A WRITING CRAFT REVIEW
Creative writing instructors come armed with standard phrases: show don’t tell, use descriptive language, write what you know, use vibrant metaphors, no passive voice, etc. Good things to learn but the result is often what many reviewers praise as “beautiful” prose. I’m less generous and take the position that skilled writing craft requires that words do more than paint pictures and leave just enough room for the dialogue. The pace and emotional tone of the words should match the pace and emotional tone of the story, one constantly reinforcing the other so that the reader sees, hear, and feels the same experience.
Fiction that falls outside the conventions of genre literature might consciously unbalance the style and content in order to establish the two point perspective necessary to the ironic position or to create meta-fictions that highlight the power of the prose to distort the readers’ experience. Unlike genre literature these books are not written so much to be felt as to be understood. Their readers are puzzlers, philosophers, or academics who love this kind of mental gymnastics. Don’t be fooled however by their high brows because in an honest moment most of them will admit that they too regularly retreat to stacks of Conan the Barbarian comics, Elmore Leonard mysteries, or Jane Austin romances. Sometimes the very best food in the world is Parisian haute cuisine and sometimes it’s Ben and Jerry’s plain old vanilla. Their relative merits are determined solely by their success at fulfilling their respective goals.
All that is just a build-up to explain why I am so admiring of Cormac McCarthy’s ability to carefully match the emotional and visual fields in which his novels occur with the natural style and rhythm of his characteristic prose. The power of this mating is strikingly evident in All the Pretty Horses, the first book in The Border Trilogy about men set adrift by the shift in rural American culture following World War Two.
As the novel opens our eyes are locked upon an ageless, nameless man walking up a hall of losses but McCarthy makes no attempt to describe these losses. The prose is equally stripped, no overt metaphors, and the barest sprinkling of adverbs and adjectives.
The candleflame and the image of the candleflame caught in the pierglass twisted and righted when he entered the hall and again when he shut the door He took off his hat and came slowly forward, The floorboards creaked under his boots. In his black suit he stood in the dark glass where the lilies leaned so palely from their waisted cutglass vase. Along the cold hallway behind him hung the portraits of forebears only dimly known to him all framed in glass and dimly lit above the narrow wainscoting. He looked down at the guttered candlestub. He pressed his thumbprint in the warm wax pooled on the oak veneer. Lastly he looked at the face so caved and drawn among the folds of funeral cloth, the yellowed moustache, the eyelids paper thin. That was not sleeping. That was not sleeping.
The rhythm of these slowly pacing words is aligned so tightly with what we see that we feel we know the mourner intimately even though we don’t know his name, his physical appearance, age, even the century he’s living in. His feet and the words are constrained, reluctant to proceed. There are other clues in the words black suit, lilies, forebears. We realize that he is here to visit the dead. Then this sad, restrained man reaches out and presses his fingerprint into the hot wax on the side-table. We can’t take our eyes away from that pale desecration because it reveals that though this man may be in mourning he’s also very angry.
Like a poet, McCarthy assigns many words double duty. They are at once descriptive of the current scene and simultaneously of the past these men have shared which is especially evident in those phrases “calf bawled”, “hat in hand.” We know where we are standing, who we’re supposed to be watching and then this surety is ripped away when we read:
He stood with his hat in his hand, You never combed your hair that way in your life, he said.
Everything seems wrong here. Missing punctuation, run on sentences, confused pronouns. Doesn’t he have an editor? Did the visitor think that the hair of the man in the casket had been combed wrong by the funeral people? Or was he thinking that if the old man had seen him all dressed up for the visit then he’d have teased him about getting his hair combed?
The point, of course, isn’t the hair or even who said what to whom. McCarthy is using a prose style that demonstrates how these two men are so merged that we can’t tell where one ends and the other begins. So we go on only to discover the details of the enmeshment that McCarthy has already made us feel. They are grand-father and grand-son. In the ranching culture when the sire dies the heir must then take on responsibility for the family and the family land but these two had already lost everything except each other. Now there is no more land, no more family.
The basic dynamics of the whole story have been revealed in the corresponding pace and tone, the double meaning of a few words, and the overlapping of pronouns in these two thread-bare paragraphs.
Hopefully this close look at McCarthy’s technique will help you take apart many of his other cleverly devised passages. It is well worth the effort for young writers especially those who have been chastised for not finding their own voice. (Advice I’ve find slightly less helpful than being told to read messages left on the back of my eyeballs.) I don’t think McCarthy went around looking for his voice. I think he wanted to tell stories about passionate young men who had been taught to take things slow and not hope for much. Then he just aligned his prose to convey that experience of going slow and not hoping for much. What sets McCarthy apart is the discipline with which he holds his words to that line.
