Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Death at the Flip of a Coin

He did close his eyes. He closed his eyes and he turned his head and he raised one hand to fend away what could not be fended away. Chigurh shot him in the face. everything that Wells had ever known or thought or loved drained slowly down the wall behind him. His mother's face, his First Communion, women he had known. the faces of men as they died on their knees before him. The body of a child dead in a road-side ravine in another country. He lay headless on the bed with his arms outflung, most of this right hand missing. Chigurh rose and picked the empty casing off the rug and blew into it and put it in his pocket and looked at this watch. The new day was still a minute away.
I actually didn't mean to read Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men next, especially not as I have half a dozen other books on the go. But I bought it in Singapore and then thought I'd just glance through a page or two when I was at the airport.

And then the damn thing wouldn't let go of me.

It was all very well for Kaykay to laugh at me the other night about the book being so not "my thing", being very much a blokes book, being a modern day western, being so unremittingly violent and all that.

But this book is excellent.

Any synopsis of the plot is going to make the book look like pulp fiction. But what makes the book absolutely remarkable is the terse, spare writing, the crisp dialogue and the way that each page crackles with tension. It's so cinematographic that I can't think that the Coen brothers had to do too much work to bring it to the screen. (Although they seem to have done a pretty good job!) :



Then there's the depth of characterisation, and the deeper questions about free will versus determinism, and the nature of good and evil.

Anton Moss, a welder and ex-Vietnam vet, is out hunting antelope in the arid scrub near Rio Grande when he stumbles into the aftermath of a gun battle in which the members of a drug convey have been slaughtered. And then he finds a suitcase with a cool $2.4 million inside.

Soon he is a fugitive fleeing from the hired gun, sent to retrieve the money, an icy-cold psychopath called Anton Chigurh (the name rhymes with "Sugar" ironically) who has a perverted sense of moral justice, a real angel of death who models himself on God. Chigurh decides the fate of his victims with a flick of a coin and calmly dispatches them with a stungun of the sort used in slaughter houses.

And then there's Bell, a small town sheriff struggling to do the duty he is entrusted with in a world that seems to be changing steadily for the worse. He is also doing his best to track Moss down before it's too late. The narrative of the novel alternates between omniscience and chapters where Bell is given free-reign to talk about his own history and philosophy of life in monologues that read like something from Studs Terkal's classic oral histories. Bell is a good man but he doesn't really have his finger on why the world is going to hell in a hand basket, even though he can see that it is.

To complicate matters, a special forces agent employed by a powerful cartel is also hot on Moss' trail. (This is the guy who meets his sticky end in the extract above!) And there's Moss' young wife, who also needs to do a runner with her dying mother to avoid being picked off by Chigurh.

Although The Road was probably the most powerful novel I've read this year, I think this novel is far better from the technical point of view. And although McCarthy's use of punctuation is every bit as eccentric here, it seems to fit with the way the Texan dialect is written and doesn't grate as it does in The Road. (I did though sometimes get lost in dialogues, since there is no indication of who is speaking.) And thankfully, there are fewer choppy sentence fragments of the kind that had me gritting my teeth.

I guess I'll be reading backwards through some of those earlier novels now.

A very good review of the book on the Citypaper website.

13 comments:

GUO SHAO-HUA said...

it isn't McCarthy's best book and neither is it high literature, but as a thriller, i love it. i love it for its questions about whether the world is getting more violent today compared to "the old days", compared to when we were young, compared to our parents' time, when people seemed friendlier.

the answer seems to be: no, the world has been fucked up since time immemorial.

bibliobibuli said...

what exactly is 'high literature'? i know only that good stuff is stuff that affects you.

and if you reckon it isn't the best, which is? "blood meridian"?

and as for the question, well, you could well be right

GUO SHAO-HUA said...

i tend to be a bit more pretentious when it comes to books. there are books of high literary value, and there are throwaway stuff.

bibliobibuli said...

i'm poking you into a corner here. why do you you not consider this "of high literary value"? i don't think novels get a whole lot better. what are you looking for? great plot? tick. depth of characterisation? tick. deeper themes? tick.

is it because you feel a worthy piece of fiction can't also be a genre novel? (as this is)

or is it because of the use of natural (and thus somewhat "ungrammatical") speech rhythms or eccentricities of publication

you're going to have to answer this, Guo, because i'm scared that you are a far bigger booksnob than i am

GUO SHAO-HUA said...

i admit i AM a booksnob!


it's not the genre,

it's not the theme,

it's not the characterisation,

it's not the plot.

it's LANGUAGE.

the book's written like a screenplay.

