McCarthy's Tentative Omniscient Narrator

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  • 02 May 2014 at 9:03 pm #5327


    I was looking at the discussion under the topic Swarm Behavior in McCarthy, and its discussion of John Grady and Rawlins riding among the stars has brought to mind something I’ve wondered about from time to time, but never really elaborated on.

    McCarthy’s narrative voice is powerful and completely shapes the stories he tells, but repeated use of words and phrases such as “like” (see the other thread), or my favorite, “perhaps he…” (see The Crossing) suggest that the narrator either isn’t certain of a thing or that he knows a good deal more than he’s saying.

    What do we make of this peculiar reticence in McCarthy’s narration? McCarthy, being the creator of these works, knows better than anyone else. What secret is he keeping?

    Or is it simply a matter of cadence, rhythm, profundity?

    02 May 2014 at 10:17 pm #5329

    Peter Josyph

    Marty discusses this issue in the chapter of CORMAC McCARTHY’S HOUSE called “‘Now let’s Talk About THE CROSSING.'” That Marty’s a highlight of that book is a reason why I can recommend it.

    There is certainly an Uncertainty Principle amongst McCarthy’s narrators.

    In at least two novels reported to be admired by McCarthy, MOBY-DICK and THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV, the narrators are now omniscient and now just guys talking about what they saw, heard, felt, wonder.

    McCarthy moves in and out within the space of a sentence.

    Exactly who the hell is telling what from what vantage is not exactly an easy question to answer about AS I LAY DYING, is it?

    Again, I highly recommend James Franco’s superb adaptation of AS I LAY DYING. It doesn’t try to be definitive: it’s a brief and compelling attempt at turning a hugely complex masterwork into a film of 109 minutes that had to be shot in a few weeks. Admirable. And, despite faults, so is CHILD OF GOD.

    Can there be other, what might be considered more Faulknerean, more McCarthean, approaches? Sure. Show me. In all these years, no one else from either the South or the North has attempted either work.

    Both films are beautifully shot by Christina Voros, who also shot Franco’s THE BROKEN TOWER, a small black and white film about Hart Crane.

    AS I LAY DYING… CHILD OF GOD… both shows are stolen by Tim Blake Nelson, one of my fellow New Yorkers and a former Oklahoman whose Jewish grandparents fled from the Third Reich.

    I look forward to Franco’s THE SOUND AND THE FURY.

    03 May 2014 at 9:43 pm #5330

    Sometimes I think McCarthy’s third-person narrator is doing a version of the chorus from Child of God, watching and chatting with us, but not pretending to comprehend or know the whole story. Like the “or some other bird” in Outer Dark. He could also be a disingenuous narrator.

    Or maybe that “uncertainty principle” in the narrator is just another symptom of the postmodern in McCarthy, or rather, that at least one of McCarthy’s feet is the postmodern camp, and that there is no knowledge since the narrator is “at odds to know his mind cause his mind is aught he has to know it with.”

    But the cadence is nice, too.

    Just saw this today. Probably someone on the forum has already pointed it out, but I’m always late to the party:

    03 May 2014 at 9:46 pm #5331

    I was trying to attach this link to a Slate piece. Here’s the URL.

    04 May 2014 at 8:00 am #5333


    I like the line of thought centering on uncertainty. Nietzsche famously said “We are strangers to ourselves.” I buy that to some extent. I don’t always know why I do what I do, let alone why others do what they do. I know myself as much as I know anything in this world. Trying to explain why I am what I am is paradoxically difficult. Transfer that to trying to capture what moves others to do what they do is obviously more difficult yet, impossible in many cases. Metaphor and myth can get us closer but never fully exhaust all possibilities, thus the uncertainty. The map is not the territory.

    19 Mar 2015 at 12:46 pm #6694

    Richard L.

    The word is not the thing itself. Yea, the map is not the territory.

    The reminder on the mirror in the movie, BIRDMAN, or some other bird, reminds us of the masks on which and through which we see reality. We’ve listed some of the books that have influenced McCarthy’s style and we’ve listed some of the fiction that has in turn been influenced by McCarthy’s style and those same sources of influence.

    This style has also influenced some of our non-fiction writers–indeed, it has influenced some of our historians.

    What’s that quote from BLOOD MERIDIAN?

