Wednesday, June 3, 2009

A Miracle in Prose

That's what the New York Times Book Review said about the writing of Cormac McCarthy - "A miracle in prose, an American original."

I happen to agree, and wanted to look a little closer at just why it is I love his writing. I think it's always helpful, as a writer, to break down writing, to turn it inside out and see where the stitches are. And to do this I think it means that we have to look at the writing not just as a reader, not just as a critic, but as a writer. A critic, I think, is concerned with what, where, and when. What is it saying and what does it mean? Where does it come from? When did it come about? A writer, I think, is primarily interested in the other questions: how and why. How did this writer do it? And why did they do it?

I think one of the reasons that I find McCarthy interesting is that he generally spurns one of the great advantages of fiction: a chance to represent the inner world of people. In one sense, McCarthy keeps very close to the surface, seeing the world as if through a lens. He captures everything through dialogue, action and description. He might be called cinematic for this reason... and yet it is the very miraculousness of his prose that makes his writing hard to recreate in film. Language itself becomes the defining element, inseparable from the character and mood of the story. Depth is created through the resonance of the words that illustrate a strange world, a world seen at an odd angle and in colours never before imagined. Or perhaps there is no colour, just an endless variation in the hue of darkness.

So, here's a bit of Cormac McCarthy, from The Crossing:

They rode the high country for weeks and they grew thin and gaunted man and horse and the horse grazed on the sparse winter grass in the mountains and gnawed the lichens from the rock and the boy shot trout with his arrows where they stood above their shadows on the cold stone floors of the pools and ate them and ate green nopal and then on a windy day traversing a high saddle in the mountains a hawk passed before the sun and its shadow ran so quick in the grass before them that it caused the horse to shy and the boy looked up where the bird turned high above them and he took the bow from his shoulder and nocked and loosed an arrow and watched it rise with the wind rattling the fletching slotted into the cane and watched it turning and arcing and the hawk wheeling and then flaring suddenly with the arrow locked in its pale breast.

I mean, what a sentence. No sight nor scent of punctuation. It seems a simple thing: just strip out all the punctuation, there you have it. But so much harder than it looks, to carry the weight of meaning necessary and hold to the flow and drive of movement. The simple rhythm of it... the language propulsive and moving and carrying everything onward onward onward as if no end would ever be reached. I mean, "and they grew thin and gaunted man and horse". I love that. I love that it's "gaunted" rather than "gaunt". There's a rhythm and weight to it, the slight oddity of it providing a greater clarity, a more vivid image. And the fish standing over their shadows, and the "high saddle" in the mountains, so simple and perfect for a story revolving around horses. And the sharpness of his eye, the tracking of the bird's shadow in the grass as if it were a solid thing, solid enough to shy a horse... beautiful. And the arrow itself... the language follows the arrow, you rise with it, you see it twisting and spinning and marked by its passage through the wind. And there's no impact, just the sudden flaring of wings and an arrow locked in a pale breat.

Another bit:

He built a small fire but he had little wood and the fire died in the night and he woke and watched the winter stars slip their hold and race to their deaths in the darkness. He could hear the horse step in its hobbles and hear the grass rip softly in the horse's mouth and hear it breathing or the toss of its tail and saw far to the south beyond the Hatchet Mountains the flare of lightning over Mexico and he knew that he would not be buried in this valley but in some distant place among strangers and he looked out to where the grass was running in the wind under the cold starlight as if it were the earth itself hurtling headlong and he said softly before he slept again that the one thing he knew of all things claimed to be known was that there was no certainty to any of it.

Again the propulsion, the rhythm of it, headlong and rampant. Bits of description... the "winter stars". Yes, it's winter, but winter is also descriptive, the coldness attaching to the stars and thus to the character, to what he feels. They "slip their hold" and "race to their deaths in the darkness"... and the stars are lights, the darkness thus inevitable when they die, their own darkness vanishing within one greater still. The only light in the cold dark is the momentary lightning over Mexico... and then McCarthy slips in one of his ever so rare bits of thought, almost lost in the description, a knowledge of death amidst strangers. And again, the "cold starlight", heightening the atmosphere he's already laid down. And then dialogue, too, mixed into the description, caught in its rhythms, the idea attached and inseparable from the world around, from the impinging darkness and death.


A last one (about wolves):

They ran their lean mouths against each other's flanks and they flowed about his knees and furrowed the snow with their noses and tossed their heads and in the cold their pooled breath made a cauldron about him and the snow lay so blue in the moonlight and those eyes were the palest topaz where they crouched and whined and tucked their tails and they fawned and shuddered as they drew close to the house and their teeth shone that were so white and their red tongues lolled. At the gate they would go no further. They looked back toward the dark shapes of the mountains. He knelt in the snow and reached out his arms to them and they touched his face with their wild muzzles and drew away again and their breath was warm and it smelled of the earth and the heart of the earth. When the last of them had come forward they stood in a crescent before him and their eyes were like footlights to the ordinate world and then they turned and wheeled away and loped off through the snow and vanished smoking into the winter night.

