Tuesday, December 22, 2009

No Country For Old Men

I feel completely unqualified to write about this book. McCarthy always makes me feel this way. I just don’t ever know what to say. McCarthy is so singular that there are no comparisons to make.

I often want to call his prose “sparse,” but that word implies “less than what is necessary” which isn’t what I mean at all. It is only what is necessary – no less, but no more either. While I truly love the flourish of well written prose, McCarthy’s is as stripped down as it could possibly get. Even quotation marks are an unneeded extravagance. This writing style highlights the bleakness of his topics: apocalyptic disaster, absolute evil, etc. The horror speaks for itself – McCarthy doesn’t need a lot of words to convey it.

I won’t go into the plot details here, mostly because I don't feel like it, but also because the story is probably familiar to most. I am fascinated by two characters in this story: Moss and Chigurh. Moss: he thinks that HE is the “ultimate bad-ass”. He greatly overestimates his abilities in this department. He is no match for Chigurh – but then again nobody is, not even Wells. But here is Moss, repeatedly told not to try to outrun this thing, because it will not work. He will get you. But Moss is so caught up in himself. “I’m going to make you my special project” – he says something like that to Chigurh, and you just want to laugh at him. Yeah, ok Moss. He’s just so dumb in that respect.

I keep reflecting on Chigurh, and found a lot of insights about him in some research. He’s not a “character” in the traditional sense. He doesn’t have a personality. Characters change and react to their surroundings and the events that happen to them. Chigurh just IS. And he is simply not responsible for the deaths of the people he murdered. Fate has put these people in his way, and that wasn’t their doing. At some point, they made a choice which led THEM to HIM in a sense, not the other way around.

What more can I say? Again – McCarthy always leaves me speechless.

One woman who attended my local book club when I was participating said that she was disappointed in No Country for Old Men’s translation into feature film. She felt it didn’t do the book justice. I’m not sure I completely agree. Perhaps the film wasn’t great at showing that Chigurh isn’t just a bad guy. He is THE bad guy– a force of nature, destiny personified - conscienceless, ruled by fate, meting out some kind of divine justice. Maybe he is best described as beyond good and evil. It didn’t matter to him that he could have let Carla Jean go, just to be nice or whatever. Everyone involved had to die – just because they did. I only say that this might not have been conveyed in the right way due to Shawn’s reaction: “I don’t like the ending,” he said. “They didn’t get the bad guy. I hate it when the bad guy gets away.” I didn’t try to explain that you simply CANNOT get Chigurh. If you could, No Country would be just another chase story, no different from a number of other Tommy Lee Jones movies. Chigurh is beyond that. I don’t know that anything that said was much as included in the novel but not the movie, but I’m not sure that this all-important element came through. That’s probably why so many people were confused by the ending. They went to the cinema expecting to see a modern western staring Tommy Lee Jones, but they got something different.

The denouement, when seen through the lens of what the general viewing public may have expected from this film, was anticlimactic. But I believe that Bell is perhaps the central figure in this story. HE is the one that has a change, though perhaps that is simply because he’s the only one that doesn’t end up dead. In the beginning, we find the Sheriff realizing that he is confronting something that simply wasn’t when he got in the law enforcement business. I don't want to say "didn't exist," but just wasn't. He doesn’t understand this new thing, this new force. He doesn’t WANT to understand. He wants no part of that world. He thought at some point God would come into his life, but what he finds instead is Chigurh – who in a way is like some people’s conception of God. In the end, he has to opt out. Is the ending ambiguous? Yes. But perhaps less ambiguous than The Road with the fish… and the ties between those two novels, with the fire being carried forward, has been pointed out many times by people more qualified than me to discuss this.

I enjoyed this from the Scanners discussion forum (regarding the film, but applies to the novel as well):

Chigurh is by no means the focus of "No Country For Old Men" (it's more about the other characters' responses to his presence), but he bothers some people because they don't know who he is or what he represents. And that's just fine. Ask yourself, "What does he seek?" (in the words of his movie-killer antithesis, the cannibal psychologist Dr. Hannibal Lecter)... and where does that get you? He seeks $2 million in a leather satchel. As Joel Coen once said to me in an interview about "Barton Fink": "The question is: Where would it get you if something that's a little bit ambiguous in the movie is made clear? It doesn't get you anywhere." Sometimes, if certain questions don't appear to have an answer, maybe that's enough of an answer. Or maybe it's a superfluous question."

One (hopefully non-superfluous) question I do have to ask – and maybe it makes me look like a moron – but who the hell was Chigurh working for? Was he working for anyone? If any explanation was given, I missed it.

I really only started this book because I’m (1) not into The Big Money for some reason – I guess I needed a break after 1919 and have kind of given up for the time being; and (2) I am having a difficult time stomaching The Ginger Man. Watch for seething post on that coming up in a few weeks. McCarthy is always a nice break from the mundane. I can’t wait for Blood Meridian in 2010 (which will also eventually be made into a film).

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