Richard Matheson's I Am Legend,

not written like a screenplay,

it's a genre book,

but i consider it up there with the best.

beautifully written,

evokes claustrophobia, loneliness, fear,

No Country plot driven,

exciting, thrilling,

but i feel nothing else.

the ending of The Road has more "feeling."

the end.

fade out.

bibliobibuli said...

can sympathise with that but don't feel the same way

love "voice" in a novel and mccarthy captures it so well

what does it matter if it is written like a screenplay? (and actually, yes, it is)

but it comes down in the end to personal taste and not to any objective measure

KayKay said...

Ah! Sharon, this is why I adore you! Every once in awhile, you step down from the "Clouds" of literary fiction to swim in the murky depths of "Bloke" Fiction!

I am more eager than ever to start this book. Especially before I see the movie.

The little I know of McCarthy, he would shudder at the thought of anyone thinking this was written as a screenplay. He's about as far removed from Grisham or Crichton in that aspect! Making a statement like "the book wrote itself" (I hate that line with a passion! No book bloody writes itself!) when talking about The Road is something no self respecting writer of thrillers would make. No sir, methinks Mr.McCarthy fancies himself a literary heavy weight, the voice of violent dystopian Americana. With NCFOM, I think he was trying to make a statement on the nature of violence within the generic tropes of a conventional thriller.

...And Sharon Bakar read and savoured it:-)

Why not? Stranger things have happened.

I read "Atonement"!

bibliobibuli said...

the voice of violent dystopian Americana nicely worded! yes, he's certainly making use of a conventional format to go much deeper. what you say about him fancying himself in "the road" yes, i think so too, but his vision of that dead world is possibly the most heartbreaking thing i've ever read

i like good writing, kaykay, and i'll take it wherever i find it and i hope without prejudice against any genre

Yang-May said...

Cormac McCarthy is a master. Read his Border Trilogy for its evocation of landscape and how that is tied up deeply with character and story. His stories evoke a transition point in the American West and while being very specific in location and time, explores issues about American identity and masculinity that is bound up with guns, violence and the landscape and mythology of America. Not everyone's cup of tea but I think we writers can take a lot away from a reading of McCarthy in terms of how he uses the vernacular to create a poweful narrative voice and a very localised story to explore wider, universal themes.

bibliobibuli said...

yang may - thanks and nicely said. will read the border trilogy for sure.

just noticed i horrible typo in my comment above - meant "punctuation" not "publication"

GUO SHAO-HUA said...

"I think we writers can take a lot away from a reading of McCarthy in terms of how he uses the vernacular to create a poweful narrative voice and a very localised story to explore wider, universal themes."

why only writers? if only writers can understand what McCarthy's really getting at, then he's not a very good writer, is he? but he IS a very good novelist.

i know some people who don't write but can still analyse the hell out of a book.

Anonymous said...

"Anton Moss, a welder and ex-Vietnam vet,is out hunting antelope"

(Deer Hunter)

"in the arid scrub near Rio Grande when he stumbles into the aftermath of a gun battle in which the members of a drug convey have been slaughtered. And then he finds a suitcase with a cool $2.4 million inside."

(which he takes of course. No one asks him why there are bloodstains all over his hands and the briefcase.)

"Soon he is a fugitive fleeing from the hired gun,"

(Anton Moss is Jason Bourne's real name ?)

"sent to retrieve the money, an icy-cold psychopath called Anton Chigurh (the name rhymes with "Sugar" ironically) who has a perverted sense of moral justice, a real angel of death who models himself on God."

Incidentally, he's also known as "The Jackal" in some parts.

"Chigurh decides the fate of his victims with a flick of a coin and calmly dispatches them with a stungun of the sort used in slaughter houses."

That's just a little less cruel than the police in some countries, which use a device called a "Taser" which is just a less lethal form of what he uses. I've electrocuted myself before. It's actually quite enlightening, and not strictly speaking, really cruel, not in the way he does it anyway. It's not like they stripped his skin away with a harsh wire scrubbing brush, is it ? :P

See that's why I don't read. There are maybe ten good books in the world.

bibliobibuli said...

See that's why I don't read. There are maybe ten good books in the world.

of course. now go and take up embroidery or horse-riding or something that gives you more fun.