I love the rhythms, the long and drawn out sentences suddenly pierced in the middle by two very short and simple ones. A variance, a breath taken, before the language again sweeps away. And the diction, the genius of word choice. Their "pooled breath made a cauldron about him"... lots of words might take the place of cauldron, but few, I think, would have that sort of resonance. Bowl? I don't think so. The apparitional wolves in the night, the ghostly breath... cauldron is the right word. And the "wild muzzles"... so simple, and yet it captures so well the feral animals. And "footlights to the ordinate world"... how strange and vivid. And the wolves that "vanished smoking into the winter night"... beautiful, and again ghostly, almost insubstantial, the oddness of "smoking" seemingly perfect here. And again the overall atmosphere of darkness and cold that pervades the lines. Colour, image, repetion...

This is the uniqueness of style. I think I could see such lines anywhere and say "Cormac McCarthy wrote that." A miracle in prose... yes, I think so.

What do you think? Whose prose sings to you, jerks you out of your chair? Where do you find your little miracles, and what is it about them that makes them so miraculous?


Scott said...

Okay, I am most likely a complete idiot ... But I found those passages really difficult to read. I felt like I was gasping for air! For God sakes, man, use a period!

Seriously, the descriptive language is great. His style reminds me a little of Thoreau.

Ink said...

I find his content dark... and I find his writing dark, too. Gasping for air is good, because I do think there's something claustrophobic about his style. The density of mood is always very high. If people say they hate his writing, I can totally see why. It's odd, it's different, it's not put together in a normal way... I think that reaction is pretty valid. I'm guessing he probably gets a lot of love or hate... but not much indifference. I'm just on the love side of the tally, I guess.

Scott said...

I've not read one of his work yet, Ink. I was thinking of picking up On the Road.

His style is very different, kind of 19th century if you ask me. Not that that's good or bad ...

I know Nathan Bransford raves about him, so that makes him pretty good in my book (pun intended).

Ink said...

The Road is fabulous. I think it might be his most stylistically simple novel, too, along with No Country for Old Men. They're a little more pared down than his earlier stuff. But, yes, The Road is one of my all time favourite books. It's worth picking up.

Bonnie said...

That's a very good description of everything I dislike about McCarthy's style, approach, and content :D

Ink said...

Lol, Bonnie. That made me chuckle. And I can totally see that. I'm guessing he creates a lot of ecstatic readers... and he really grates on many others.

I think one of the things I appreaciate about him is that his style is original. He has his own vision and won't be deterred from it. He's getting acclaim now, but in the early years he got a lot of "what the hell?" I think it's a good lesson about doing what you love, finding the story and style that really speaks to you - regardless of outcome. As great as you might be, some people will always dislike, or even hate, your writing. But you just have to pursue it and hope it finds just as many who love it.

That's my theory, anyway! Of course, if Stephanie Meyer hires me to write her next book for a couple million, I just may have to do it. Right after I research shiny vampires.

Ms Kitty said...

This is the first I've heard of him. There is a certain poetry to his writing. I agree that it's a very old fashioned style, very literary.

To break that first part down: He uses "and" 17 times in one sentence.

It is interesting to read, though I wouldn't try to emulate that style.

I'm not that into literary writing, there is a certain feeling I get from it, a creeping sense of unease. The indirect, contorted sentence structure is disturbing. Like the beginning of an acid trip, when you know that things are going to get strange, but you don't know HOW strange.

Ink said...

Ms. Kitty,

I like that description of it.

His writing, a little, reminds me of the feel of Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Something about the dark and collapsing world, the thick atmosphere. Very claustrophobic. And I find people react to Heart of Darkness similarily. They love it... or they throw it across the room. :)

Scott said...


Just picked up The Road today and read most of the first chapter.

This is my first McCarthy experience. So far, so good. But why doesn't he use any quote marks or other punctuation? There are spots where a comma is clearly needed. I know that he has sold a million jillion books ... but how can he get away with this? And why would he want to ... is he a comma-phobe?

Ink said...

Style! Plus, you know, maybe he's insane. Oh, since he's rich he gets to be "eccentric". A one man verbal revolution. Plus a commaphobe.

Elaine 'still writing' Smith said...

Sorry for rocking the three men in a boat image - just thought I'd visit ...

Ok! You've conviced me to give him a read.

When my partner complains that I write streams of conscious thought I'm going to insist its 'McCarthy-esque'!

I've just as good as re-written my whole book to avoid a mere tendency to do this!

Man Utd fan - and far from all things Mancunian?

That miserable European Cup night put my recovery from sprained ankle back a month because I couldn't stop sitting on it!!

Ink said...

I only saw a few minutes of that game, and they were already down. When I came back and saw the score I was sort of glad I'd missed it. Ick. A Premier and Euro double would have been very nice indeed...

Marjorie said...

I always liked "Little Lulu," which was simply written and brings me to nostalgic places.