Tuesday, December 16, 2008

All Limbo's Clamor

Who, I wondered, towards the end of Outer Dark, actually read this book when it was published in 1968? Who closed it and thought, "Oh, I have to tell my friends about this one"? Who, in turn, was told about it and then rushed to the bookstore to buy their own copy? Now, forty years later, Cormac McCarthy is widely considered one of the greatest -- if not the greatest -- living American writers, and along with that reputation comes a sizable audience who wants to know what all the fuss is about. Those people will start with the most famous books, like No Country for Old Men or The Road, and if they're keen enough on those will begin working their way through the rest of them. But if anybody should happen, for whatever reason, to start with Outer Dark, will they wish to continue?

Well, of course some of them will. Had I started with Outer Dark, I feel pretty confident I would have continued to read McCarthy. After all, it's a work of bizarre, unique genius. But it's also one of the most gut-turning, unblinking and disturbing horror novels I've ever read.

More about that word "horror" later. First, I'll give you a brief idea of the story. Somewhere in the American South, probably around the end of the 19th century, a woman named Rinthy Holme is about to give birth. Her brother, Culla, is the father. Upon giving birth, Culla takes the baby (a boy, or "chap", as he's referred to throughout the novel) into the woods and leaves it there. He tells his sister that the baby died of natural causes. In fact, the baby didn't die at all, but rather was taken from its lonely patch of forest by a tinker (referred to only as "the tinker"). Rinthy discovers her brother's lie, and, believing that Culla traded the child to the tinker, sets out to find her "chap". Shortly after that, Culla sets out to find Rinthy.

The novel tells its story in alternating chapters: one chapter following Culla, the next following Rinthy. Every third chapter, or so, is broken up by short accounts of three mysterious, unnamed, deeply dangerous men. These men begin to leave behind them a trail of corpses (one of the killers, "the bearded man", uses a large knife to "unhinge" a man), though the reasons behind these murders are mysterious, as is the connection between the killers and Rinthy and Culla.

As always, McCarthy's prose is striking: a bizarre mix of Hemingway, Faulkner, Joyce and the Bible, but still completely McCarthy's own words. As one might imagine, this mixture produces disorienting results. A clean, precise sentence such as...

It was later afternoon when they set forth again, out from the town, the wheels rasping in the sand, back down the yellow road.

...is followed up immediately by sentences like this:

Night fell upon them dark and starblown and the wagon grew swollen near mute with dew. On their chairs in such black immobility these travelers could have been stone figures quarried from the architecture of an older time.

That "starblown" is particularly Joycean. There are a lot of brand new compounds like that (see also "redgummed" and "spraddlelegged", along with many more). As with Joyce, this has the effect of very concisely and poetically describing an image by using words that, in effect, hadn't existed before. But also like Joyce, he can produce nearly impenetrable (or actually impenetrable, in the case of Joyce) passages that make you want to put the book down and not speak to it for a few hours:

It howled execration up the dim camarine world of its nativity wail on wail while he lay there gibbering with palsied jawhasps, his hands putting back the night like some witless paraclete beleagured with all limbo's clamor.

That was from the second of two paragraphs, back to back, early in the novel that made me begin to fear I'd pulled the wrong book from my shelf, when I read this about four months ago. I do find this kind of writing infuriating, and I don't really understand why the critical community doesn't also look at it a little askance. But it's so taken for granted with McCarthy that even the back cover copy of my edition can't help but get into the act, with its proud and giddy use of the word "fabular".

However, that kind of writing is very rare, and more often we get this kind:

Holme left the road and clambered up the rocky slope to give them leeway. The first of the drovers was beating his way obliquely across the herd toward him, the hogs flaring and squealing and closing behind him again like syrup. When he gained the open ground he came along easily, smiling up to where Holme sat on a rock with his feet dangling and looking down with no little wonder at this spectacle.

