Tuesday, December 30, 2008


No Country for Old Men coverCormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men is driven by the taut language of the thriller, which stops to provide details only when it comes to machines and armaments:
The dead man was lying against a rock with a nickel-plated government .45 automatic lying cocked in the grass between his legs. He'd been sitting up and had slid over sideways. His eyes were open. He looked like he was studying something small in the grass. There was blood on the ground and blood on the rock behind him. (17)
This laconic style suits the landscape in which it is set: the deserts, highways, and motels of Texas bordering on Mexico. It seems to be a wide-open land of big skies and long distances. In fact, this very openness means that there are few places a man can hide.

The novel's plot is suitably skeletal. A drug deal has gone wrong, and a Vietnam vet by the name of Llewellyn Moss, out hunting antelope, comes across the wreckage: bodies, abandoned cars, packages of heroin, and a briefcase packed with several million dollars in used hundred-dollar bills. Moss takes off with the cash, and soon enough just about everyone is after him: Mexican drug gangs, a fearsome contract killer, and the local police. The ensuing chase criss-crosses these dusty badlands, and takes Moss over the border to Mexico, where he gains brief respite in the local hospital having thrown the cash-laden case over the side of the border bridge. But from the start Moss seems to be aware that all his efforts will be in vain. This is not a story with a happy ending.

Interspersed through the narrative are the melancholic and world-weary commentaries of the sheriff who's always one or two steps behind the bloody action. Ed Tom Bell is also a military veteran, but of the Second World War not Vietnam. Close to retirement, Bell laments the changes that he has seen over his years of service, and laments his inability to prevent the trail of destruction that is snaking through his territory. Indeed, the novel's opening vignette sees a captured criminal strangle one of Bell's deputies with his own handcuffs and then calmly walk away. Perhaps then it's for the best that there is no climactic confrontation between the forces of law and order and the killers that they are ostensibly out to stop. As Bell notes,
I think for me the worst of it is knowing that probably the only reason I'm even still alive is that they have no respect for me. And that's very painful. Very painful. It has done got way beyond anything you might have thought about even a few years ago. (217)
But the sheriff's irrelevance is such that even his semi-philosophical musings are, in the end, far off the mark. He complains about the young with their "green hair and bones in their noses speakin a language [their grandparents] couldnt even understand" (295), but these grouches about youth fashion hardly touch on the real evil that McCarthy has let loose at the center of his novel.

Indeed, ultimately we learn very little about the contract killer, Anton Chigurh, who is the book's true anti-hero. As Bell notes, "the reason nobody knows what he looks like is that they dont none of them live long enough to tell it" (192). At one point, as Chigurh finishes off his final (and apparently superfluous) assassination, McCarthy appears to suggest that this human killing machine simply obeys a higher order of principle and morality, more in tune with the way of the world and the brutal dictates of fate: "I have only one way to live. It doesn't allow for special cases. A coin toss perhaps" (259).

But in this landscape in which only the powerless speak, indeed in which speaking is an indication of impotence, this brief attempt to ventriloquize power is unconvincing. For McCarthy, power is violence and violence is, quite literally, unspeakable. He has conjured up a monster, or rather a personification of his view of nature as monstruous, about which he finally has nothing to say. He merely points: Look, while you can, through this novel, at an image that in life would leave you for dead.

Friday, December 26, 2008


Alphabetical Africa coverUpon mentioning recently that I had just finished Walter Abish's Alphabetical Africa, I was accused of having a taste for "novelty" books. I replied that this novel was more John Cage than "Laughing Gnome": a sustained exercise in minimalism and constraint that tries to say something about the form itself.

The constraint is simple enough: the book's first chapter contains only words that begin with the letter "a." A typical extract: "Albert arrives, alive and arguing about African art, about African angst and also, alas, attacking Ashanti architecture..." (1). The second chapter adds words that begin with the letter "b," the third adds those that start with "c," and so on until only with the twenty-sixth chapter can words start with any letter of the alphabet. But then the process is reversed. Gradually the number of permitted words decreases until the final, fifty-second, chapter again consists of nothing but words beginning with "a."

The plot takes us from Antibes to Zanzibar, on the trail of what emerge as a couple of jewel thieves, Alex and Allen, who themselves are pursuing the mysterious Alva, who seems to have made off with their loot following a bungled kidnapping in the south of France. Of course, the mystery takes a while to unfold, because for instance the fact that Alex and Allen are "killers" cannot even be mentioned until chapter eleven, when words beginning with the letter "k" are first permitted. A shady Queen Quat (could she perhaps be Alva in some new disguise?) is the focus of much interest in the central part of the book, but necessarily fades from view after chapter thirty-five.

The reader is constantly aware of what can and cannot be said, of the gradually expanding and then contracting field of signification. First person narration is only possible once "I" can be uttered; definite articles and third-person plural (they, their) have still longer to wait; and second-person address is only fleetingly available.

Perhaps Abish's greatest technical achievement, indeed, is maintaining a remarkable stylistic consistency despite the very different resources available to him at distinct points of the novel. Even when, briefly, all the constraints are lifted, he still writes with enigmatic terseness: "Zambia helps fill our zoos, and our doubts, and our extrawide screens as we sit back" (64). It is as though when the full richness of language is available, we fear being overwhelmed by detail; we need to sit back. Meaning and sense-making are possible only thanks to constraint, to a recognition that not everything can be said, at least not all at once.

The book is clearly about representation: its arbitrariness and its slippages. But it is not about representation alone: there is a constant sense that Africa is slipping away, but also that it is somehow now physically wasting away. Abish acknowledges that there is something particular about Africa, and its colonial and postcolonial history, that enables fantasy and seems to wither the real: "Africa is a favorite topic in literature, it gives license to so much excess, and now to a shrinking land mass" (58). And Ernst van Alphen argues for a subtext of genocide and counter-insurgency.

Finally, there are the mistakes, the points at which the rigid representational strictures are breached. It's tempting to regard these as accidents, but some are so blatant they seem to be calling out: in a chapter in which words beginning with "s" are supposedly now banned, "for she's a jolly good fellow, for she's a jolly good fellow" (105). These errors point less to the impossibility of the task that Abish has set himself, than to a perverse, perhaps unconscious rebellion against the project. "I," for instance, will make its way where it has been outlawed (138, 146, 147).

In short, both Africa and the alphabet become fields on which the dramas of order and disorder, rebellion and domination, pattern and singularity are played out. The book calls out attention both to grids (linguistic, geographical, political) and to their limits, and ends up with the perhaps utopian gesture of invoking "another Africa another alphabet" (152).

Sunday, December 21, 2008


This happened on my block. Right now there's a scorchmark on the concrete wall, and some flowers and cards that people have left.

Saturday, December 13, 2008


For what it's worth, the PDF files for the book have now been updated. They include pictures, too!