Cormac McCarthy – Poetry, Brutality and the Long American Sentence

In my co-authored book Writing Workshops for the new GCSE English Language to be taught from September, one of my workshops explores Charles Dickens’ use of complex sentences and rich vocabulary in an extract from his novel Dombey and Son, both of which brilliantly mimic the movement and sound of a train. The workshop encourages students to read aloud, hear and talk about the purpose and effect of such writing essentially for that discussion and discovery. There is a writing task which encourages students themselves to use similarly descriptive and mimetic language, but not completely to the complex style – nor degree – that Dickens writes in 1860!

I had intended to mirror and also contrast that style with an extract from Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses, written in 1992, so a modern text by an American author. It too was a descriptive piece about a train. However, McCarthy does not allow his work to be used for such purposes, and without permission I had to use another text [which I think works excellently but in different ways].

Recalling this made me think of reviews/observations I have written on McCarthy’s novels but more specifically his writing style, especially his use of long compound sentences. For those interested in such stylistic ruminations, here are extracts that focus on this specific aspect of his writing across these novels:

On All the Pretty Horses

….I love the simple flow – deceptively so, of course – of the narrative and dialogue. And as I continue to make simplistic claims, another appeal at the moment is his ability to write about the exterior. By this I mean the expanse of land and open spaces McCarthy can write about because of where his stories are set. But it is more than this and below is a particular example of that American voice I want to celebrate. I’m trying to not make this sound like a lesson, but that’s difficult, so you can either listen or chat amongst yourselves. Here’s the passage, the fifth paragraph into the opening chapter:

As he turned to go he heard the train. He stopped and waited for it. He could feel it under his feet. It came boring out of the east like some ribald satellite of the coming sun howling and bellowing in the distance and the long light of the headlamp running through the tangled mesquite brakes creating out of the night the endless faceline down the dead straight right of way and sucking it back again wire and post mile on mile into the darkness after where the boilersmoke disbanded slowly along the faint new horizon and the sound came lagging and he stood still holding his hat in his hands in the passing ground-shudder watching it till it was gone. Then he turned and went back to the house.

It’s that long, wonderful sentence. And it’s because it follows the first three short ones – the most brilliant set-up. I think Raymond Chandler is one of America’s finest modern writers, and apart from his unique talent with similes, he is master of the long compound sentence. He is also master of mixing up his sentence lengths. But McCarthy’s takes this further. It is in the richness of the grammatical make-up of that long gaze, represented by the sentence, and how we as readers try to take in all the detail too, detail heightened by the weightiness of verbs, surprise naming [nouns yes, but it is more than this] and the succession of ‘and’ connectives that should jar but don’t because where they lead is too demanding of our attention.

On Child of God

…..At times, this sickening story is expressed so poetically that this could provide the only chance of being serenaded to some kind of empathy, but it is never about a Macbeth who is given salvation and redemption though a heightened language. There are many styles too, from vivid description to first person vernacular by unidentified speakers. Near the end, the sheriff and his deputy think and express themselves as templates for the Sheriff in No Country for Old Men. Here, fairly randomly, are two poetic narrations: the first about fireworks –

High above their upturned faces it burst, sprays of glycerine flaring across the night, trailing down the sky in loosely falling ribbons of hot spectra soon burnt to naught. Another went up, a long whishing sound, fishtailing aloft. In the bloom of its opening you could see like its shadow the image of the rocket gone before, the puff of black smoke and ashen trails arcing out and down like huge and dark medusa squatting in the sky

and the second, hounds attacking a boar –

Ballard watched this ballet tilt and swirl and churn mud up through the snow and watched the lovely blood there in its holograph of battle, spray burst from a ruptured lung, the dark heart’s blood, pinwheel and pirouette, until shots rang and all was done

There are countless more, some where the poetry is more lyrically in tune with the qualities being described, others even more antithetical in the grotesque juxtapositions of beautiful language and horrific events/situations.

On Blood Meridian

……I know it is stylised and in an American tradition of writing exemplified by Steinbeck, Hemingway, Chandler and Carver – to name a few excellent and obvious exponents. It is also an extreme example [just one wonderfully long sentence!] to make a point, but that is what has prompted this piece. I commend to anyone reading this the use of the simple connective ‘and’. This exhilarating extract is describing an Apache raid, and the use of ‘and’ to connect the clauses/advancing details is so simple and yet potent. I do acknowledge that McCarthy’s extensive and vivid vocabulary is a necessary accompaniment to the success of such a style:

They crossed before the sun and vanished one by one and reappeared again and they were black in the sun and they rode out of that vanished sea like burnt phantoms with the legs of the animals kicking up the spume that was not real and they were lost in the sun and lost in the lake and they shimmered and slurred together and separated again and they augmented by planes in lurid avatars and began to coalesce and there began to appear above them in the dawn-broached sky a hellish likeness of their ranks riding huge and inverted and the horses’ legs incredibly elongate trampling down the high thin cirrus and the howling antiwarriors pedant from their mounts immense and chimeric and the high wild cries carrying that flat and barren pan like the cries of souls broke through some misweave in the weft of things into the world below.

Again, on Blood Meridian

……I didn’t think it would be possible to trump, so to speak, the violence described in the Apache raid [exemplified in a previous post, though the extract quoted is more about style than content], but Chapter 13’s account of the spontaneous, indiscriminate, kneejerk, calculating and inexorable slaughter of the Mexican villages passed through is a kind of writing, both in content and style, that is entirely new to me. I read fascinated but I don’t read on because I want to find out how things progress/develop. I know what will come. I read on because of the language McCarthy uses to describe such butchery and mayhem that in its descriptive beauty and evocation manages to counterbalance the depravity of what it is describing with the elevation of poetry. I know Shakespeare mastered this so it is hardly original in that literary historical sense, but McCarthy’s prose presents a modern equivalent, distinctly American, if you’ll excuse the platitude:

An old woman knelt at the blackened stones before her door and poked brush into the coals and blew back a flame from the ashes and began to right the overturned pots. All about her the dead lay with their peeled skulls like polyps bluely wet or luminescent melons cooling on some mesa of the moon. In the days to come the frail black rebuses of blood in those sands would crack and break and drift away so that in the circuit of few suns all trace of the destruction of these people would be erased. The desert wind would salt their ruins and there would be nothing, nor ghost nor scribe, to tell to any pilgrim in his passing how it was that people had lived in this place and in this place died.

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