McCarthy another whirl perhaps.

Paul 9th Jan 2006 20:35

Re: Cormac McCarthy: No Country for Old Men
I've had my eye on this one for a while but seeing as McCarthy's Border Trilogy currently resides near the top of my TBR pile I figure I should probably read it before purchasing any more of his work. I've heard people mention his unique style before and after reading the threads above it sounds like I should definitely make sure it's to my taste before going on any buying binges.

John Self 9th Jan 2006 22:54

Re: Cormac McCarthy: No Country for Old Men
I read All the Pretty Horses after being seduced by its rhythmic and wonderful opening paragraph:


The candleflame and the image of the candleflame caught in the pierglass twisted and righted when he entered the hall and again when he shut the door. He took off his hat and came slowly forward. The floorboards creaked under his boots. In his black suit he stood in the dark glass where the lilies leaned so palely from their waisted cutglass vase. Along the cold hallway behind him hung the portraits of forebears only dimly known to him all framed in glass and dimly lit above the narrow wainscotting. He looked down at the guttered candlestub. He pressed his thumbprint in the warm wax pooled on the oak veneer. Lastly he looked at the face so caved and drawn among the folds of funeral cloth, the yellowed moustache, the eyelids paper thin. That was not sleeping. That was not sleeping.
But I didn't get much more out of it in the end, and can't remember a thing about it now. I did then try Blood Meridian, which seemed then to be acclaimed as his best, but it was even harder going, and extremely gory to boot. Knovella's comments ring true, so it sounds as though the old boy hasn't changed. He's the kind of author, like Faulkner or Bellow, whose prose seems to be underbedded with a quiet strain of this is good for you, you know. I wouldn't rule out going back to him in the future, as he's technically without doubt a fine writer and I think it's tremendously interesting to see the combination of lovely prose and unlovely setting: or 'grotesquely fine' as Adam Mars-Jones put it in The Observer. He added, which seems a summary I can nod along to, "As a prose stylist, Cormac McCarthy is like a man who spends hours in front of the mirror getting his hair to sit just right but will break your jaw if you tell him he's beautiful."

Maggie 10th Jan 2006 0:16

Re: Cormac McCarthy: No Country for Old Men
Thanks for the review on this one Knovella. I have this on my TBR stack. I like westerns and though McCarthy is one of my all time favorites, I do tend to like his books well enough.


Bookie 18th Oct 2006 18:07

Re: Cormac McCarthy: No Country for Old Men

I hope people won't mind my muscling into this Cormac McCarthy thread to discuss his newest novel, The Road. I brought it up in the thread about the 2006 National Book Award, and another member had read the novel (Hi, Beth!), so I wanted to write a few thoughts about it.

I've always had problems with Cormac McCarthy, whom, according to Harold Bloom, is one of the top American novelists of his generation (along with Pynchon, Updike, Roth and DeLillo). As John Self mentioned, Blood Meridian, his hyper-violent, quasi-Western 1986 novel, is generally regarded as his masterpiece. I believe John Banville is quoted on one of the editions as comparing BM to Dante, Homer and Herman Melville. Praise indeed!

McCarthy is a remarkable prose stylist, no doubt, but he has bothered me, principally, for his tendancy to overwrite and to present bloodshed in a way that is complacent at best, and fetishistic at worst. The only other novel of his that I have liked unreservedly is an earlier work, Suttree, about a man's withdrawal from conventional society, and which seems to me a masterpiece.

So it came as something of a surprise how much I loved his latest, The Road, a relatively short, tersely-written affair that strikes me as the most humane and visionary thing I've read by him. Published only a year after his previous effort, No Country for Old Men, The Road is set in a post-apocalyptic future in which most human and animal species, not to mention vegetation, has been wiped out in an unnamed disaster (was it nuclear war, a result of global warming or something else?). A father and son, among the few survivers, trek toward the coast, hoping they will find others like them, or find anything at all. They are the "good guys" (a term from the book), always on the lookout for food and for the "bad guys", fellow survivors who have descended into cannibalistic marauders.

In suggestive, poetic, but pared-down prose (and inserted with terse, bald, repetitive, almost Beckett-like dialogue between the father and son), McCarthy has crafted a work full of grim despair, but also stark beauty. And I think it's ultimately a hopeful tale that espouses the eternity of love in the face of the death and devastation of the world. It's a great, profoundly moving novel.

John Self 18th Oct 2006 19:18

Re: Cormac McCarthy: No Country for Old Men
Wonderful, Bookie! I might have to go back to McCarthy now, after having more or less written him off as not-for-me.

Beth 19th Oct 2006 13:50

Re: Cormac McCarthy: No Country for Old Men
The 'grotesquely fine' is certainly what delivers the emotional wallop here. For me, the moralism of this tale was quite subtle and dependent upon the reader. Even amongst the good guy/bad guy setting, it didn't feel as though McCarthy was planting any 'this is good for you'. More like 'this may rip you apart for a few days.' Wish I didn't have to get to work...

Beth 20th Oct 2006 5:20

Re: Cormac McCarthy: No Country for Old Men
I finished The Road two weeks ago and must admit that I've felt a bit saddened since then, especially as the rhetoric with North Korea escalates. Today I left work early and came home due to a bad cold. Life was looking pretty dreary as I lay down for a healing nap. When I woke, the sun was coming through my bedroom window and, as the cobwebs cleared and I came around, I could feel my equilibrium returning. It was the sunshine. The thing about novels and writers as fine as this, at least for this reader, is the tendency to become immersed in their worlds on the page. I can't remove myself from becoming emotionally involved with words and literature. Nor would I want to. But as I sat in the sun today the beauty of this novel finally outpaced the sadness of it within me. McCarthy's wonderful, terse prose that Bookie mentions takes all of the sunshine from the world. And leaves it up to the reader to either grab that sunshine back or to be left adrift on the road we're all on. (Note to self: rent Little Miss Sunshine when it comes on DVD. It didn't play here.) I see reading this novel as a strengthening exercise. When we can take a glimpse into what could be lost and see what might remain, it's easier to nurture the things that remain, and most importantly for me, choose to be happy doing so.

One other point, more analytical, about this novel, is that I believe it is a lushly romantic story. The notion that one man, one boy, on a road to possibly nowhere but carrying dignity and clear-thinking, well, that's as simple a refute to postmodern despair as I can find.

Paul 31st Oct 2006 17:24

Re: Cormac McCarthy: No Country for Old Men
I finished The Road last night and haven't been able to stop thinking about it since. The combination of McCarthy's masterful prose and small paragraphs with no chapters or major breaks makes this book impossible to put down. I had to continually remind myself to slow down and enjoy every page (especially since there are only 240 of them). Before reading it I wasn't sure what to make of reviewers' descriptions of this work as "an American classic" but I have no problem mentioning it in the same breath as Hemingway or Steinbeck. Looking at user reviews today I see that McCarthy has littered the text with allusions to Shakespeare, the Bible and Homer that I didn't pick up on the first time. There is richness and beauty in this book that bears rereading. The final paragraph is absolutely stunning and is worth the price of the book all by itself.

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