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Friday, September 2, 2011

Written in Blood-"An Evening Redness in the West"

If ever there was a novel whose language itself was a character, this is it!  Cormac's prose seems cut by the wind, darkened by nightfall in the cool pale desert, rubbed raw by the wind blown bluffs, bloodied by the claws of violence.  Scene after scene builds to an agonizing pitch.  A scream.  The novel is harsh, raw, violent.  The depictions of landscape are the finest I have ever read. It is the first novel that showed me how landscape could be used to define character.

At first what shocked me about the novel wasn't so much as how dark it was, how bloody and unapologetic, but how Cormac made language itself seem alien.  He made English a point of deviation from the known world, that is, he made English sound like a foreign language.  With an old world, 19th Century diction, he employed oddly specific nouns, verbs, compound constructions, neologisms, all of which I had never read anywhere before.  With a mixture of short sentences and long, periodic sentences, compound constructions, left branching and right branching and conjunctions and connectives all chained together to form sentences whose sound itself (when read aloud) sound like hammered anvils, he takes his literary and stylistic cues from both Faulkner and Hemingway.  But with the use of those specific nouns and verbs and adjectives--scullery, boatswain, bolls, walleyed, jakes, sockingfooted, wickercovered, trundlecarts, calabozo, malandered, clackdish, tanyard, quirt, escopeta, limberteams, etc. etc.--his prose far surpasses either Faulkner or Hemingway.


His is a dark music, a requiem, an elegy, among the darkest things ever written in prose and on par with the darkest things ever written by say Mahler, Schubert, or Off.  His themes--moral depravity, Godlessness, disconnect--embody the qualities found in the proto-existentialists Nitzsche and Kierkegaard, and the full blown existentialism of Camus and Sartre.   

Often employing Spanish and English words to add a new level of depth and authenticity to the prose, Cormac's writing continues to teach me valuable lessons in how language may be used to alienate and communicate a novel's themes aesthetically: Si, he said.  Si, bufones. Todo. He turned to the boy.  Casimero! Los perros! 

Unlike Joyce's novel, or any of the novels I had previously read, Cormac's characters hardly reflect upon their human condition.  There is no interiority.  There is no sentence of the type, "Glanton thought," "The Judge felt that," or "The Kid believed."  There is just action and depictions of landscape.  If thoughts are revealed they are done explicitly, in speeches, as when The Judge communicates his ideas to the Glanton gang about God, Death and War.  "War is God," he says, continuing on for two more pages.

It is a high wire act! If an MFA writer tried this style (which I unfortunately did on a novel I was writing earlier in my MFA career, a novel about Congolese cassiterite miners and their exploitation at the hands of several rebel factions), you would be laughed at, ridiculed, and sent packing (which I was).  So, how does Cormac get away with literary murder?  He does so partly through the doctrine of association, whereby landscape assumes the role of the mind's inner turmoil.  He does it through a commanding vocabulary. He does it with complete confidence in his abilities as a writer.  He does it through the courage of his convictions.  It doesn't hurt that he is a brilliant writer, a true artist, a consummate genius.  Every time I read his work, and this novel in particular, I am in awe. 


Ever since reading this novel, I have paid more attention to the role of landscape in my own work, landscape that acts as a surrogate for character interiority, landscape that acts as a character itself, landscape that fulfills the promises of theme (See Digression: Evening in Hernandez by Ansel Adams).