7.23.2005

McCarthyism

I just finished No Country For Old Men and I'm having trouble with it.

I can say it is likely the grimmest book I have ever read. It's a book where Hope sits on the sidelines with its head in its hands while Depravity goes about its business efficiently and rather creatively. I'm not sure what to make of it - was this kick in the stomach good for me or not?

I do disagree with James Wood's assessment of it as "unimportant" (if this is unimportant, The Book Against God, Wood's own novel, is nonexistent) but I will agree with him when he calls the book frustrating. By the end it has devolved into an extended essay by McCarthy on the inevitability of chaos. I didn't think Coetzee got away with the same sort of disguised philosophizing in Elizabeth Costello and I don't want to let McCarthy gets off the hook either. The first two-thirds of the book are brutal and compelling but (and I don't want to give away too much here), the way in which all of that is discarded in service of the Revelation of St. Cormac feels like a cheat.

It's not like McCarthy's made a career out of being maudlin. Child of God with its necrophiliac serial killer protagonist didn't spook me like this. Blood Meridian was (to use an overused but apt phrase) an inquiry into the nature of evil - and is in my opinion one of the best American novels of the 20th Century. No Country For Old Men isn't about the nature of evil. It's a concession of defeat to it.

If anyone else has read/is reading/will read it, please tell me if I'm being too lillylivered about this.

6 comments:

Pete said...

For what it is worth, I panned NCFOM in last week's Time Out Chicago. This is the book that i wasn't sure I was allowed to trash on here before my review came out.

I really thought it was silly. It was like if Fellini directed a Chuck Norris movie: it was insistently oblique, but ultimately shallow.

The cowboy has no chaps.

cj said...

I say Wood (and Pete) has McCarthy's number. If you're going to churn out the rhetoric like McCarthy does, you ought to have the substance to back it up. Grandiosity isn't the same as greatness. McCarthy's fixation on violence isn't a philosophy, it's a pose, and a particularly suspect one, given how neatly it meshes with the popular taste for all things homicidal. If an author repeatedly wrote about guys getting it on with supermodel triplets, his books would be denounced as shallow cliches transparently pandering to male fantasies -- why does McCarthy not receive the same judgment? Just because he buries it under a pile of elevated King-James-Bible diction?

Granted, I've never read any Cormac McCarthy, but still . . .

Pete said...

To call it King James Bible diction would only right if the KJB were almost entirely in sentence fragments that contain five, six or more verbs. Otherwise, I'm with you.

If you haven't read any, how are you able to sum up this book so well?

I know, I know. I should go back and give Blood Meridian another go (it has been many years). But No Country... hasn't exactly made me excited to do so.

Grendel said...

I've never read him either. I've got All the Pretty Horses on the shelf, and I've been tempted plenty of times, but not yet and this thread is making it less likely.

A certain Kentuckian once dismissed Cold Mountain in class as an inferior McCarthy knock-off -- which prompted me to buy All the Pretty Horses, because I loved Cold Mountain.

segall said...

I tried reading the review but Time Out is stingy with the online content. Damn them.

At any rate, don't let this be a deterrant from Blood Meridian. There's nothing biblical about the diction but it is expansive, maximal - certainly not shallow. No Country and Blood Meridian haven't got a great deal in common.

cj said...

That last post of mine was supposed to be half-joking, since I really haven't read McCarthy. Maybe this could be the subject of another thread: how do people choose what books to read, given that you can't really form an opinion about a book until you've read it? For six or seven years, I intentionally tried to read as diverse a group of authors as I could (concentrating on short stories made that easier). But by the time I left the Workshop, I needed to get away from short stories and, with time shorter on my hands, wanted to concentrate on books I expected to enjoy. My Open-Minded Period came to an end. Now I ruthlessly pre-judge books and authors and choose my reading accordingly. I still take a chance now and then, and sometimes it pays off, but one bad review by someone I respect, especially one that includes damaging quotes from the book itself (Wood is especially good at letting the work demonstrate its own faults) can be enough to make me look elsewhere. Unfair to the authors, maybe, but no one can possibly be fair to every book.

I have found that the reviews (even serious ones) and buzz surrounding newly-released novels are a completely untrustworthy (if not outright fraudulent) source of information upon which to base my reading choices. So I find myself sticking to books that have been around for a while. One person's recommendation is usually not enough for me, but when I hear good things about a book, years after it comes out, from several different sources, then it starts to creep up my To-Read list.

Of course, we'd all be in trouble if everyone made their reading choices that way. Any better ideas out there?