On writing aesthetics: inferences and implications

Child of God by Cormac McCarthyHere I am recovering from another great Cormac McCarthy novel trying to figure out my take on aesthetics for this week. I finished reading Child of God the other day and I’m still piecing together what exactly it is about his writing I love so much. His style holds an intriguing dichotomy of illustrative scenery that grabs all senses juxtaposed with minimalist storytelling.

When I say minimalist, I mean it in the proper sense; McCarthy’s prose are not at all over-simplified, rather, they are tight and methodical. Every word of action and dialog is intentional, including every word he leaves out forcing the reader to engage. There is no room allowed for flowery superfluous language to gently carry the reader downstream. Such a passive reader would be lost on the first few pages blindly tripping over the gaps.

I had originally thought it was the lush environments and creative word choices I was enamored with. After deeper introspection I realized it was this minimalist technique inducing reader engagement. I like to be challenged as a reader, to connect implied situations to each other and draw conclusions, not once being told what to think.

McCarthy is a genius in this regard. I cared about the pathetic life of Lester Ballard – an uneducated 27-year-old cave-dwelling psychopath – despite his vile behavior and despicable actions. I don’t recall a single redeeming instance in this character’s life, yet I was vested in his day-to-day survival living on the fringe of a rural community.

Not once did McCarthy tell me I am supposed to care about the protagonist, nor did he tell me to hate him. In fact, most of what I learned about the character was indirect. Small details were leaked throughout the novel revealing just how screwed up this guy was, wearing the ill-fitting clothes and stitched-together scalps of his victims while collecting their corpses for his pleasure. Gruesome on every level. Only a few actual violent acts are fully depicted, yet the reader can infer these acts occur frequently at similar magnitude.

She was lying in the floor but she was not dead. She was moving. She seemed to be trying to get up. A thin stream of blood ran across the yellow linoleum rug and seeped away darkly in the wood of the floor. Ballard gripped the rifle and watched her. Die, goddamn you, he said. She did. (p. 119)

He’d long been wearing the underclothes of his female victims but now he took to appearing in their outerwear as well. A gothic doll in illfit clothes, its carmine mouth floating detached and bright in the white landscape. (p. 140)

Perhaps that is the root of McCarthy’s hold over me as a reader – the inherent aesthetic beauty of his writing – the fact that he produced for me subliminal responses on top of the conscious conclusions I was formulating. But there are multiple other levels to appreciate, beautifully crafted sentences and careful word choices to minimalistic story-telling.

Old woods and deep. At one time in the world there were woods that no one owned and these were like them. He passed a windfelled tulip poplar on the mountainside that held aloft in the grip of its roots two stones the size of fieldwagons, great tablets on which was writ only a tale of vanished seas with ancient shells in cameo and fishes etched in lime. Ballard among gothic treeboles, almost jaunty in the outsized clothing he wore, fording drifts of kneedeep snow, going along the south face of a limestone bluff beneath which birds scratching in the bare earth paused to watch. (pp. 127-128)

Was he cognizant of this capability to induce multiple response levels when writing the book forty years ago? Perhaps, I recall a similar reaction to reading The Road. I plan to read more of his work to find out.


Writing Craft: The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Cormac McCarthy’s The Road contained an unusual, if not disruptive writing style that immediately struck me on the first page. Sentences varied in odd structures, some abrupt, some run-on, some fragmented. Many contractions were missing apostrophes; quotation marks were completely absent from all dialogue. Some dialogue was intertwined within paragraphs of description, action, and narrative as exemplified in the following:

He screwed down the plastic cap and wiped the bottle off with a rag and hefted it in his hand. Oil for their little slutlamp to light the long gray dusks, the long gray dawns. You can read me a story, the boy said. Cant you, Papa? Yes, he said. I can. (7)

The disruptive writing style, seemingly incoherent at times, stylistically blended with the post-apocalyptical world of The Road. The atmosphere throughout the story was gray and cold, filled with the lifeless charred remains of a once flourishing landscape weighted heavily with despair and innate survival. The text portrayed this with eerie appropriateness. Sentences were cold, words were charred, and prose and dialogue loomed with despair, graced by the smallest nuances of hope. Proper constructs would have been detrimental to the authenticity of the story, its chaotic reality in the reader’s mind.

Dreams and memories blurred with the protagonist’s reality, as did the narration and the protagonist’s inner dialogue. Point-of-view shifted with no warning from third to first person to tell the story as accurately as it could be told. In the following example, a series of third person run-on sentences morphs into the protagonist’s perspective:

They stumbled and fell through the woods the night long and long before dawn the boy fell and would not get up again. He wrapped him in his own parka and wrapped him in the blanket and sat holding him, rocking back and forth. A single round left in the revolver. You will not face the truth. You will not. (68)

The ambiguity of who speaks the sentence “A single round left in the revolver” – narrator or protagonist – is found throughout the book lending to the precariousness and fragmentation of the story’s environment. The two subsequent sentences “You will not face the truth. You will not,” call to question whether this is actually the protagonist speaking to his son, his inner dialogue, or the narrator speaking to the protagonist, further compounding this world of uncertainty dynamic.

The stylistic handling or mishandling of the text contributed to the fullness of the story. Disjointed oversimplified dialogue with minimal clarity of who was speaking helped to illustrate the dismal, desperate environment. While heavy repetition of thematic words solidified the setting: gray, cold, wet, ash, burned, charred, dead. Run-ons punctuated by short fragments and single word sentences accentuated the scenes’ actions and moods.

My take away from The Road is one of creative freedom, of knowing the rules well and breaking them to fit the writer’s intent. The text successfully created a vivid portrayal of the post-apocalyptic world, one that was as rich and thriving in detail as it was gruesome and deadly in story. An exemplary literary work in which every word is used as the hues and thick brush strokes of a Van Gogh landscape.

John Palisano’s debut novel Nerves is coming

The debut novel Nerves from my very good friend John Palisano is coming out on February 26, 2012. Watch the teaser below and place an order. Support a talented up-and-comer!

Also, check out this artist’s profile piece on John: http://mistydahl.com/2012/02/15/wednesdays-writer-john-palisano/

Book orders: http://www.badmoonbooks.com/product.php?productid=2971&cat=0&page=1

John’s site: http://www.johnpalisano.com/