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The Furs had been married seven years but had no children, a situation in those fecund days that caused them both grief. Mizpah was a little cracked on the subject and traded one of Bill’s good shirts to a passing emigrant wagon for a baby pig, which she dressed in swaddling clothes and fed from a nipple-fitted bottle that had once contained Wilfee’s Equine Liniment & Spanish Pain Destroyer but now held milk from the Furs’ unhappy cow – an object of attention from range bulls, rustlers and roundup cowboys, who spent much of her time hiding in a nearby cave. The piglet one day tripped over the hem of the swaddling dress and was carried off by a golden eagle.

Another first for me – I have never read Annie Proulx before today. I must confess that was a deliberate choice. I have some sympathy with the likes of B.R. Myers, who has argued that as a novelist she is representative of a certain turn away from genre fiction, yet another literati exploring the faultlines left by Woolf and Joyce with modernism.

On the other hand, I figured a book of short stories would be an interesting introduction to her style, that should it prove not to my liking, could be dispensed with quickly.

Fine Just The Way It Is I understand is another in a series of books by Proulx about ordinary folk living in countryside  Wyoming. The tales featured here are set in various periods of American history, although two relate to the adventures of the Devil and his personal secretary, satirical visions of a Hell that is not all that far removed from the world we know.

Family Man opens the proceedings with a tale set in the present-day of an elderly man being visited in a retirement home by a young relation. She hopes to record his memories of their family’s past, something he only agrees to do with the understanding that this will be a true account of what happened, not some sentimental memoir. His life has led him to The Mellowhorn Home, with its insistence on group activities and a lack of privacy. One of the nurses even eavesdrops on Roy Forkenbrock’s account of his past. Ultimately his experiences, the history of his family (and the painful secret he chooses to unburden himself of) becomes just another trivial story, swamped in an age of sensationalist reality television.

Them Old Cowboy Songs returns to the pioneer era of 1885. A young couple make a stake on a plot of land and the man goes off to find work, leaving his wife Rose behind, pregnant and alone. The story opens with a chilling note that many folk who lived in these times ‘had short runs and were quickly forgotten.’ It makes for a timely warning as to the couple’s fates and the random dangers of the wild country. Testimony of the Donkey skips back to the present day and has another couple, this time separated by a spurious argument, with one of them leaving to hike on a mountainous trail by herself. What follows is a horrific description of the human body being subjected to exposure and crippling thirst.

Proulx has a reputation as an archivist of an idea of America, like McCarthy, unveiling some notional ‘true history’, of the country through the prism of fiction. Whether it be the cost of isolation on the pioneers, the prevalence of homosexuality among men left to themselves, or the slow erosion of identity caused by modernity. It is easy to see why her stories have proved so popular with Hollywood. She is offering a counter-point to their own mythology of the Old West, a shock to cinema-audiences who have grown bored with stories of cheerful manifest destiny.

So it was some surprise to encounter fantastical stories thrown into the mix here. There are the aforementioned ‘Devil’, interludes, I’ve Always Loved This Place & Swamp Mischief, as well as the bizarre The Sagebrush Kid, which is quoted above and slowly drifts into horror fiction.

Even when her stories fail to keep me gripped throughout, in each I found at least a momentary shock, a passage that impresses with its callousness, or randomness.

The jury is out. I am eager to learn more about Proulx.

But, in a sense, they all already had a fever just as murderous and treacherous: emigration fever. It was burning them up and driving them on.

Ok folks, here is a quick update on the status of your friendly neighbourhood blogger. This afternoon Stephanie and I moved into our new home – for four weeks that is. We’re house-sitting for a lovely couple and keeping two very affectionate cats company.

The most exciting news (for me) is this house has an incredible collection of books! I am very happy. So I will expect I will be sourcing many of my reviews from the books here for the next few weeks.

Moving along, this book is yet another addition to the American dystopia canon. This time the culprit for the devastation of the world is a highly contagious disease. The title is derived from the practice to isolate infected members of communities in a lonely house outside the inhabited area.

Franklin Lopez, left to his own devices by his hardier brother Jackson, finds just such a structure and takes shelter during a violent storm. Together the two brothers, like many others become emigrants in the wake of the disaster in America, are travelling eastward to a mythical port that will lead to safer climes. Jackson is tempted to leave his younger brother behind though. Already their family was broken up when the two boys left their mother behind at their home when they struck out. One more separation would not cost him much.

