Monday, July 8, 2019

No Country For Old Men by Cormac McCarthy

I’ve called this my favorite of McCarthy’s novels for some time now. With this reread I’ve adjusted that a bit. I would have to revisit Blood Meridian, Sutree and the Border Trilogy before I stick to that. This reread, my fifth time through the book, was prompted by a rewatch of the movie, which in turn was prompted by The Rewatchables podcast which covered it recently. The film is one of the best adaptations of any work I’ve seen. The Coens’ sensibility melds with McCarthy’s perfectly. The additions and, more often, cuts they made to the material in the book were perfect. I’m not entirely sure I prefer the book to the film.

The book is perhaps the most straightforward articulation of McCarthy’s themes. Primary among those, to my eye anyway, is that the world is not what you want it to be. The world is. It is brutal, implacable and will eventually kill you. Any beauty in it is in the negative space left around the words. McCarthy is intent on puncturing any comforting mythology. As in many of his books that impulse is mostly aimed at the myth of the American West. While Blood Meridian and the Border Trilogy may be a fuller exploration of that theme, No Country’s succinctness argues in its favor. It is a straight crime novel/western and nearly all ornamentation has been removed.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the main antagonist, Anton Chigurh. He is a dimestore version of the Judge from Blood Meridian, but is no less a force. He represents, among other things, the implacability, the inevitability and the randomness of death. It is hard to separate the book’s character from Javier Bardem’s portrayal of him in the film, but he is no less intimidating for that. Llewelyn Moss and Ed Tom Bell represent humanity’s helplessness in the face of what’s coming, which as the man says, you can’t stop.

McCarthy, to steal Annie Dillard’s analogy, pays more attention to the skull than the canary perched on it, and certainly doesn’t talk about the shaft of light that illuminates it. His is a nearly fully dark world, and, consequently, an incomplete one. Still, no one captures the skull or the darkness around it quite like he does. His work is bleak, and as such isn’t for everyone, but I love it.


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