Wednesday, February 07, 2007

McCarthyisms #2

Scott alluded to Cormac McCarthy's "King James cadence" in his comment on my last post. It's an intriguingly un-situated narrative voice that brings us these blood-red borderland shenanigans from the 1850s. It's not quite dialect, yet McCarthy does permit himself the anachronistic liberty of referring to African Americans (and his characters to Native Americans and Mexicans) as "niggers" and the mentally handicapped as "idiots" or "it".

Recently Michael Chabon spoke of McCarthy's "densely-foliated" prose in a New York Review of Books article, suggesting that in Blood Meridian "lushness of prose counterbalances aridity of setting." Well, for me at least, this lush prose tends at times to get itself a tiny bit blotto.

Indeed, in trying to invest his narrative with all the poetic trappings of a kind of apocalyptic anti-mythology, McCarthy himself repeatedly crosses back and forth across the frontier of well-judged metaphor. And sometimes I experienced the contrast between the opulence of the language and the comparatively prosaic nature of the thing being described as a sudden suspension of involvement. Some more examples:

"Those riders seemed journeyed from a legendary world and they left behind a strange tainture like an after image on the eye and the air they disturbed was altered an electric. "

"They rode like men invested with a purpose whose origins were antecedent to them, like blood legatees of an order both imperative and remote. For although each man among them was discreet unto himself, conjoined they made a thing that had not been before and in that communal soul were wastes hardly reckonable more than those whose whited regions on old maps where monsters do live and where there is nothing other of the known world save conjectural winds."

This next double-whammy simile is also fairly typical. The first one in the pairing just about stimulates a visceral 'visual' impression, but the second one requires more imagination, and struck me as a little superfluous. (I've heard these described as analogical similes, where the typical linking phrase − like some − sets about conjuring up an abstract/hypothetical likeness, rather than a more familiar visual one.)

"All about her the dead lay with their peeled skulls like polyps bluely wet or luminescent melons cooling on some mesa of the moon."

And yet, the cadence of the sentence as a whole just seems to work, regardless of its mixed success with regard to the direct conveyance of meaning.

These are of course ultimately matters of taste and experience. One man's lushness is another's pretentiousness. My own pet-favourite composer is Prokofiev, and I'm sure there are plenty of people that would declare his works for solo piano overblown...while I get that special buzz everytime I put them on.

Apparently Cormac McCarthy is a big fan of Melville, whose Moby Dick I am yet to take on. Though according to one leading American cultural commentator "the Bing Bang wrote Moby Dick".

Sometimes McCarthy's fiction reads like the result of a Big Bang originating in the offices of the Oxford English Dictionary.

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