Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Cormac McCarthy - No Country for Old Men

Not everyone is suited to this line of work. The prospect of outsized profit leads people to exaggerate their own capabilities. In their minds. They pretend to themselves that they are in control of events where perhaps they are not. And it is always one’s stance upon uncertain ground that invites the attentions of one’s enemies. Or discourages it. (p. 253)

Llewellyn Moss is hunting deer when he stumbles across a drug deal gone horribly wrong: three shot up vehicles. Six dead or dying men. 2.4 million dollars in large bills. Moss is a hard man, a Vietnam veteran, but he’s tried to stay within the boundaries of the law since. He takes the money, and, just like that, he’s catapulted into the world that lurks just beneath the surface of every small town, roadway, and crowded jail in McCarthy’s (our?) Texas.

No Country for Old Men is a tour of violent set pieces, coming one after the other, barely punctuated by briefs lulls that seem more shocking than what precedes and follows them. Trucks in the desert, motel after motel, Texas, Mexico. It’s impossible to escape. Old friends, enemies, people you’ve never met. It’s impossible to predict. At the end of every scene, the shell-shocked survivors stagger to and can think of nothing beyond what is to come, but they do not truly matter: I walked over that ground and there was very little sign that anything had ever took place there. I picked up a shellcasin or two. That was about it. (p. 284) There it is, the true worth of life and measure of events in No Country for Old Men, in which nothing seems to matter beyond the calibers used.

Walking through this conflict, nigh on unassailable, is Chigurh. He has no real desires outside of violence. He is associated with no one. He leaves no one alive. And, needless to say, he feels no remorse. For most of the story, Chigurh is Death, striding amongst humans and executing them with the same cattlegun that’s used in slaughterhouses. As the narrative continues, however, McCarthy provides an alternate idea. What if Chigurh is not something infinitely beyond us, but rather what we will all become, as our sense of justice erodes further and further, the end wholly validates the means, and our culture continues to fall? It is not, after all, a question of capabilities, merely outlook:

You think you’re outside of everything, Wells said. But you’re not.

Not everything. No.

You’re not outside of death.

It doesn’t mean to me what it does to you.
(p. 177)

The endless deluge of violence is only stopped at the end of the narrative, where the last surviving character takes a step back and, admitting their failure, flees the world that the rest of the narrative has taken place in. At that point, all we are left with the aftermath, in which none of the pieces will assemble to form the whole picture, and in which there is nothing to be done but mourn (or forget) the dead and move on.

Characterization in No Country for Old Men is, like plot, somewhere between nonexistent and excellent. There is very little character development in the novel, and what little there is is confined to Sheriff Bell, more a spectator than a participant in most of the key events. Yet you can sense the character’s trying to change, struggling for it. You see Moss struggling to keep his principles, then, after realizing that that roads leads to nothing but death, trying to harden himself to a point where he will be immune. Both fail. Everyone is locked into their roads, stuck on their tracks, and every road ends in death:

Every moment in your life is a turning and every one a choosing. Somewhere you made a choice. All followed to this. The accounting is scrupulous. The shape is drawn. No line can be erased. I had no belief in your ability to move a coin to your bidding. How could you? A person’s path through the world seldom changes and even more seldom will it change abruptly. And the shape of your path was visible from the beginning. (p. 259)

Like all of McCarthy’s works, No Country for Old Men is written in a minimalist style, bereft of punctuation beyond periods and the occasional comma to signal dialogue. Despite the inherent difficulty of the style, this is by far the most accessible and easiest of McCarthy’s work. Where Blood Meridian was a desolate, eternal, bloody meandering in the west, almost wholly devoid of character or anything else that the reader could grab onto, No Country for Old men reaches the same effect by the opposite devices. This narrative is catchy and impossible to put down, the style easy enough to facilitate quick reading, and the whole thing is streamlined just enough to make sure that it can ram its core down any reader’s throat, no matter how determined to not get involved they are.

No Country for Old Men is a masterpiece that, if it’s not superior to, matches the man’s other great works. The (excellent) movie has probably made sure that everyone reading this is familiar with the subject matter, but, if you’re one of the few who hasn’t seen it, or just wants to experience the same thing again via a different medium, this is a mandatory read.

1 comment:

  1. This book starts out like a thriller, in fact it starts out pretty much like a mass-market thriller, but it doesn't finish that way. If you buy this book for the suspense you may be somewhat disappointed by the direction taken. However, if your taste runs to "deeper meaning" literature that is good to great, then you will enjoy this book from Cormac McCarthy.