This scene, which describes Culla Holme watching a sea of hogs being herded through a field, will turn sour for Culla. Many of his experiences during the course of this novel do. Each of his chapters described him searching, often vainly, for work to support himself during his search for Rinthy. He's occasionally accused of crimes he didn't commit (while only the tinker, who we do meet again, is aware of the crime he actually did commit). Rinthy's chapters, on the other hand, describe her finding kindness and charity almost wherever she goes, though her search for the tinker and her son seems hopeless. Meanwhile, those three men have started killing people, and we gradually realize that we've met their victims earlier in the book, when Culla encountered them in his travels.

So where is all of this heading? It's heading, as is usually the case with McCarthy, to a kind of Apocalypse. (Spoiler) For McCarthy, in book after book, the sick, mad, shrieking end of humanity is represented by the violent death of infants. Babies are murdered by the handful in Blood Meridian; a baby is roasted on a spit in The Road (and though I don't wish to drag politics into this, I'd be remiss if I brought up this motif and didn't mention that, in No Country for Old Men, Sheriff Bell speaks very unfavorably about abortion). These infants are always faceless and nameless, but by being slaughtered so casually and motivelessly in Blood Meridian, or used for sustenance by depraved adults in The Road, their humanity is somehow heightened. This, McCarthy is saying, is as bad as it can get. Once this happens, nothing is salvageable. In Outer Dark we get this act presented, by its perpetrator, as a kind of infernal lesson, or as a rebuke. It's a way of saying to the one who witnesses it: See what you did?(End spoiler)

I've thought a lot today about the violence in McCarthy's fiction, and I think that, for myself, one of the reasons it's so jarring is because it's so uncommon in literary fiction. Other writers of McCarthy's stature and ambition have dealt with savage violence from time to time, but with those writers it tends to be a sort of experiment, or an itch that needed scratching before returning to their other work. But in McCarthy, grotesque, brutal violence is always there, and it's depicted at a level so graphic that the only equivelant in fiction I've seen is in the horror genre. But what I realized today is that, in horror fiction (of which I read a lot), if the book is especially violent it tends to also be especially bad. The truly great horror writers are generally more subdued about violence, often only suggesting the worst; if they deal with it straight on, they only very rarely dwell on it. But McCarthy takes the violence of "splatter" horror and weds it with the stark poetry of great American fiction. It's a jarring combination, almost appalling. And in Outer Dark, it's also otherworldly. The three killers float through the novel like ghosts, and they shouldn't know, or care, about the events of this story; they shouldn't know about Culla or Rinthy or their baby. But by the end, the bearded man seems to know more than he's saying. In fact, he knows more than we do.


Greg said...

I've never read this so I can't really comment on it (actually I've never read any McCarthy). He's one of those authors like Pynchon or Roth that you hear so much about you get annoyed and purposely avoid them because everybody is reading them. However, when I finally read Pynchon and Roth I did like their works so perhaps I'll give in to the popularity wave with McCarthy and read him too.

Anyway, even though I haven't read his works yet I'm still very excited about the film adaptation of The Road. When I start with McCarthy that's the first one I'm reading.

bill r. said...

I'm interested in the film version of The Road, too, but I'll be honest and say that I'm not really sure why that book knocked over so many people, so completely. I thought it was good, but it's far from the best McCarthy I've read.

Actually, I do have my suspicions about why The Road took off the way it did, but I'll keep mum about that, since you haven't read it. And by the way, The Road is about 230 pages, and goes by fast. You could easily read it in a weekend.

Greg said...

I hate to go with length as an enticement but that's why it was easy to give in with Pynchon. You can read The Crying of Lot 49 in a couple of hours. With lunch! I have several "day book" memories actually. That's my term for those times you've read a book in an afternoon. I think my first was One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and my second day book was Slaughterhouse Five. Those two and Lot 49 were all read on a Saturday with nothing to do and they kept me interested enough to keep going. My most recent one was Franny and Zoey which was late summer.

And my next might as well be The Road so I can get your theory as to why it knocked out so many people. Does your theory have anything to do with waffles? Perhaps, Belgian waffles?

bill r. said...

Most of my "day books" tend to be genre fiction: The Gunfight by Richard Matheson, Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (barely a full book, even), Fata Morgana by William Kotzwinkle, Sinful Woman by James M. Cain...probably some others, but not many.