Spare writing, however, is not McCarthy’s only well honed crafting tool. For instant, he begins the next section with:
He saw his father at the funeral. Standing by himself across the little gravel path near the fence. Once he went out to the street to his car. Then he came back.
Conventionally this sentence would have been written, “At the funeral he saw his father standing by himself . . . .” These easily flowing words with well ordered subject and object pronouns might convey the same meaning but they would not have exposed the man’s inner experience. By writing it as two then four chopped sentences McCarthy makes us feel what the man is feeling— restrained, almost completely detached from what is happening and yet, of course, not detached at all.
McCarthy also uses the land and the wind, especially the wind, as another meter of his man’s internal life. Here the graveside mourners are hurried away by a norther wind blowing up dust and snow. Over and over in this novel McCarthy brings the wind to our attention when we might otherwise have no clue what this superficially impassive man is feeling. Unfortunately this old technique occasionally threatens to reduces those emotions to clichés.
Later in this passage McCarthy uses a different technique with equal risk but to better advantage when he begins to establish his theme of cultural displacement by revealing the man’s fantasy about the ghosts of tribal Indians crossing his path. These were the people and the culture that had been displaced by the range ranchers who were themselves now being displaced by technology. I don’t have any problem with this revelation via fantasy. It seems to fit quite well with what we already know about the man and his situation but I did not feel comfortable with the last several lines in that same long sentence. Not because it is too long. McCarthy keeps all the nouns and verbs in an logical order so the prose advances without disruptions to the readers’ attention. What troubles me is when McCarthy writes:
. . . the riders sang as they rode, nation and ghost of nation passing in a soft chorale cross that mineral waste to darkness bearing lost to all history and all remembrance like a grail the sum of their secular and transitory and violent lives.
Up until this point the narrator’s thoughts and diction have seemed almost inseparable from the man’s. Not quite one but so very close. Suddenly the narrator steps between us and the man and uses words like chorale, mineral, grail, secular, transitory that belong to someone much more educated than the man we’ve been watching.
Why did McCarthy do this? Did he want to establish himself as more intellectually informed ideas than the man whose story he is telling? Is he attempting to take his text to a “deeper” level and connect this man to more universal experience? Does he yield to some internal pressure to be poetic? Or is this simply evidence of a slight loss of control over his writing craft? Could he have simply made a mistake that was not corrected because it was much admired by his editor/agent who might not be such a great fan of spare writing as he/she pretends. All I really know is that these lines are disruptive to the reader. We can’t help but stop and try to sort something out.
Ultimately as a student of writing craft I don’t think it’s relevant to ask if this hitch in the pace is right or wrong. What does matter is that we notice that it creates a disjunction in the readers’ attention. My own opinion about disjunctions in general is that they should reserved for those times when a writer wants to emphasize to the reader that something especially important is happening here, like a sign that says “Scenic Vista Ahead” or “Bridge Freezes before Road.” A section in the text where he uses disjunction very effectively is when McCarthy writes:
All his reverence and all his fondness and all the leanings of his life were for the ardenthearted and they would always be so and never be otherwise.
Ardenthearted is another word that is outside this man’s vocabulary. It’s sudden appearance brings our attention up short just long enough for us to notice that this word holds one of the most important themes of the book. Once he’s brought us to point McCarthy begins rapidly separating his man from the category of “everyman.” First we learn about the ranch and house that will soon to be sold. Then he provides enough bits and pieces of information that we can sort out the year and place the story is set in. We get a brief history of the Grady family with particular emphasis on all the ways that their self-destructive behavior resulted in their failure to reproduce. And that even this man is a not Grady because his feckless mother was his grandfather’s only child.
Then there are those last two lines. “The boy’s name was Cole. John Grady Cole” written in the same double flat tone that McCarthy used when he broke other grammatical conventions, “That was not sleeping. That was not sleeping.” and “He saw his father at the funeral. Standing by himself …”
We are relieved to know the man’s name but surprised to learn that he is only a boy. While most readers had been aware that McCarthy had been intentionally holding back the man’s name I at least had never suspected that this lonely character was actually a too serious child. Like a magician McCarthy used our curiosity about the man’s name as a diversion to keep us from wondering how old he was. Very clever but McCarthy doesn’t stop to take a bow. He tightens up the reins and keeps us slowly moving on. Controlling the pace is after all a defining element of McCarthy’s writing craft style.