Franklin is ignorant of his brother’s desire to abandon him. He has discovered within the pesthouse a young, beautiful woman, whose shaved head and deliriousness testifies to her infection with the flux. At first compelled to flee from the obvious signs of infection, Franklin finds himself returning to the young woman Margaret, his attraction to her outweighing the danger she poses. She tells him she comes from the settlement of Ferrytown, where he had his brother had been travelling to, as many others had before them, to cross the treacherous river to the next stretch of road leading to the coast. The inhabitants of the town charge those travelling eastwards almost everything they own for the right to cross. When the flux passes thanks to Franklin’s ministrations, the two travel down to the settlement, only to discover every soul dead.

Everyone they know is gone. Franklin and Margaret decide to make the rest of the trek to the East alone, braving the highways haunted by people rustlers and the prospect of further outbreaks of disease.

The comparison will be made, so obviously I have to get it out of the way first. This is not The Road. For one Jim Crace’s writing is far more lyrical than McCarthy’s spare prose. Furthermore there is a far greater leeway for hope, with Franklin and Margaret’s growing love granting them a brighter future than an aging father and his young son.

Surprisingly Crace is not writing about the apocalypse. He is inverting the format of American manifest destiny, with the huddled masses that have survived the plague travelling east instead of west, seeking safety overseas as America itself and all it represents has been lost to them. His conclusion, given the misery of this book’s setting, is an optimistic one, reflecting Franklin’s youthful enthusiasm for life.

Poetically written, without shying for the darkness at this novel’s heart, this is a wonderful book. A dystopia that does not give up on the future.

 

And so as with our idea of entertainment, our idea of genre  one of those French words, like crêpe, that no one can pronounce both correctly and without sounding pretentious – is of a thing fundamentally, perhaps inherently debased, infantile, commercialized, unworthy of the serious person’s attention. The undoubted satisfactions that come from reading science fiction or mystery stories are to be enjoyed only in childhood or youth, or by the adult readers only as “guilty pleasure” (a phrase I loathe).

My mother-in-law and Michael Chabon have something in common. They both dislike the word genre. It has become an arbiter of taste – genre-fiction obviously is of less value than ‘literature’, or serious writing. Not only that, but a book written according to the rules and precepts of a specific genre is somehow less meaningful than a tale about individuals struggling with day-to-day problems and perhaps if the reader is lucky, arriving at an epiphany before the plot runs out.

Chabon here defends the stalwarts of genre fiction, from Arthur Conan Doyle to M.R. James; from ghost stories to comic books, Will Eisner‘s The Spirit to Howard Chaykin‘s American Flagg; running the gamut between Philip Pullman‘s Miltonian Young Adult fiction, to literary darling Cormac McCarthy’s sf-not-by-name The Road. This is also, as the book’s subtitle states ‘Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands’ a collection of essays about writing, as much as it is about reading. The first half of the book is concerned with writers who represent the influences Chabon wishes to credit for his own development as a writer. The second half describes his beginnings as a novelist, as well as the aspects of his own life that inspired his fiction.

The central theme can be reduced to the power of lies to tell the truth. Chabon’s love of Loki found expression in his own children’s novel Summerland, where the villain was identified as the archetypal Trickster. He credits Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes This World for identifying the role played Loki/Satan/Coyote/Prometheus in symbolising that freewheeling creative spirit of the imagination. The conflict between genre fiction, wild and magical, dark and mysterious, and literature, enshrined (perhaps entombed) by consensus as ‘valuable’, in a coldly calculated manner, that lies at the heart of this collection.

When we read about our favourite writers, the temptation is there to find some aspect of their true selves in their fiction. Chabon describes how he himself felt terrified the first time he submitted material that featured a gay love scene. Similarly Wonder Boys convinced certain readers that Chabon himself was a pot-smoking ladies’ man. It is with these caveats that he sets about describing the life of Arthur Conan Doyle, presenting what he has learned (I loved  that The Sign of Four and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray were commissioned at the same time over lunch by magazine editor J.M. Stoddart), while also making tentative guesses at some insight into the author’s life. M.R. James’ ghost stories possess none of the overt Freudian undertones of modern horror writers, but beneath the precise phrases and clipped prose, Chabon detects an unconscious sexual undercurrent to the paranormal horrors the writer visited upon his protagonists.

