Recently, I've been reading Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men with my good friend and former colleague, Kerry Walters. Here are a few thoughts: 
Pure externality - The entire novel is about external relations, conflicts, and interactions of forces. There is no interior character self-analysis, and the 'omniscient' narrator is so only from an external perspective, like an omnipresent bystander reporting what she's watching. Kerry referred to it as one of the most objective novels he's ever read. When Chigurh is contemplating his robbery of the pharmacy, the reader is given no description of his psychology. Descriptions of his face, his body, his movements, yes. But no intimation of what he is considering. The closest we come to interiority are the soliloquies of Sheriff Bell that preface each 'chapter.' But the sheriff's reflections consist primarily of lamentations of the perceived degradation of the world, rooted in a romanticizing of a bygone simpler time - horrifying events in the news, stories of previous sheriffs, the growing plague of drug use, the impudence of contemporary youth, and so on. As I read the novel, it occurred to me that this is a novel that is perfectly suited to a cinematic interpretation, as it reads like a film. The Coen brothers captured this ethos of the novel masterfully. 

Immediacy of language and event - This complements the previous point. The spoken dialogue in the novel is given no special treatment. There are no quotation marks to separate a character's words from their actions or from the other events taking place. In this sense, language in the novel is not treated as an abstract expression of an ideality originating in the interiority of the subject, but rather, as one more type of event in the midst of all the other events in the novel. 

Conflict between order and chaos - This was something that I thought came out more effectively in the novel than in the film. As I remember the film (and it's been a few years since I've watched it), my sense was that the primary conflict of the film is between Llewelyn and Chigurh. This confrontation has its most decisive presentation in the hotel/street shootout between the two that results in severe injuries for both. The sheriff, then, is the elder lawman, expressing the exhaustion and frustration that comes with being incapable of protecting his little corner of the world from the ugliness that has invaded it. 

In the novel, however, it seems to me that the primary conflict is not between Llewelyn and Chigurh, but between Sheriff Bell and Chigurh, with each party embodying, respectively, order and chaos, locked in an almost Manichaeistic battle that plays out in the murkiness of human affairs. Everyone else - Moss, Carla Jean, Wells, the drug-dealers, the young hitchhiker - are all the human game pieces in this conflict. Chigurh is the very embodiment of chaos. Devoid of both passion and compassion, he lives, like all things, subject to the laws of chance, as evidenced in his interactions with the gas station owner and with Carla Jean. The principles of chaos theory suggest that nature proceeds by way of negotiations of forces, and that subtle variations in one negotiation will result in drastically different outcomes, (and hence, different negotiations). Moss's decision to take the briefcase, coupled with his decision to return to the scene and give water to a dying man, launched a chain of events that resulted in a great deal of violence and death. It was unnecessary and pointless, true, but once the decision was made, the series of subsequent negotiations was charted. Just before Chigurh shoots Wells he asks, 'If the rule you followed led you to this of what use was the rule?' To both Carla Jean and the gas station owner, Chigurh cites that it is each event of our lives that brings us to each subsequent event, that each negotiation inaugurates a path that produces subsequent negotiations. To Carla Jean he says, 'You can say that things could have turned out differently. That they could have been some other way. But what does that mean? They are not some other way. They are this way.' 

At the same time, there is a sense in which each starts to look like the other. Sheriff Bell, as I'm telling it, is the embodiment of order. His reflections revolve constantly around the importance of manners, propriety, decency, and justice. He's almost Kantian when it comes to his emphasis on honesty. As he is leaving his office, he asks his receptionist to call his wife and tell her that he has left, but he insists that the receptionist wait until he is gone (so that he won't be lying). But in the revelation near the book's end, when Sheriff Bell tells Ellis his story of his perceived act of cowardice in WW II, Sheriff Bell indicates that this act of cowardice (as he understands it), and the accompanying military commendation he received, have charted for Bell the life that he would lead, a life of bravery, honesty, and service. Like chaos, a momentary decision in the face of a negotiation of forces, charted a series of events that would lead Bell to face the actions of Chigurh. Likewise, Chigurh is not without his own, vaguely Kantian deontological motivation. He does what he does without passion or compassion, coldly, but not without principle or a sense of duty. He tracks down and kills Carla Jean because, in his words, he made a promise to her husband, and even though her husband is dead, 'my word is not dead.' 

There is thus a sense in which the principle of order begins to look like the principle of chaos. But, then, it seems that if the line between chaos and order is not absolute, then chaos prevails. Put another way, in the context of another binary - stasis/fluidity - if the line between stasis and fluidity is itself fluid, then stasis is an effect or a function of fluidity, (i.e., stasis is not static). If the line between order and chaos is not 'ordered,' then it seems that chaos prevails. Perhaps it is for this reason that, in the very end of the novel, Bell recites a dream about his father, in which his father is carrying fire in a horn, riding ahead of him, and Bell says, 'And in the dream I knew that he was goin on ahead and that he was fixin to make afire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold and I knew that whenever I got there he would be there.' Initially, I interpreted this as the novel's holding out some flicker of hope, that perhaps even though the world may appear at times hopelessly dark, we must hold out hope that there will be a fire in the darkness. But Kerry rightly pointed out that the very last line of the novel is, 'And then I woke up.' The hope that the sheriff found in his dream was just that, a dream. 

Problematic treatment of women - Finally, the women characters in the book are two-dimensional, each embodying a traditional and misogynistic feminine 'type'. Carla Jean is a young and naive wife to Llewelyn, and she blindly obeys her husband's orders to go on the run from place to place, as a direct result of his actions which ultimately result in her death. Loretta is the 'ideal' wife, who serves as Sheriff Bell's proverbial 'better half,' who patiently forgives his long hours away from home, and who strengthens him throughout his seemingly endless self-torment. The teenage hitchhiker is little more than a 'bad girl who likes bad boys' (to quote Llewelyn), and who, again, as a direct result of Llewelyn's actions, loses her life. The novel is almost entirely male-driven; the forces are male forces - the world is a male world - and the women are too weak for this world, either staying out of the muck, or running from the world (not unlike the mother in The Road, who runs away from the world by taking her own life). The question of McCarthy's treatment of women characters is a live one in the scholarship. Some of his works are reputed to be more nuanced in their treatment of women characters than others, (like the Border Trilogy, for instance, which I've not read), and allegedly, McCarthy's forthcoming novel, The Passenger, is his first with a woman character as the primary protagonist. But at least in this novel, McCarthy's treatment of women characters is problematic. 
 


Comments

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08/22/2016 10:03am

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08/24/2016 1:44pm

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04/20/2017 4:16am

I think I need to read it by my own. Than I will share some of my thoughts with you.

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