Full House Reading Challenge – No Country for Old Men – Cormac McCarthy

Genre: Western, Thriller

Narrative Style: First person and third person sections

Rating: 5/5

Published: 2005

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Llewellyn Moss’ life changes when he finds a pickup truck containing money, drugs and some dead gang members. He decides to take the money and immediately goes on the run. He has no idea how bad the chain of events he has set in motion will be. 

Reading Challenges: Full House Reading Challenge – genre: Western.

I wasn’t really sure what to read for this genre. While I quite like a western movie, it is not a genre I have ever read – apart from Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. It seemed like a good idea to read another of his novels for this challenge. While No Country for Old Men is not a traditional cowboy story it is very much a modern day version. And I’d seen the film so I was sure that I would enjoy it.

This is a dark and brutal book. The violence is well written and (like in the film) it is not glamourised. It is bleak and empty like the landscape. Chigurh is a relentless killing machine who is unstoppable and unsympathetic. He dispatches people with the same dispassionate efficiency as a farmer slaughtering his cattle. He is the only character who is completely bad and amoral and as such he is the most frightening. You definitely would not want him on your trail.

By contrast, Moss is ambiguous in his morals. He is a veteran who is a loving husband to his very young wife. When he takes the drug dealer’s money, he sets off a tense chase across the country and the bodies very quickly start to pile up. Although Moss tries to protect his wife from the aftermath of his actions, it is inevitable that she will also come under the killer’s radar.

The sheriff, Bell, feels that his country has changed and he cannot understand this kind of cold, emotionless killing. He is part of a past that is disappearing and he feels that his morality does not quite match with the murders that he is seeing. Here is a man who loses money running the jail because he wants to make sure his prisoners are well fed. It is inevitable such intellectually cold killings as Chigurh’s would be impossible for him to understand.

McCarthy’s minimalist style seems the logical successor to writers such as Chandler and Hammett. This is a gangster story as much as it is a western. It is violent and cold in places but the contrast of Bell’s homespun philosophies and his quietly romantic relationship with his wife suggest that maybe the future isn’t totally bleak.

Top Ten Tuesday – Top Ten Worlds We’d Never Want to Live In

Top ten Tuesday is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. This week we are talking about fictional worlds we would not want to live in.

In no particular order:

1. The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood. This is one of the first dystopia that I read and still ranks as one of the scariest. The humiliations that the handmaid’s go through are almost beyond imagining. Atwood’s nightmare world is frighteningly convincing.

2. 1984 – George Orwell. I read this at school. I am sure that it is at least partly responsible for my own political convictions. It is a shame that things like room 101 and big brother have been stripped of most of their meaning by imbecilic television programmes.

3. Brave New World – Aldous Huxley. I often feel like the savage in this book when I look at modern culture. I feel a little lost and confused when I see the things that people do, watch, listen to, post on social media.

4. Mad Addam series – Margaret Atwood. I haven’t read the third book of this series yet but the first two were really disturbing. As with The Handmaid’s Tale, you could really see the roots of reality in this book. Take it as a warning, folks. This is where we could be headed.

5.  Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – Philip K. Dick / Bladerunner. It is particularly unsettling not to be able to tell if someone is human or not. Even more frightening is the idea that you might not even know yourself. This one eats at the very heart of the reader.

6. War of the Worlds – H. G. Wells. Oh, I know, the Martians get it in the end but up until that point, there really is no stopping them. I can’t help feeling this is what  it would be like if any aliens found us. Why travel across space and time, if you’ve not already conquered everything nearer at hand?

7. The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins. I’ve not read the rest of this series either. I liked the idea of the games and the different sectors more than I liked the way the story played out. You know everyone would watch it, that’s what makes it seem real.

8. Animal Farm – George Orwell. Another early influence on me politically. I imagine I’d be like poor old Boxer. Well-meaning but ultimately useless. I’d soon be carted off to the equivalent of the glue factory.

9. The Road – Cormac McCarthy. This is probably the bleakest book I have ever read. Some unnamed catastrophe has caused society to break down. McCarthy really captures the way that it would go once those rules were gone.

10. Never Let Me Go – Kazuo Ishiguro. This is another book where I liked the idea better than the execution. Children being bred purely for their organs is a chilling – and not unlikely – idea that gets to the heart of the issues surrounding cloning.

The Road – Cormac McCarthy – Dystopia – Eclectic Reader Challenge 2013

I first read Cormac McCarthy years ago. I read Blood Meridian and really enjoyed it. It was gritty, violent, nihilistic and it really appealed to me. It is a little shameful that it has taken more than 10 years to follow up on that enjoyment and read another McCarthy book. To read The Road to fulfill the dystopia category for the Eclectic Reader Challenge 2013the_road.large seemed the perfect way to rectify this.

I had no expectations. I haven’t seen the film so I was aware only vaguely as to what this was about. McCarthy doesn’t give many details. There has been an unspecified happening and now there are (at first) unspecified dangers. This had the effect of unsettling the reader as there was no way of knowing exactly where the danger would come from. Details start to emerge but not enough to ever offer security to the reader. Not enough to allow knowledge of the future.

The crux of this novel is the relationship between The Man and his son, The Boy. The fact that they are not named gives the novel an universal feel. While specific events will have lead to this particular situation, there is a sense that it is a timeless situation. Acts of war, violence, atrocity have always existed and will always exist. The Man and The Boy are just the current version of the victims of this violence. Not the first, nor the last.

The Man tells The Boy to watch out for bad guys and that they are the good guys. And while the bad guys are cannibalistic and the signs we are given of their presence are horrific, The Man also acts in a way that The Boy perceives to be bad – he doesn’t help people when he could and when they are robbed, The Man retaliates in a way that is extremely brutal. This suggests that the ‘bad’ guys may also merely be responding to circumstances, in whatever way they can. In these extreme circumstances, the difference between good and bad gets smaller and smaller. After all, what would you do in order to survive?

The prose and the plot are not complicated but that does not stop this from being one of the most devastating books that I have ever read. The details that McCarthy does give build an atmosphere of tension and fear that is both compelling and horrendous. I wanted to read on and not to read on, both at the same time. I worried for The Man and for The Boy because it seems inevitable that it will not end well for them. There is no note of hope here. As such, the ending is open to interpretation. It could be seen as a rescue, as a hopeful moment but if we have learned anything in this novel, it is that human nature finds it difficult to retain its goodness under extreme circumstances and that it is difficult to tell who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. I want to hope for the best for The Boy because he, more than the man, does seem to represent the good of humanity. He often berates The Man over what he perceives to be bad behaviour but which we can can see is to do with self-preservation. Because of this, I do not feel that the ending can be straightforwardly positive but it can hope for the best. Perhaps that is all any of us can do.