He criticises Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials for losing sight of the first book’s sense of wonder, as well as its heroine Lyra’s whimsical character. However, he also lauds the series for not condescending to its readership, reinvigorating the tropes of the adventure serial and seriously exploring its allusive relationship to Milton’s Paradise Lost. The series, in Chabon’s view, acts as a celebration of the adventure that can be found in childhood, one that is slowly being extinguished in mainstream culture, even in comic books! In a general essay about the medium, he notes that few comics today actually feature child protagonists. Compare that to the blockbuster Harry Potter series, or Lyra and Will leaping across dimensions in Pullman’s books.

This being Chabon of course, the auto-biographical segments of this collection need to be taken with a grain of salt. From his remove as a forty-something author his childhood becomes a tableau of unguessed at future potential; his first novel credited to the efforts of Fitzgerald and Roth. He discusses his life as an American Jew, the break-up of his first marriage, the ‘exile’ of an author and how it relates to his culture. How a conflict on a Yiddish message board led to The Yiddish Policemen’s Ball!

Inspiring, truthful and humorous.

The Judge tilted his great head. The man who believes that the secrets of the world are forever hidden lives in mystery and fear. Superstition will drag him down. The rain will erode the deeds of his life. But that man who sets himself the task of singling out the thread of order from the tapestry will by the decision alone have taken charge of the world and it is only by such taking charge that he will effect a way to dictate the terms of his own fate.

Blood Meridian is a story about violence and history – the savage underbelly of civilization. McCarthy repeatedly uses  ‘meridian’ to describe the divide between day and night, life and death. It is also the border between America and Mexico, the white man and all other races. This is a novel heavy with portentousness and symbolism, but also seeping with horrific images of death.

The Kid is born in Tennessee. At age fourteen he sets out to find his fortune. He finds work where he can and travels when he has some money to his name. He takes to drinking and fighting in bars. He has two fateful early encounters with men that will later become important in his life. The first is a fellow wanderer named Toadvine. The second is known to most as the Judge. The Kid witnesses him falsely accusing a preacher of sodomy and inciting a lynch mob.

Living by his wits only gets the Kid so far and eventually his aimless life leads him to join a company of soldiers on an ill-advised sortie across the Mexican border. Once across the border, the Kid is catapulted into a life of violence and death. Apache prowl the Mexican desert and wolves track men during the night. Then the Judge finds him once again. He has taken command of a group of hired killers and they have a contract for Indian scalps.

This is the first Cormac McCarthy book I have ever read. I have very little knowledge of him, apart from Owen Wilson’s mocking caricature in The Royal Tenenbaums. Wes Anderson was a bit on the nose there. This is compelling writing, with the Judge leading his men across the Mexican landscape like Captain Ahab. Is he really a man, or the devil himself? The book is written in a quasi-Biblical language, ripe with hellish imagery and Jacobean excess. The campaign of violence waged by the Americans is unrelenting, slaughtering peaceful villages and rampaging through unsuspecting townships. One scene in particular has a bar-room fight spill out into the street, encountering a funeral procession and resulting in a massacre. For long passages of the book the Kid himself drops out of sight and we are left in the company of the Judge and his right-hand man Glanton, or Toadvine the Kid’s sometime ally. There is also an ex-priest named Tobin, who does not shirk from killing.

However, the story promises a final confrontation between the Kid and the Judge, the two of them continually meeting  despite all odds. Here, McCarthy sets up a further contrast, another meridian, this time the divide between a man who thinks he is free and one who knows he is master. The Kid is quick to anger, surly and not given to speak much. The Judge on the other hand waxes lyrical constantly, can be charming and kind in action, capable of speaking many different languages. He is also given to lectures on religion and the law, which he uses to confound those who investigate the crimes committed by his men. Beneath all of his culture and wit beats the heart of a monster, unrelenting and cruel. McCarthy has created a truly diabolical villain, one who would destroy anything he cannot control and wipe away all trace of it.

I can see why Hollywood tries to adapt McCarthy to the screen so often. The imagery of Blood Meridian often feels intensely cinematic. I would argue though that this is more due to the author’s use of language, which flows and ebbs on the page, a quality that would be very difficult to replicate on screen. However, this is bloody and intense plotting, certainly not making for a nice evening’s entertainment. In terms of a masterclass though, as an opportunity to observe a writer in full command of his craft, I thoroughly recommend it.

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