Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men: “They are not some other way. They are this way.”

NCFOMNo Country for Old Men is stylistically enough like The Road that I feel retrospectively justified in having taken the later novel as provisionally representative. There’s the same accumulation of terse, practical sentences propelling the story forward; there’s the same obscure yet precise vocabulary; there’s the same scrupulous, almost tedious, recounting of physical and technical actions; there’s the same eccentric punctuation; there’s the same unflinchingly graphic but never quite voyeuristic violence. The books don’t sound exactly the same — The Road, to my ear at least, is much more poetic, not just in its cadences but in its tendency towards symbolism — but I think it would be easy to guess, if somehow you didn’t already know, that they come from the same literary mind.

The two books also present a similarly dichotomous moral universe, with paternalistic caretaking on one side and ruthless amorality on the other. But in The Road that paternalism has a luminosity that it does not have in No Country for Old Men. In fact, I found it quite difficult to identify where, if anywhere, the balance of insight falls in No Country for Old Men. Most of the time I was reading it, I assumed our guide was the sheriff, whose memories and ruminations break up and add layers to what would otherwise be a fairly straightforward crime / thriller plot. But the sheriff is such an uninteresting character — worse, such an uninteresting thinker — that I started to wonder if we were really meant to take him at his word. If he’s the moral center of the novel, then for all the novel’s literary display, at its heart is a simple cliché, the lament of every passing generation that the world is going to hell in a handbasket:

I think I know where we’re headed. We’re being bought with our own money. And it aint just the drugs. There is fortunes bein accumulated out there that they dont nobody even know about. What do we think is goin to come of that money? Money that can buy whole countries. It done has. Can it buy this one? I dont think so. But it will put you in bed with people you ought not to be there with. It’s not even a law enforcement problem. I doubt that it ever was. There’s always been narcotics. But people dont just up and decide to dope theirselves for no reason. By the millions. I dont have no answer about that. In particular I dont have no answer to take heart from.

The sheriff is right that he and his values appear quaintly old-fashioned next to Chigurh’s stringent and wholly selfish realism:

You’re asking that I make myself vulnerable and that I can never do. I have only one way to  live. It doesnt allow for special cases. A coin toss perhaps. In this case to a small purpose. Most people dont believe that there can be such a person. You can see what a problem that must be for them. How to prevail over that which you refuse to acknowledge the existence of. . . . You can say that things could have turned out differently. That they could have been some other way. But what does that mean? They are not some other way. They are this way. You’re asking that I second say the world.

 The sheriff’s sections are a lament against the onslaught of such men and such values, of the end being (as it is over and over in this novel) “Then he shot her.” As the body count goes up, as scene after scene ends in blood,  it’s tempting to sympathize with the sheriff and bemoan this kind of unmeaning savagery (“It didnt make no sense”), which seems to represent the horrifying future of a country unmoored from love and justice and idealism. Even if the sheriff’s philosophy seems trite, it’s hard not to be on his side against Chigurh, hard not to appreciate his efforts to save Moss and Carla Jean (“You got a dog in this hunt?” “Not really,” says Bell; “A couple of kids from my county that might be sort of involved that ought not to be. . . . People I’m supposed to be lookin after”). In this world, we’re going to need all the “lookin after” we can get.

But the sheriff’s simplistic nostalgia seems so deliberately simplistic and nostalgic — he’s such a folksy “good ol’ boy,” such a token, too, of a particular type, that it seems equally plausible that he’s being deployed ironically:

I got set next to this women . . . And she kept talkin about the right wing this and the right wing that. . . . Finally told me, said: I dont like the way this country is headed. I want my granddaughter to be able to have an abortion. and I said well mam I dont think you got any worries about the way the country is headed. The way I see it goin I dont have much doubt but what she’ll be able to have an abortion. I’m goin to say that not only will she be able to have an abortion, she’ll be able to have you put to sleep. Which pretty much ended the conversation.

 Maybe he’s just an old fool, right to retire, right that he doesn’t have the answers. But if the novel overall is positioned against him, then why is so much care and attention lavished on him? And why does he get a closing peroration that not only embellishes his painful sense of defeat (“It was being beaten. More bitter to him than death.”) but comes close, with its haunting images of continuity and safety, to the memorably poetic resonance of The Road?

Maybe he’s neither heroic nor foolish, just inadequate. Against Chigurh, who would be a sufficient antagonist? I don’t think Chigurh is offered as our protagonist, though, or as an anti-hero, though if he is the latter, it makes sense to me to see him as a cousin of the hard-boiled detective, a vigilante operating according to his own principles, a kind of Sam-Spade-Gone-Rogue. The strength of the hard-boiled hero is his moral independence (along with his fearlessness, of course), but we accept his disregard for law and order because we trust him to be in pursuit of the right, however idiosyncratically defined or defended. Chigurh is perfectly clear on his principles, but they have no chivalric undertones, no saving graces.

