Tuesday, 26 April 2011

No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy

I was prompted to read No Country for Old Men after reading this post about another McCarthy novel here, and realising that since loving The Road, I hadn’t read any more despite having two on the shelf. And I loved this one almost as much as The Road, so heres hoping it’s not too long until I read another.

Vietnam War veteran Llewellyn Moss stumbles across a failed drug convoy comprising numerous shot up vehicles, even more dead bodies, the drugs, and a case containing two million dollars. Almost instantaneously deciding to take the money, he returns home, packs his young wife off to her mother’s, and makes a run for it with the cash. Hot on his heels is a professional hit man with his own moral code, unusual execution methods, and a penchant for deciding I someone lives or dies by a coin toss. Also chasing him is Sherriff Bell, who knows exactly what Chigurh is capable of, and that he will stop at nothing to get his man. Through alternating storylines we see the actions and whereabouts of Moss, Chigurh and Bell. As Chigurh gets closer to Moss he is prepared to annihilate everyone that lies in his way, which is in effect everyone he comes into contact with, so the book is littered with dead bodies.

Although I can’t shake the feeling that Moss brought a lot of what follows on himself, he is a likeable character, and I was rooting for him all the way. It’s a side issue, and doesn’t detract from how I felt about this book, but really, why take the money? He obviously knew what he was getting into, to send his wife away, and go on the run. And Sherriff Bell is an officer about to retire who just wants to see out his last days in office peacefully and retire to spend time with his wife. In terms of personal feelings and past history we know more about Bell than any other character, mainly because each chapter is preceded by his musings, mainly on the state of the nation today, and how corruption and violence is widespread, and it is easy to see his despair both for the job he loved, and the nation he calls home.

“I read the papers every mornin. Mostly I suppose just to try and figure out what might be headed this way. Not that I’ve done all that good a job at headin it off. It just keeps getting harder. Here a while back they was two boys run into one another and one of em was from California and one from Florida. And they met somewheres or other in between. And then they set out together travelin around the country killing people. I forget how many they did kill. Now what are the chances of s thing like that? Them two had never laid eyes on one another. There can’t be that many of em. I don’t think. Well, we don’t know. Here the other day they was a woman put her baby in a trash compactor. Who would think of such a thing?”

Sherriff Bell’s narrative gives a framework to the whole chase story, and adds another level to what would already be a very good story anyway. His monologues give a sense of the destruction that crime in general, and specifically drug crime is having on the country, and particularly on Bell’s sense of hs ability to do his job. Throughout the book, it emerges that both Bell and Moss are affected by a pervading sense of guilt for their actions in Vietnam, which they both feel a sense of shame for, and although I felt this was an undercurrent, rather than a main plotline, it does bind the two men together, against the incredibly chilling Chigurh.

Chigurh is something else altogether, and it would be easy to characterise him as pure evil, killing anyone in sight, almost for the fun of it. In my opinion, he is, in fact pure evil, but he does live by a moral code, all be it a very strange one, one of his own devising. I think that makes him all the more frightening. Chigurh very simply believes in a form of destiny. If it is your time to die, then there is nothing you can do to stop it, and pleading with him is pointless, he is just the bringer of the inevitable. Someone with this belief would be a very scary person to meet, and deadly to cross. His worldview, and his ability to carry this out, is really all we know about Chigurh. This lack of any knowledge about his past, or his motivations for thinking like this just serves to make him more frightening. And some of his speech is truly chilling.

“I had no say in the matter. Every moment in your life is a turning and everyone a choosing. Somewhere you made a choice. All followed to this. The accounting is scrupulous. The shape is drawn. No line can be erased. I had no belief in your ability to move a coin to your bidding. How could you? A person’s path through the world seldom changes and even more seldom will it change abruptly. And the shape of your path was visible from the beginning.”

This passage doesn’t come until close to the end of the book, but viewed as a microcosm of the whole novel, it can be seen that actions at the start are inevitable, and even with the faint glimmer of hope that permeated my reading experience, it should have been obvious from the start how this would all pan out.

I think part of the intensity of this novel comes from the sparseness of the language. McCarthy is very economical with his language, and there are no superfluous words in this story. In fact, most of the progression is achieved through dialogue between characters, without punctuation, so the whole thing flows very quickly, as a normal conversation would. This seems to add to the tense atmosphere and the pace and chaos of the characters interactions becomes real. With no punctuation, it is hard not to read quickly, adding a sense of breathlessness and urgency to the action happening on the pages. In contrast, although Chigurh, who is the calmest character in the book, still has no punctuation in his speech, he tends to have longer passages, and he never seems to use slang, so his clarity of mind comes across as our reading naturally slows down. It’s a brilliant way of actually using the words on the page to enhance the story.

