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Wednesday, July 31, 2013

A Brief Discussion of a Cormac McCarthy Sentence

Dear Nina,

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. 

Dear Surya,
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.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

A Death in the Family - James Agee

If you haven't read James Agee's masterpiece A death in the Family, you must.  It's a brilliant account of grief and loss told from an omniscient POV in prose that takes your breath away. 
 For example, here's what I found fairly late in the novel:

"Without either desiring to see her face, or caring how it looked, she saw that it had changed; through the deep, clear veil her gray eyes watched her gray eyes watch her through the deep, clear veil." 

The entire novel is full of sentences that simply astonish you. Agee, deeply influenced by William Faulkner, cannot help but attempt to surpass the master. Amazingly, Agee still manages to sound original while employing much of Faulkner's style. 

Here's what I love about this sentence: It begins negatively, "without," in an existential "either/or" mode which, as you remember from Kierkegaard, posits how a choice, silent and ineffable, must be made to secure identity, meaning. Here the subject of the sentence, Mary, who has just lost her husband, must attend his funeral. She no longer cares for her vanity, because the man in whose direction she launched her vanity (her husband Jay) is dead. Agee doesn't have to say, "Jay's death changed her," or something blunt and obvious as that, he puts those thoughts as physical action for us to see it: "she saw it had changed." Mary has neither desire nor care. The essence of her femininity is and her mothering have vanished. 

The semi-colon that splits the sentence in two parts is an artful use of punctuation, as it show the split between Mary and Jay, Mary's past and present, Mary's tortured circularity of having the world spin around her, reliving the night Jay left, and reliving the events of his death as told to her. Incidentally, in describing Jay's death in an auto accident Agee has the car Jay was driving landing upside down, its wheels spinning; it's a crucial image that returns again and again through revolving, spinning, rotating imagery in various ways throughout the novel. But Agee's true victory over language, image, emotion and idea, occurs in the second half of the sentence, utilizing repetition, inverted syntax, and alliteration.

We have "veil" and "gray " which rhyme internally, but anchoring the sentence is the word "watched," sitting dead center; it has the surprising effect of watching the reader. As readers we eavesdrop on the lives of characters and this sentence has the marvelous ability to eavesdrop on us. It also shows us that Mary is regarding herself as an object, "the grieving widow," perhaps, "the suffering woman." It is this level of detachment from the events of facing her dead husband's body that feels like a necessary reaction. She must detach. She must, but alas (further down the page) we see that as much as she might want to try and be distant, her body won't let her. 

If you've read the book, then put it on your list of to read again. It has so many gifts of language and insight. So much heartbreak. So much love and hurt, understanding and compassion. 

Here are a few other tastes from the novel:

"Their little sounds, as they approached their father, vanished upon it like the infinitesimal whisperings of snow, falling on open water."

"Her mother's arm came round him; he felt her hand on the crest of his shoulder. He slid his arm around her and felt her hand become alive on his shoulder and felt his sister's arm. He touched her bare arm tenderly, and felt her hand grapple for and take his arm. He put his hand around her arm and felt how little it was he could feel a vein beating against the bone, just below her armpit."

"He spoke as if all that he said were in every idea and in every syllable final, finished, perfected beyond disquisition long before he was born; and truth and eternity dwelt like clearest water in the rhythms of his languafe and in the contours of his voice; his voice accepted and bore this language like the bed of a brook."