A Brief Discussion of a Cormac McCarthy Sentence
Excuse my last email.
From Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian:
"They were twenty-four hours without water and the barren mural of sand and sky was beginning to shimmer and swim and the periodic arrows sprang aslant from the sands about them like the tufted stalks of mutant desert growths propagating angrily into the dry desert air." 279.
It starts out as a passive sentence, pointing to the vulnerability of these characters moving through a landscape threatening to undermine their lives. Had Cormac began without "They were" and just with the active base clause, "Twenty four hours without water and the barren mural of sand and sky shimmerED and swAM, etc." might have improved the urgency of the thoughts, but thrown the sentence into past tense, thus detracting from the passivity these characters must feel-- a passivity which, I think, is necessary to show.
Once again we have polysendeton, the use of conjunctions linking clauses together: "and the barren mural of sand AND sky...AND swim AND the periodic arrows, etc." The word that comes to mind is locomotion, a breathlessness, almost like a child spinning a tale to tell his older brothers of the ineluctable mystery of what he's experienced.
I love also the alliteration, the "Ss" slipping in, providing a hissing quality like that of a snake in grass, or biblical Eden (lost one at that): "hourS, Sand, Sky, waS, Swim, arrowS, Sprang, Slant, Sands, StalkS." There is also an internal rime in the base clause, "Four, hours, withOUT," which provides, in my opinion, a coiling up effect, something harnessing energy and ready to strike, releasing all those gorgeous "Ss."
Looking closely at his active verbs, we find "shimmer," "swim," "sprang," and "propagating." Whereas "shimmer and swim" modifies the phrase "mural of sand" Cormac deploys a metaphor of water and light to keep us off balance. We feel as if this scene is a mirage, with the surrealism of arrows poking up "from the sands about them." And once again, "Sprang has that viperine quality that corresponds to the hissing sounds.
We find here the undertones of landscape made into hell, something evil and threatening. I particularly liked the metaphor at the end, a trope Cormac uses often and unsparingly. Although simile most often helps readers link two disparate images which share traits in common, helping us see clearer, Cormac's simile also employs personification, thus humanizing the death and tragedy found here; for the arrows springing aslant from the sands do so "angrily."
The word "mutant" is interesting here as well, as it suggests that the arrows have withered, changed, and also that they seem inhuman, as if even the hands that pulled bow and string and shot the arrows into space to land here were inhuman, too. This idea fits nicely with the whole notions of violence found in the book. The Glanton Gang, after all, are looking for scalps, and see in the native Indians something subhuman.
The sentence ends with that parched quality with which the sentence began and also alliteration: "dry desert air." We begin with a group of men parched, having gone without water in the barren desert. We end with arrows poking out of the ground in the "dry desert air." There is a sense of foreboding that violence is sure to come, that these the end is death for one and all, that death is the ultimate end.
That's all I have.
PS Today I started reading The Voice of the River by Melanie Rae Thon. Interesting structure, interesting style.
This sentence runs counter to how I’d write it. It’s long, flowing, lyrical; yet the characters are without water. Shorter sentences create more anxiety. So at first blush, this sentence is interesting to me for what it isn’t.
You’ve done a great job analyzing this sentence. So I’ll try to add rather than repeat.
As I said above, shorter sentence create more tension. Yet when I read this sentence, I feel anxiety. Why? First we get, as you noted, the gentle alliteration of “s” and sibilant sounds--sand/sky/shimmer/swim. And you have the lovely image created by the word “mural.” McCarthy makes you see this landscape by adding this word, which does the work of defamiliarization. If the sentence ended there, I’d say it failed to mimic what the characters were experiencing. That is, style would have departed from content.
But then McCarthy does something interesting. As he uses more conjunctions, he includes more plosive consonants—(plosives are p,t,k,b,d,g)—and they create a harsh sound. We’ve moved away from the soft flow of “sand and sky were beginning to shimmer and swim,” and onto a land that is described with plosives---“periodic/aslant/tufted/stalks/mutant/desert/propagating/angrily/dry/desert.”
With this movement to harsher sounds, we also move away from the water imagery. The characters are twenty-four hours without water and at first the desert, “the barren mural of sand and sky” seems to be providing them with water via a mirage –“shimmer and swim.” But by the end of the sentence, the characters will not find salvation in this landscape. Water imagery is gone, replaced by “periodic arrows” and “tufted stalks of mutant desert growths,” and “dry desert air.” What great movement!
The sentence ends on an ugly image with interesting diction through a simile: “like the tufted stalks of mutant desert growths propagating angrily into the dry desert air.” That adjective, “mutant,” as you noted, leaps off the page. I keep coming back to the movement of the sentence—how it starts with beauty and here we are ending with mutant. Mutant is related to “mutation,” which means change or a significant and basic alteration. Something is about to change in this world. At the same time, when I let myself free associate, I come up with words like alien, strange, not human. Yes, the Glanton Gang is looking for scalps. And they are in an inhospital landscape—the desert—which is not fit for human life.
Now I want to reread Blood Meridian.