I‘m not sure I could say I enjoyed this book, as I don’t think it was altogether a pleasant reading experience. It was harrowing in places, tense in places, depressing in places and thought provoking most of the way through. I was gripped, and read it quickly, and totally absorbed in the cat and mouse chase between the three main protagonists. Yet, when that abruptly stopped, and the book turned into something else, I was just as gripped. This book paints a pretty damning picture of drug running underworld, but more than that, it presents a clear and simple picture of how one ill thought out act can change a life irrevocably, and that of many other people.

Fantastic book, fantastic author and I definitely need to read more. I think I may need to read this again too.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

Flowers for Algernon is one of the saddest books I’ve read in a long time. It’s also one of the very few that has actually made me cry. It’s not often that happens! The central character is Charlie, a thirty-nine year old mentally disabled man, with an IQ of 68. He works as a janitor in a bakery, and attends adult learning evening classes in an attempt to improve his basic literacy and numeracy. Nearby, at the local university, research is underway on a procedure to develop and accelerate intelligence. After seemingly successful results on mice, specifically a particular mouse, Algernon, the search begins for a human volunteer, which is where Charlie fits in. Through Alice Kinnear, his teacher at the adult education classes, Charlie is recommended as a suitable candidate and the process of mental assessment begins.

The whole story is told in the form of progress reports written by Charlie himself, and the narrative starts once Charlie has been chosen, and is in the final stages of preparation for the operation. Charlie is a brilliantly portrayed and extremely likeable character. At least initially, the operation is successful and Charlie sees his intelligence increase drastically, and his narration reflects that change. Obviously, when Charlie first begins to write his reports he is writing with his low intelligence, hence the spelling, grammar and syntax are all wrong, and actually quite difficult to read and understand in his ‘Progris Riports’, yet after his operation, as his intelligence accelerates rapidly he becomes more literate, and this development is portrayed very well throughout his writings. Looking back on the book as a whole, it is easy to track Charlie’s development, and even to spot where he is on the IQ scale, almost by picking a page at random in the book.

It is not all good news for Charlie though. Yes, his intelligence increases (finally reaching 190), but some of the realisations this brings about in him are not pleasant for him to deal with. When he worked at the bakery, he believed he had friends, didn’t realise that people were laughing at him, not with him.

“Their all my good frends and we have lots of jokes and laffs here. Some times somebody will say hey lookit Frank or Joe or even Gimpy. He really pulled a Charlie Gordon that time. I dont know why they say it but they always laff and I laff too. This morning Gimpy hes the head baker and he has a bad foot and he limps and he used my name when he shouted at Ernie because Ernie losst a birthday cake. He said Ernie for godsake you trying to be a Charlie Gordon. I don’t know why he said that. I never lost any packiges.”

And a few pages later

“I think it’s a good thing finding out how everyone laughs at me. I thought about it a lot. It’s because I’m so dumb and I don’t even know when I’m doing something dumb. People think its funny when a dumb person can’t do things the same way they can.”

I think that that encapsulates what this novel is about perfectly. It is looking with a very critical eye at the treatment and attitude towards mentally disabled people in society, and this is seen with the utmost clarity as seen through the eyes of someone who has been on both sides of the fence. Although when Charlie has the low IQ, he understands little of what it means, throughout the novel his increasing intelligence leads to dreams and memories of repressed incidents from his past, both with his peers and his parents, and the sadness it causes him to feel is heartbreaking. The realisation that the people he believed to be his friends are just making fun of him is compounded by the understanding that all his life he has been laughed at, hidden away and generally thought worthless. When this all becomes clear to him, he says what I would consider to be the crux of this entire story

“I’m a human being, a person-with parents and memories and a history-and I was before you ever wheeled me in to that operating room”

The book is raising some very serious questions about how we categorise and react to mentally disabled people, and the way we view their place in the world. Although written in 1966 (slightly earlier for the original short story I think) and some of the terminology used reflects this, it’s still an important concern today, and although we’re getting better, we are nowhere near where we should be. At least, not in my experience working in special needs education.

I think the other central theme of this book can again be summed up succinctly with a quotation from quite near the start of the book. At one point, his doctor says

“Your intellectual growth is going to outstrip your emotional growth”

This is a problem that hounds Charlie throughout the book. Relating to people on a personal level is virtually impossible for him, and it is more difficult, the more emotionally attached he feels to the person. It is a problem at he never really comes to terms with, and is never really resolved within the story. What is obvious, however, is that his inability to relate to people on their own level becomes a major stumbling block for him, and seriously hinders his attempts to find happiness. Charlie always believed he could be happy if only he could be smart, but in reality this is not the case, and I finished the book wondering whether Charlie would have been happier, if he had been left alone, if he hadn’t felt the pressure of society to be smart as the only way of being worth something.

I loved this book, just as I loved Charlie. Charlie is so central to the story, and is really the only character with any depth that the two are synonymous anyway. He wasn’t always likeable, in fact there were points where I felt he became quite obnoxious, but that was always balanced with the knowledge that none of this was his fault, and he was struggling with his emotions, his past, and the uncertainty about his future.