As I puzzled over how to read the novel in general and the sheriff in particular, I looked up a few reviews. At the New York Times, Walter Kirn asks, “Is this countrified bleak fundamentalism a spoof?” He never really answers his own question, and I can’t answer it either. On Twitter, Jonathan Goodwin suggested that reading Blood Meridian would help me out:

Though I’m a bit discouraged by how unpleasant I found the (apparently milder) violence in No Country for Old Men, I do still intend to read Blood Meridian. But until then, I’m left puzzling over No Country for Old Men on its own: your comments and interpretations would be welcome.

This Week In My Classes: Cranford and The Road

roadThe honeymoon is over. At the beginning of every term things putter along easily enough while I wonder why I felt so stressed out at the end of the previous term … and then marking starts to come in, and the new assignment sequences dreamed up over the break loom on the horizon and require planning and handouts and Blackboard drop-boxes, and forms for the letters of reference I forgot I still needed to do appear in my inbox, and the thesis material I made my students promise to have ready duly shows up. And that’s about where I am now, staying on top of things but with effort. It doesn’t help that it’s winter (when has winter ever helped with anything?). It takes more energy to do everything in the winter, from driving away in the morning (bundling up, scraping, clearing) to just staying warm (even my LL Bean fleece slipper socks are just not enough this year, down in my basement office with the cold, cold floor).

So that’s how things are going, in a general way. It’s a good busy, mostly, especially the class prep for the novels that are new for me this term: I enjoy figuring out what I want to do with them and trying out my ideas in the classroom. I’m out of time for Cranford now: next time, I think I’ll allow more than four classes, because it feels like our work on it ended too abruptly. But then, I don’t typically have more than six classes on any but the longest novels! I’m going to miss its subtle good humor, which has been a good antidote to the relentless gloom of The Road in my intro class. One of my favorite bits on this read was the Great Pea-Eating Challenge:

When the ducks and green peas came, we looked at each other in dismay; we had only two-pronged, black-handled forks. It is true the steel was as bright as silver; but what were we to do? Miss Matty picked up her peas, one by one, on the point of the prongs, much as Amine ate her grains of rice after her previous feast with the Ghoul. Miss Pole sighed over her delicate young peas as she left them on one side of her plate untasted, for they would drop between the prongs. I looked at my host: the peas were going wholesale into his capacious mouth, shovelled up by his large round-ended knife. I saw, I imitated, I survived! My friends, in spite of my precedent, could not muster up courage enough to do an ungenteel thing; and, if Mr Holbrook had not been so heartily hungry, he would probably have seen that the good peas went away almost untouched.

I’ve always found peas quite inconvenient myself — and not particularly tasty, though I do occasionally serve them now that I’m All Grown Up (my parents could testify that this is a sign of maturity beyond what they would have predicted, given my childhood aversion to most green vegetables). Next up in this class is The Mill on the Floss. It’s not cheerful (well, the first part is pretty funny, but after that … ) but I’m really looking forward to it, especially after having worked up my essay on it for this month’s Open Letters.

In Intro to Lit, we had our first general class discussion of The Road today, and the students seemed quite engaged with it. We warmed up by talking about things like the title (I always start there with novels!) — why “the” road, why not any road in particular (especially considering they have a map), why just “the man” and “the boy,” what seems to have happened, what matters to them now, what is their relationship like, and so on. There’s lots more to talk about, but for Wednesday I want us to focus on the language of the novel for a while. I am aware that admiration of McCarthy’s style is not universal, and I’m not altogether convinced about some aspects of it myself, for all that I find the novel both gripping and moving. It’s a conspicuous style: there’s no illusion of transparency and there are a lot of what could be considered affectations, from the eccentric punctuation (argh! the apostrophes!) to the use of obscure words (obscure to me, anyway — words I had to look up for today’s installment included “rachitic,” “gryke,” and “kerfs”). Most sentences are very short, and indeed many are fragments, but some are longer and more elaborate, even florid. Because the novel is quite suspenseful, it’s easy to read along quickly and not fret the details (I didn’t look up any of these words on my first reading), but that’s obviously not good enough. I think we might try an exercise on “found poetry” in The Road. I think that this would focus our attention very closely on details of wording, including not just meaning but also sound, placement, and relationships to major themes. It would also probably prompt some useful discussion about what we think makes prose “poetic.” So! A handout for a group activity along these lines goes on the to-do list for tomorrow.