Sunday, August 10, 2008

Cormac McCarthy: The Road as Prose Poetry

I broke my "no novels" rule and read Cormac McCarthy's two most recent this week. No Country for Old Men was excellent, and very close in every respect to the film, which I recently decided needs to be on my favorite movie list. The Road on the other hand I thought very overrated by critics -- I have heard it called his best novel, the best book of the year (or decade or whatever), and it won the Pulitzer Prize. Ridley Scott is planning to make it into a movie, but this seems like an awful idea based primarily on the success of No Country for Old Men. No Country for Old men has the structure of a thriller. In addition to being a disaster narrative, The Road is also a narrative disaster -- well, there really is no narrative. A man and his son travel across a post-apocalyptic landscape: they find food, they loose food, they find food again they loose food again, there are brief flashbacks to the pre-apocalypse world, they avoid bad guys, they deal with the weather, they have tense meetings with other people because you never know who is going to screw you, and at the end -- well this ending is just sort of tacked on because it needs to end somehow. Scott is basically going to have to put the alien from Alien in this movie to make it interesting.

But the novel has many many passages that are just stunning. And I thought -- hey, this would be so much better as a volume of prose poetry. Of course McCarthy would have lost a TON of money publishing his work as a volume of prose poetry, and I do not begrudge him that, but I thought I might, in a series of posts, whittle the book down to what makes it work. In a published volume edited by me these passages would get their own pages. Here are my first three selections:

Nights dark beyond darkness and they days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world.

In the dream from which he'd wakened he had wandered in a cave where the child led him by the hand. Their light playing over the wet flowstone walls. Like pilgrims in a fable swallowed up and lost among the inward parts of some gigantic beast. Deep stone flues where the water dripped and sang. Tolling in the silence the minutes of the earth and the hours and the days of it and the years without cease. Until they stood in a great stone room where lay a black and ancient lake. And on the far shore a creature that raised its dripping mouth from the rimstone pool and stared into the light with eyes dead white and sightless as the eggs of spiders. It swung its head low over the water as if to take the scent of what it could not see. Crouching there pale and naked and translucent, its alabaster bones cast up in shadow on the rocks behind it. its bowels, its beating heart. The brain that pulsed in a dull glass bell. It swung its head from side to side and then gave out a low moan and turned and lurched away and loped soundlessly into the dark.

Barren, silent, godless.


scott91777 said...

Yeah, I have to agreee about the Road... when I finished it I was kind of like "ok... so... that's it? It just got to a point where it was about to become interesting!" I think a comparative analysis of that and The Grapes of Wrath would be interesting though (ending of that? also disapointing).

I didn't know you had a 'no novel' rule. That's generally what I read when reading for pleasure... I'm sure I've heard you mention novels on here before... in fact, I'm fairly certain, my next McCarthy purchase was going to be based on something that you said about Blood Meridian.

Your idea of doing this as a prose poem edition reminds me of something I thought of last summer, oddly enough, while reading grapes of wrath. At some point, I developed minimalist sensibilities (I think it was the very moment I read the "David Copperfield kind of crap" line in Catcher in the Rye) and, as I was reading the book, I kept wanting to cut stuff out... like, this is unnecessary, do we really need this 10 page segment about a tortoise... or the in depth description of Tom Joad's gum chewing?

But... anyway, my idea was "A Minimalist Library" that would take works like this and edit them down to something much tighter. I personally think Stephen King novels could reap the most benefit from this :)

Geoff Klock said...

the no novel rule has been in place since like 2004; before that I read tons of novels and all the big fuck off ones. Basically my feeling is that the criteria for "good novel" is pretty low, so that tons of these things get recommended, and you know, they dont suck, but even one from someone like mccarthy, who is this big master, is kind of like, well OK.

The problem with this project is of course that it is competely illegal to do this, and also, even if it were it would hardly be popular.

One of the things about novels is that once people get great there is no one to edit them. Someone NEEDED to say to Don Dilllo hey, Don, you have a good 200 page book in Underworld. CUT IT DOWN.

Voice Of The Eagle said...

You didn't find the long passages by Bell to be insufferable and didactic?

It's bizarre in the midst of all that bloodshed to read long treaties against liberalism, bad manners and green hair. When I first read it I thought it was so obviously McCarthy soapboxing, I was distracted from the main action of the narrative.

Geoff Klock said...

VoE -- I do not mind that stuff. I do not pick up books based on liberal or conservative mindset. And I am a big fan of tales of degeneration of any sort. Certainly the film improved on the book by cutting down those speeches.

You know I just realized that I really like those speeches but am having a hard time articulating why exactly.

James said...

For me it was that Bell is such a well-realised character, and his voice in those speeches is just completely distinct and authentic.

The politics of those speeches troubled me as the book went on, but I was still sympathetic to this guy who the world was leaving behind, you know?

brad said...

I absolutely loved this book. It's been years since a novel stuck with me like The Road. Usually, I do tend to like stories because of their plot. But this book was different. I found myself pouring over sentences, really tripping out over the descriptions. McCarthy slipped a book of poetry under the radar for sure.

Not Ultros said...

John Hillcoat (THE PROPOSITION) is doing THE ROAD, which should be out by the end of this year. Viggo Mortensen, Charlize Theron, Robert Duvall, and Michael "Omar from THE WIRE" Williams star.

Ridley Scott is said to be doing BLOOD MERIDIAN, which is McCarthy's best (and most horrifying) work. However, Scott's also rumoured to be directing a movie based on the board game "Monopoly," so I'll believe it when I see it.

Additionally, McCarthy and any conception of losing money don't gel. He's forfeited thousands over the years by refusing to lecture or talk about his books, insisting that "Everything you need to understand 'em" is right there on the page. His ex-wives have bemoaned the cranky old bastard's living in shacks off of canned beans at length. And he did follow up the road with THE SUNSET LIMITED, a 'play in print' that I don't think anyone read.

I also wonder if, in some capacity, he didn't do the story as a poem because he sincerely doesn't know how to. McCarthy has spoken at length about not 'getting' or 'understanding' certain literary ideas and trends and why they're said to succeed. I have no problem believing he did the story in a way he knew he could do it, not in the way he necessarily should have.

Which, like THE DARK KNIGHT's "Hero we need versus hero we deserve," is a distinction that one needs to struggle with if it's to make sense. Nonetheless, excellent quotes.

Anonymous said...

Not Ultros...
I certainly agree with you on this one! McCarthy doesn't seem like an economic opportunist. I read The Road as such: a tale with which its form is a mysterious equal to its content. Why must those who claim to know so much about art contually seek to place it inside a box of some sort? That, is one mystery i will never understand.
If there is one thing The Road does not lack, it is a TRULY UNIQUE and AUTHENTIC VOIC; one that propells the story as much as Cormac's unbelievable poetic construction of it.

Anonymous said...

My nomination for prose from The Road:

"Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patters that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery."

Anonymous said...

I severely disagree, the book is not just a book of what happened. It's a book about WHY it is happening. The debates of suicide, the ever looming sickness. He KNOWS he will die, but he can't chance it. Not for the boy. The man is all the boy has, and all he has ever had. They are "each the other's world entire". It's a book about the endless darkness brought on by man, and the endless innocence of a child. The child fed Ely. The man did not. It honestly, is also an allegory to the holocaust as well.