Cormac McCarthy v. Ali Smith

For today’s Tournament of Books match, I had to decide between Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men and Ali Smith’s The Accidental. Here’s my judgment:

Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men unfolds in the same physical and spiritual wilderness that has preoccupied the author for two decades. A hunter happens upon the gruesome aftermath of a desert heroin deal gone awry, and absconds with more than $2 million in unmarked bills. He’s tracked to the novel’s end by a rural Texan sheriff and a homicidal outlaw who have different ideas about how things should turn out for him.

These stock McCarthy players — the gunslinger, the lawman, and the basically well-intentioned outdoorsman who succumbs to greed — hold the leading roles, but the prose is so whittled down, it often reads like stage directions. Gone is the Biblical cadence of Blood Meridian, the ornate diction of All the Pretty Horses. No Country for Old Men makes Hemingway look effusive. True, McCarthy intersperses the bloodletting with the sheriff’s sentimental diary entries, but these don’t add depth; they come off as a hackneyed, tacked-on contrivance. Even the book’s most resonant dialogue (i.e., “Let me tell you somethin, little sister. If there is one thing on this planet you dont look like it’s a bunch of good luck walkin around”) can’t infuse meaning into this otherwise mechanical exploration of man’s capacity for pointless brutality. “There’s no such thing as life without bloodshed,” McCarthy once said, when questioned about Blood Meridian. Nor, conversely, is there bloodshed without life, but here McCarthy forgets to examine the latter.
 

Ali Smith’s The Accidental, on the other hand, teems with life — of a more domestic variety — but life filtered through stream-of-consciousness narration that frequently feels artificial. A family endures a dismal summer holiday in Norfolk until a beautiful stranger arrives and privately reveals to each character the lie he or she has been living. Prior to the stranger’s arrival: the mother naps on the floor while pretending to write her novel; the step-father perfunctorily screws his grad students; the teenage son feels responsible for a girl’s suicide and considers ending his own life; the pre-adolescent daughter doesn’t experience life at all, opting instead to record it with her expensive video camera. Smith endeavors to particularize each family member’s point-of-view in close third-person narration that, at its best, recalls Woolf’s To The Lighthouse.

Unfortunately, as in her prior Hotel World, Smith’s wordplay is nearly as distracting as it is spellbinding. I frequently had the sense that the author was not breathing life into her characters so much as ventriloquizing her own observations through them. For every five singularly poignant associations in Smith’s book, there’s a line of forced whimsy like this one: “The words come out of Astrid’s mouth like the kind of heated-up stones they use at the place her mother goes for massage, the kind that leave red places on people’s skin after they’ve been put on and taken off.” Perhaps Astrid, the 12-year-old daughter, really would liken her words, in her own mind, to massage parlor stones, but I don’t buy it. This simile strikes me as one seized upon by an author seeking the most innovative description of a sensation instead of the most apt. Tinny originality would be easier to stomach from a writer of Smith’s talents were it not so prized, and so distressingly prevalent, in literary fiction on this side of the pond.

Frankly, I wouldn’t press either No Country for Old Men or The Accidental on a friend. But Smith’s novel wins the subway test — I nearly missed my stop two different mornings while reading it — and the characters and their predicaments have lingered in my mind these past weeks far more than I anticipated. Based on these wholly subjective criteria, I choose The Accidental to advance to the next round of the tournament.

 

And, since The Morning News took down last year’s tournament, I thought I’d post my 2005 opinion on two books I admired: Roth’s The Plot Against America and Boyle’s The Inner Circle. Follow the jump if you’re curious.
 

Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America opens with a warning: “Fear presides over these memories, perpetual fear.” Blame a weakness for apocalyptic stories, if you like, but I experienced that fear myself, from the moment I started reading. The novel, an aging narrator’s account of his boyhood, presents an alternate U.S. history in which aviator hero and Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindberg defeats FDR on an isolationist platform and winds up in the White House. Newark’s Jewish community dreads this result. The apprehension turns to panic when whole families fall prey to the government’s relocation efforts and anti-Semitic riots erupt.

Also set during World War II, T.C. Boyle’s The Inner Circle focuses on Alfred Kinsey, “Dr. Sex,” famous for his unprecedented research into and exposure of Americans’ sexual practices. Narrated by Kinsey’s fictional protégé, John Milk, The Inner Circle depicts Kinsey as a manipulative narcissist bent on sleeping with, and controlling, close associates like Milk. I’ve flipped through many Boyle stories in The New Yorker, and read a handful, and because I came away with little lasting impression, I was surprised by how much I like this book. A stand-in for many men, Milk endorses sexual experimentation for himself and everyone else, except his wife. He reveals his scientific studies and erotic escapades in a gripping first-person narrative that is, like Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, replete with father issues, and by turns egotistical and self-flagellating.

Although Boyle’s book is more consistent — Roth’s story, frankly, derails toward the end — The Plot Against America easily wins this contest. Last year Roth warned readers against viewing the book as “a roman clef to the present.” Yet in the same essay he characterized the sitting U.S. president as “a man unfit to run a hardware store let alone a nation like this one,” and said Bush’s presidency reaffirms that “all assurances are provisional, even here in a 200-year-old democracy.” As Plot‘s Philip recounts accusations mounted by Lindberg’s detractors, and then describes the President’s typical response — crowd-pleasing feats of aviation followed by three-line platitudes that fail to address the evidence against him — the distracting, Doublethink tactics of the present administration spring naturally to mind. The child’s eye and the man’s empathetic perspective combine in Roth’s book to present a wholly plausible scenario in which democracy, at the mercy of an unquestioning media, evaporates to accommodate the agendas of those in power.


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