Friday, 11 December 2015

With Cormac McCarthy you end up admiring the villain

Full title: Child of God
Author: Cormac McCarthy
Genre: Novel
Attributes: 208 pages, paperback
Publisher: Vintage (1993)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

One recognizable feature of Cormac McCarthy’s novels (his trademark, some would say) is graphic, bare-bones violence. Child of God is no exception. The lonely outcast who impersonates justice in a weird, criminal way, occupies pretty much the entire novel. His name is Lester Ballard and he’s a solitary dweller of the nearby forests, a champion of the rifle and a savage to the bone. He’s accused of a rape he’s never committed and, enraged by the injustice, he starts on a rampage, killing, raping, and stealing every step of the way, and thus reserving himself a sure place in hell.
This is, briefly put, the plot line of Child of God, Cormac McCarthy’s third novel (first published in 1973).
But the plot isn’t everything.
There are far more interesting things to be said about the novel’s stylistic matter.
Child of God is written as a series of episodes. Short, cinematic, often independent from each other. These episodes are either third-person narrations from the viewpoint of an omniscient narrator or first-person accounts from various minor characters who recall having met Ballard at different moments in time. While the former are concerned with the progression of the story itself, the latter deal with the issue of character (not as in ‘personage’ but as in ‘psychological profile’).
This episodic structure makes it somewhat hard for the reader to disprove of the protagonist’s outrageously criminal actions. How? Well, if we add to the picture McCarthy’s tendency towards not providing moral relief after the numerous murders, rapes, and break-ins, it becomes difficult for the reader to realize a trajectory for their own appreciation of Ballard’s crimes.
The narration addresses Lester Ballard all the time. He is, in other words, the protagonist. Trained through previous moral protocols likely to have choreographed one’s readerly response into sympathizing with the protagonist, one might find oneself in the strange (certainly un-Christian) situation of takin the side of evil. That, in itself, is worth paying attention to because the general purpose is to elude ethical expectations. If McCarthy’s protagonist lives in an environment where he kills and rapes without being sanctioned by that usual moralistic narrative voice we’re used to, this is because Ballard’s progression doesn’t take place in the realm of social morality but in the realm of story-telling, where the same principles don’t operate in identical ways. In fact, when things are considered from a narrative perspective, it should be ethically sounder to give all characters the chance to behave as points of focalization, without their actions being constantly weighed by an intrusive voice that guarantees the pursuit of morality. This should be the case at least for the sake of equality, knowing that stories are built on anything but that (what with the protagonist-antagonist distinction and the firm lines drawn between minor and major characters).

Cormac McCarthy. Source: Flavorwire
In other words, Cormac McCarthy’s novel is no didactic material. Although I can understand how some readers, used to seeing evil through the lens of what it means rather than what it does, might be upset by McCarthy’s technical relativization of ethics.
The effect of this turn away from moralization is that, no matter how appalling his crimes, we tend to invest our emotions in Ballard the way we invest them in all protagonists of literature. We’re out there with him all the time, we feel the cold he feels when winter or rain overtake the landscapes, we almost burn alive in a fire that consumes his cabin. What’s even more significant, our hearts skip a beat when Ballard is on the verge of being spotted by his victims. I mean – how sick is that? And I’m not talking about McCarthy here but about us! Us, readers. Blinded  by straightforward narrative ideologies, we turn into acolytes of a criminal.
Towards the end of the novel, while trying to shake off the sheriff and his crew, Ballard gets lost in a maze of caves and underground galleries, deep under the thick forest, miles away from any help, teased by the sounds of life he can hear above his head and yet trapped there, in the cave, at the mercy of a greater logic. Ballard starts thinking about his own death. When he does so we’re there with him. It’s only us and him. Not the pursuers, who have lost him and have given up on ever finding him again. Us. We are the only ones apart from Ballard who participate in the ordeal. We feel for him. We share his claustrophobic thoughts. We wish he can get out of there as soon as possible. We wish it, we wish it like we mean it. Otherwise, the prospect of what might happen to him (to us?) is terrifying.
“In the night he heard hounds and called to them but the enormous echo of his voice in the cavern filled him with fear and he would not call again. He heard the mice scurry in the dark. Perhaps they’d nest in his skull, spawn their tiny bald and mewling whelps in the lobed caverns where his brains had been. His bones polished clean as eggshells, centipedes sleeping in their marrowed flutes, his ribs curling slender and whitely like a bone flower in the dark stone bowl. He’d cause to wish and he did wish for some brute midwife to spald him from his rocky keep.”
That’s how graphic McCarthy can be. The prospect of the protagonist’s death drips slowly, drop by drop, onto our own skulls until, as in the infamous Chinese torture, we give in. The narration goes on and on, addictively, adding one more detail here, one more highlight there, one more complication to a situation that was pretty complication to start with. Through these accumulations of details, we are led to forget the evils Ballard has committed and concentrate on what’s in front of us: the current situation.
But wait; there’s more.
McCarthy is capable of incredible metaphors and similes. The paragraph above is a case in point. It shows his favourite technique of accumulation of details, this time at the lexical level, so as to provide a rich texture to the story. A rich texture it is, and one that raises yet another question. How come a text full of adjectives and adverbs can be so cinematic in nature? Any creative-writing tutor would advise complete abstinence from such devices because they are unsuited to narrative progression. Adjectives stop action, adverbs make it uninteresting. And yet, this is precisely where McCarthy goes. He offers a baroque model whereby the reader is suffocated by the abundance of grammatical and stylistic decorations. Take another example, where the central idea is to create a chromatic medley:
“The hardwood trees on the mountain subsided into yellow and flame and to ultimate nakedness. An early winter fell, a cold wind sucked among the black and barren branches. Alone in the empty shell of a house the squatter watches through the moteblown glass a rimshard of bonecolored moon come cradling up over the black balsams on the ridge, ink trees a facile hand had sketched against the paler dark of winter heavens.”
Phew. You need a big breath after this. Not just adjectives but polysyllables of all sorts, neologisms of McCarthy’s own making, contribute to the formation of this solid, thick structure. And yet, if one looks at it carefully, one might be able to notice that the passage goes contrary to description. It narrates. It generates action. The few verbs found here and there have that special evocative power that makes a narrative become narration, unfolding of events. The landscape unreels, as in a cinema theatre. The camera is somehow invited to pan through the clouds, through darkness, through the twisted trees, to discover what lies behind the dramatic scene.
What’s also interesting to see is how McCarthy makes gruesome scenes look beautiful, by shear manipulation of metaphor. Here’s Ballard in his cave, where he’d been hiding the corpses of his victims:
“Here in the bowels of the mountain Ballard turned his light on ledges or pallets of stone where dead people lay like saints.”
One image like that and our preconceptions are shuttered.
Only a few pages further down the track we see Ballard in one of his most intriguing instantiations: dressed in women’s attire, crossing the fields at night like a phantom from an underworld of horror:
“A gothic doll in illfit clothes, its carmine mouth floating detached and bright in the white landscape.”
I need to admit, there’s something attractive in this description. Something that makes me pause for a second, maybe longer, to admire the text that obstructs the sight. And so I want to be where Ballard is for a little while because, in fact, I want to admire the poetry his presence promises to generate.
That’s how I read Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God.