Cities of the Plain
by Cormac McCarthy (1998)
An interesting thing happened while I was reading this the last in my recent month-long Border Trilogy McCarthy bender: I stumbled across the somewhat notorious 2013 film “The Counselor,” written by McCarthy, directed by Ridley Scott, and starring the likes of Fassbender, Diaz, Bardem, Cruz, and Pitt.
It’s actually unjustly maligned — while undoubtedly problematic it is competently made and well-acted (but for Cameron Diaz who has to be one of the most overrated living actors). The problems that critics had with it being too (esoterically) talky and grim are basically them blaming it for being written by Cormac McCarthy; it´s as close as I can imagine to seeing a McCarthy novel on the screen, about a thousand times more representative than the terrible “All The Pretty Horses” adaptation. I would venture that most of the critics who called the film terrible have not read more than a couple McCarthy novels.
But at the same time seeing a McCarthy-novel-as-movie highlights the main problems I have with McCarthy as a writer: first of all his near-manic obsession with death and our world’s apathy toward us humans; and secondly that for all the realism of his dialogue (and most of his small talk is simply the best and most authentic I’ve ever seen), he undermines this realism by having literally ALL of his characters, even the unlikeliest, expound philosophically at some point or another on his specific brand of fatalistic amoralism — from the highest cartel boss to the sleaziest of drug middlemen to the lowliest of Mexican diner owners. They all talk like they just walked out of a weekend seminar on nihilism.
After a while with McCarthy, whether in book or on screen, you can’t not notice this and it takes me out of the story every time. I know in a lot of ways that’s kind of McCarthy’s point but in a lot of ways also it’s pretentious as hell, especially when you’ve read/watched enough of it that it begins to sound like he’s just stringing a bunch of weighty and obscure words together without much intention but for their rhythm or lyricism, and that he’s not really saying anything at all. (Having those heavy and apparently meaningless words come out of the clearly overmatched Diaz’s mouth adds a whole extra layer of distraction.)
Cities of the Plain suffers from this problem though it’s not as conspicuous as it was in its overlong, meditative predecessor, The Crossing (see my review). Indeed this one is brisk in comparison. It also feels unnecessary. For a minor example of McCarthy saying something that appears to be meaningless I’ll cite the weird epilogue, where senior citizen Billy meets a strange and possibly omniscient fellow hobo who says:
Yet the story of the world, which is all the world we know, does not exist outside of the instruments of its execution. Nor can those instruments exist outside of their own history. And so on. This life of yours is not a picture of the world. It is the world itself and it is composed not of bone or dream or time but of worship. Nothing else can contain it. Nothing else be by it contained. 287
Now this could mean something, I grant that, but I couldn’t help thinking to myself upon reading it, Wait, life and the world are composed of WORSHIP? That doesn’t seem right at all. In what sense? What is he even talking about?
At best — AT BEST — this and most of McCarthy’s “philosophical” dalliances are examples of intentional obfuscation. There has to be a clearer way to say what he’s trying to say, and you would think he would want his message, if there is one, to be clearly relayed. I understand the value of vagueness, of establishing a foreboding, quasi-mystical mood, but I get the feeling that creating this mood is McCarthy’s sole objective and that’s not a fun feeling for me as a reader. It’s the feeling of being defrauded.
So as I’m accusing McCarthy of not being direct enough with his writing let me be more direct in my accusation: I have come to strongly suspect that much of McCarthy’s writing is simply hot air. I don’t think he’s trying to say something as much as he’s trying to make it look like he’s saying something. And here’s that dreaded word, the one that some people think is an unfair criticism of film/literature: I think he’s pretentious. (P.S. I feel the same way about the Coen Brothers in film.)
Part of this feeling is probably related to reading his books back-to-back-to-back. McCarthy fares remarkably poorly with marathon reading, perhaps not the only author for whom this is true but arguably he for whom it is most true. You really begin to notice his tropes, his “As if. . .” simile fragments and his “selfsame” syntactic tics and his “And then he [BLAH-ed] and then he [BLAH-ed]” descriptions of the mundanest of mundanities. Being bludgeoned by his fatalism gets incredibly old as well, but at least I was saved in this book from all of his “chitterings” — I only counted one! You can also tell I’m in full-on Cormac-rebellion by the variety of punctuation marks I’m using in this review. . .
As for the story itself: it was kind of a rehash of Pretty Horses, just with raised stakes. I’m still a big fan of John Grady Cole as a protagonist and when the book was with him it was good and compelling. But I’m perplexed as to how Billy Parham was totally peripheral to the main narrative. Frankly I think McCarthy wasted him as a character, especially after the preceding novel spent 400+ pages on him. Going into this knowing that both Cole and Parham were in it I expected some sort of adventure with the both of them and I was disappointed in that sense.
Parham’s character here also felt generic after the events of the 2nd novel. I know it’s almost a decade later but there was little logic as to how his personality from The Crossing evolved into this grizzled cowpoke. I feel like he could have been a new character and been almost as impactful. Yes there was the “little brother” aspect of his relationship to JGC, the parallel to Boyd, but McCarthy gave us so little time with him that there wasn’t much payoff there. Honestly it felt like McCarthy wrote this novel after Pretty Horses, or at least outlined it, and then decided to write The Crossing to give Parham’s character more weight.
Looking over this review it sounds like I hate McCarthy and his book, but that’s not the case. Even if I was disappointed with the rest of the trilogy after the comparatively great Pretty Horses, I’m still glad I read the last two books. There are moments of staggering beauty, quiet introspection and shocking violence, all of them equally effective. The climax to the dog-chase will stick with me for a long time. Also, I would happily read another novel with JGC or Parham as the protagonist because they’re admirably compelling characters. Then there’s dialogue like this: “You go back home and everthing you wished was different is still the same and everthing you wished was the same is different. 30” In short: much of it is masterful.
But yeah, I can’t help but feeling like Pretty Horses would have been just as impactful and maybe more impressive had it just been a standalone novel. Another way of saying the same thing (which is telling to those who know how picky I am about the books I keep for my personal library): Horses will stay on my shelf while Crossing and Cities will get sold. I do think a re-reading of the 2nd novel would be particularly enjoyable but I’m too tired of McCarthy to do it right now and it wouldn’t be as effective after a lay-off.
Basically I’m left with admiring McCarthy for what he is but nursing an underlying suspicion that he’s at least a bit overrated (and overwrought) in the literary psyche. I’ll check out his future works with reservation — at least his rate of production doesn’t overwhelm one. . . I’d recommend this one to folks who at the very least really liked one of the preceding books in the series (it doesn’t matter which one). Anyone else will feel like they’re wasting their time. I will say that after reading almost all of his novels (except Suttree) I much prefer his later, post-Horses works to his earlier stuff which is far too grisly for me.