The last time I read a Cormac McCarthy novel I became so animated that a stranger sharing my dining space walked over and insisted I write down the name of the book I was reading because any book which caused someone to have so many emotions flash across their face was worth purchasing. Now I’ll admit there was a fair chance this was a line, but I still got the opportunity to spread the McCarthy gospel—so let’s not dwell on my gullibility, but rather the most recent book from one of my favourite authors.
The letter M was always going to be hard because I had so many books to choose from. No need to worry for now that the letters Q and V are coming up, for M I was solid. Margaret Atwood, Inspector Montalbano, Magical themes and titles, Mormons, the options fanned around me like a fan made of books. In the end the choice was easy. Sitting in the pile was The Sunset Limited by Cormac McCarthy.
The Sunset Limited is ‘a novel in dramatic form’. Call me dense, but that’s basically a play, right? And call me denser still but I find that reading a play is very different to reading a novel, dramatically formed or otherwise. Remember that english teacher who made you read Othello out loud because ‘Shakespeare was meant to be performed’? They had a point. And even though when reading stories in this structure I tend to read aloud to myself in my head (if you follow me), it can’t replace seeing the play/novel in dramatic form and I don’t think it can affect you in the same way. I am more than happy to re-read Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Hamlet, The Lady in the Van, Don’s Party or Waiting for Godot, but the reason I go back to these plays and like them so much is that as well as reading them I have also seen them. So I’m wondering: if I see The Sunset Limited performed will I like it more than I did when I read it? And would I then re-read it to different result?
I’ve spoken about the thrill we experience when we discover one of our favourite authors has a new book on the shelves; but what do you do when that new book fails to satisfy like others have? Possibly it depends how disappointed you are. I’m not overly distraught in this case, just a little underwhelmed. I am used to reading Mr McCarthy and being thrust into a thoughtful haze for a number of days, to feeling it necessary to take long full breaths just to stay somewhat upright, to uttering his name in low, reverential tones the type of which I otherwise reserve for large religious buildings, national art galleries and the British Museum. If someone asked me should I read The Road or No Country for Old Men I’d likely hold their collar and rock them about a bit in my insistence that they must. If they asked me should they read The Sunset Limited I would look up from my coffee, go to point my teaspoon at them in a half-hearted manner, then shrug and say, ‘Sure, there’re some interesting bits. It’s McCarthy after all.’
What I like best, and admire most, about McCarthy’s writing are his artful descriptions and his ability to work with tension, suspense, conflict and basic, raw human emotions (and weave a plot through it all). His dialogue can be pretty magic too, though often spare, and it wouldn’t usually be the first thing I mentioned when discussing his work. But here we have a novel in dramatic form and thus what we have is dialogue, and almost dialogue alone. What Sunset gives us is an old-school philosophical discussion on life and religion. Two characters sitting in a bare room in a ‘black ghetto’—opposites in many ways, representative of different worlds—are brought together by a simple, desperate act. A white, educated man who believes existence in this world offers nothing tries to kill himself and is rescued by a black man, ex-con, who believes that God and the Bible are the only answer anyone needs to anything. Lock them in a room and discuss. And in the end the answer is…
I think the reasons for my lack of whelm are three-fold: I find reading a play simply to read it a slightly utilitarian experience; the thing I love most about McCarthy’s writing is his description (which scripts necessarily lack); and when you revere an author so much and the last thing he wrote was The Road, well, your expectations for the next thing from him are high—ridiculously high—and the chances of him meeting those expectations are slim no matter what he produces, but perhaps especially when what he produces is a little play and you weren’t really expecting that at all.
If you cast your eyes over the list of plays I like, you’ll see that a novel in dramatic form which deals with the notions of, and reasons for, existence should be something which appeals to me. And like I said, The Sunset Limited isn’t completely devoid of appeal, but it lacked oomph and didn’t have that McCarthy road-train effect on my being which I’ve come to expect. I’m willing to accept some of this as a deficit of skill or comprehension as a reader, but not all of it. I do believe that if I saw it performed I would appreciate it more and perhaps I would flip back into using those respectful church/Picasso/Rosetta-stone tones. Perhaps you should read it and see for yourself. It’s McCarthy after all.