Sunday, October 31, 2004
Next up is an excellent and problematic read through of Cormac McCarthy's The Crossing (thanks Barbara). As is my anti-book review preference, I'll start with the bad and move to the good. Here's the opening:
When they came south out of Grant County Boyd was not much more than a baby and the newly formed county they'd named Hidalgo was itself little older than the child.

So here is where I struggle with McCarthy. I speak no Spanish, and a little French, and stumble every time I hit one of his conversations in Spanish without translation. Some I can piece together from context and cognates; some he shifts into summary and I can backtrack to what I need to know. But many of the conversations pass unremarked--and by their length and substance I suspect that some essential information is passed in them, but I cannot access it. This raises a very fundamental issue of reader/writer responsibility. Do I need to learn some Spanish to enjoy McCarthy fully? Should I read with a Spanish-English dictionary along? Should there be footnotes for the ignorant few (or many)? I suspect McCarthy would laugh at the notion of having some responsibility for helping people understand more than he already does. And yet a significant part of the experience of reading the book was, solely as a result of this dynamic, an irritating one. And I finished the book with a sense of dissatisfaction despite its many evident strengths and pleasures (pleasures is perhaps not the right word for what is good in McCarthy). I still haven't resolved this one, so opinions on it are welcome. I have Cities of the Plain in my stack (and, yes, Melville II, Hersh), but am reluctant to go back into the morass of frustrating Spanish fumbling.

Outside of that experience, I took a while to warm to McCarthy's prose. I am all for the Old Testament rhythms, for the portentous pronouncements, the epic sweep, etc. And yet I was not quite ready to buy passages like this one:

In the jars dark liquids. Dried viscera. Liver, gall, kidneys. The inward parts of a beast who dreams of man and has so dreamt in running dreams a hundred thousand years and more. Dreams of that malignant lesser god come pale and naked and alien to slaughter all his clan and kin and rout them from their house. A god insatiable whom no ceding could appease nor any measure of blood.

I want to believe, but reading this felt like a reverent parody of McCarthy more than the man himself. It took the first third of the book before than niggling suspicion of parody faded and I became absorbed in the narrative (until, at least, the Spanish bumped me out again).

And then some writing of undeniable power and force and rich strangeness that make me at my most irritated unable to dismiss him. Here is an extended passage that I think is remarkable. It is one of a series of parable-like stories that Boyd is told and make up, I think, the heart of the book; it describes a priest in his back-and-forth with a holy fool of sorts:

He [the priest] was a reasonable man and he believed that there was love in his heart.

There was not. Nor does God whisper through the trees. His voice is not to be mistaken. When men hear it they fall to their knees and their souls are riven and they cry out to Him and there is no fear in them but only that wildness of heart that springs from such longing and they cry out to stay in his presence for they know at once that while godless men may live well enough in their exile those to whom He has spoken can contemplate no life without Him but only darkness and despair. Trees and stones are no part of it. So. The priest in the very generosity of his spirit stood in mortal peril and knew it not. He believed in a boundless God without center or circumference. By this very formlessness he'd sought to make God manageable. This was his colindancia*. In his grandness he had ceded all terrain. And in this colindancia Goad had no say at all.

To see god everywhere is to see Him nowhere. We go from day to day, one day much like the next, and then on a certain day all unannounced we come upon a man or we see this man who is perhaps already known to us and is a man like all men but who makes a certain gesture of himself that is like the piling of one's goods upon an altar and in this gesture we recognize that which is buried in our hearts and is never truly lost to us nor ever can be and it is this moment, you see. This same moment. It is this which we long for and are afraid to seek and which alone can save us.

I think this is remarkable--like the best of what I like in Merton and rich and in the same stroke baffling and true. (*and I can't figure out what colindancia means--online dictionaries have been no help--anyone?).

There is more of equal richness and strangeness--the final scene with the malformed dog is resonant and odd and, with the weight of the book behind it, very moving. Four stars for The Crossing, though I need to solve the Spanish piece before I take on Cities of the Plain.


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