My theory regarding The Road has nothing, surprisingly, to do with waffles of any kind. It's also not very interesting, but you should still read the book (and McCarthy in general).

Anonymous said...

It howled execration up the dim camarine world of its nativity wail on wail while he lay there gibbering with palsied jawhasps, his hands putting back the night like some witless paraclete beleagured with all limbo's clamor.

Seems to me a sentence like that is written not so much to be comprehended but felt.

I'm going to have to finally pick up a McCarthy, and it's your fault.

bill r. said...

Seems to me a sentence like that is written not so much to be comprehended but felt.

Yeah, Rick, you're probably right. But McCarthy has a tendency to blindside you with that kind of thing, and it can sometimes feel like he's briefly disappeared up his own ass. Having said that, though, you do make a good point.

Any idea which McCarthy you're going to start with?

Fox said...


Sorry to get rememdial on you (rememdial as in I know almost nothing about fiction) but since you read a lot of fiction I will probably be throwing a lot of "big" questions your way out of curiousity.


Where do you rank Cormac McCarthy among contemporary AND past American fiction writers? You don't have to give me an actual ranking, but is he, say, considered to be on par with a Hemingway or Faulkner? Maybe not NOW, but do you think he will end up with that type of legacy? And lastly, for today, do you think Blood Meridian (the only book of his I've read) is filmable?

p.s. I understand if some of these questions are to broad or unanswerable, but when I am curious about something I know little about I get a little overzealous.

bill r. said...

Fox, it's sort of impossible for me to say if McCarthy will ever be regarded in the same league as Faulkner and Hemingway, etc., but I would say that he has as good a chance of that kind of legacy as any other American writer alive today. I think he has a much better claim to it, in fact, than, say, Mailer (who I know isn't alive, but his death was recent, and I have a feeling his reputation will wane in the coming decades). One of the things working in McCarthy's favor is his timelessness -- even though his books are set in recognizable periods of history (more or less), part of his point is that the horrible things he writes about have always happened, and will always happen.

Personally, I think McCarthy deserves that legacy. I like him more than Faulkner, myself.

As for Blood Meridian, I think that just about any so-called "unfilmable" novel is actually filmable. The question in this case is whether anyone has the balls to film and then release uncut an accurate version of the novel. There are moments -- and you'll know what I'm referring to -- in Blood Meridian that I seriously doubt anyone will want to put on screen, and I can't really blame them. At the same time, however, those moments are essential. So if you're not going to go full out, then why bother? Plus, realizing the character of the Judge as described is nearly impossible. Not literally impossible, but nearly.

So I think Blood Meridian is technically filmable, but I have my doubts that any of the filmmakers who have so far had their hands on it have been fully aware of the task ahead of them. I think some of them eventually have realized it, and that's why they're not on deck to make the film anymore.

In his review of The Proposition, Roger Ebert said that film made him believe that adapting Blood Meridian was possible. Come on. The Proposition is a violent film, and very McCarthy-esque, but compared to Blood Meridian it's P.S. I Love You.

Fox said...

I don't know if I ever heard your opinion on if No Country was done well in respect to the book.

I'm one who stands in the corner of keeping both separate, but the three people in my family that read the book, and LOVED it, were all disappointed by the film. And I know my dad is skeptical of The Road adaptation, and I think he might have liked that book more than No Country.

It's interesting to hear about McCarthy's career that preceded All The Pretty Horses. Honestly, I had no idea he was righting in the 60's

P.S. I Love You... HA!

p.s. I love you.

bill r. said...

I loved the film No Country for Old Men...LOVED it. And I honestly don't understand why fans of the book wouldn't agree. That's as faithful an adaptation as anyone could ask for, while still being its own thing. What didn't they like about it?

I'm skeptical of The Road too (the film, I mean), but while I liked the book, I was bowled over by it, so I have a bit less invested in this film. I want it to be good, and I'm definitely looking forward to it, but, for instance, the number of big names in the cast -- in what I guess will be essentially cameo roles -- seems like a bad move to me.

PS - I'm going to punch you in the mouth.