    “Men’s memories are uncertain and the past that was differs little from the past that was not.”

    That quote is true on more than one level. Where is the past? It’s gone. It doesn’t exist save in our bookish narratives and in men’s uncertain memories–in our words, in our art.

    I’ve long touted Alden R. Carter’s novel, BRIGHT STARRY BANNER, for its melding of documented historical detail concerning the Battle of Stones River and for its McCarthyesque images and descriptions. The epigraph of the novel brings to mind the McCarthy quote above:

    “The imagination works best amid scenes half known and half forgotten. When time shall have thrown its shadows over the events of this century, and the real and unreal become so intermingled in the minds of men as to become indistinguishable….Brigadier General John Beatty, The Citizen Soldier, December 1863

    In Dan Lee’s biography of General Lovell Rousseau, we get this McCarthyesque image:

    “There were over 1,700 dead Federals to bury, along with wagonloads of amputated arms and legs. It was a big job and one that was made harder because heavy rains kept washing the bodies out of their graves. Long trenches were dug to receive as many as two hundred bodies at once. Piles of dead horses, set afire but extinguished by the drizzle, smoldered here and there across the field like altars to some vengeful, horse-hating god.”

    25 Mar 2015 at 7:36 pm #6733


    Been meaning to post to this thread for awhile, but I keep forgetting:

    Marty brings up a great point that I’ve thought about a fair bit. Now, I don’t approach this from the point-of-view of any particular school, and I certainly couldn’t back this up from a theoretical perspective. But my tendency is to view McCarthy’s narrator as not omniscient, but close to it, and definitely trustworthy.

    The instances when McCarthy’s narrator (hereafter, “McCarthy”) admits not knowing something fall into two categories so far as I’ve been able to discern: 1) When he’s reporting on an event far from “the camera’s eye”, so to speak. For instance, during the Slaughter of the Gilenos in BM, when a group of Apaches appear on a nearby hill, we’re told “They were perhaps a quarter mile distant, five, six of them”. To me, this gives a cinematic feel to the events. McCarthy’s describing this from Glanton’s vantage. The camera was fully trained on Glanton for the previous paragraph, and just now the information of the regroup is reaching him. It seems completely reasonable for McCarthy to be vague here, because he’s describing what Glanton is able to see from a distance.

    2) When he’s speculating on the motivations/histories of his characters, e.g., Marty’s “perhaps he…” or how the judge “seemed little changed or none in all these years.” This ties in with the whole “lack of interiority” that critics write about over and over in McCarthy’s work. It seems like most times McCarthy doesn’t want to say what’s in a character’s head, but he’s content to speculate.

    However: There are clearly exceptions to this. Think of the judge’s harnessmaker parable when he pauses: “His narration was much in the manner of a recital. He had not lost the thread of the tale.” How could the narrator know that? Think of “Glanton at the fire”. Think of all the dreams throughout his books. Every once in awhile McCarthy does indeed tell us what’s going on in his characters’ heads.

    Note, though, that McCarthy’s narrator seems fundamentally different in Suttree and The Road, works with main characters that many have speculated *are* McCarthy. McCarthy has no problem telling us what’s going on in Suttree’s head or in the man’s head. And frequently it seems he goes out of his way to blur the line between what the “omniscient” narrator is saying and what those characters are thinking.

    As far as trustworthy: I was very very hesitant to believe McCarthy’s narrator for a very long while. I always had the sense he’s misleading us. He withholds information, he’s extremely enigmatic, often unnecessarily so, he fixates on and seems to glorify the most heinous, repulsive aspects of existence, etc. I’ve completely changed my thinking on this, largely due to my reread of BM last summer. Anyone who’s read my posts on that will be aware of the things I emphasize in my reading: It’s the little things, the repeated echoes, the obscured details: who’s looking at the fire, how many days the kid is on the plain in Chapter 15, the idiot’s and the kid’s reflections, repeated associations with fire, the sun, stone, etc. And what I came to believe is that McCarthy never lies to us. He may be cryptic, he may obscure important details, but that’s not to say what he says is false. I came to believe that I was just reading him the wrong way and he was teaching me the right way to read him.

    Anyway. That’s my take on it. I’ve certainly not thought about this completely rigorously, but this is the sense I’ve gotten so far.

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