Cormac McCarthy – No Country For Old Men

Telegrams were a bit before my time but most of us are still familiar with their staccato style which was solely intended to transmit information (for modern comparison: think of text messages and their, sometimes odd, abbreviations). In this respect, Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 novel No Country For Old Men reminded me of telegrams (or text messages, if you will).

The book opens up with Llewelyn Moss hunting antelope in the Texas desert one morning when he comes across the scene of a drug deal gone awry. Everybody’s dead, except for one badly injured Mexican. He also finds a satchel with 2.4 million dollars. He takes the money and goes home, but returns to attend the injured Mexican. However, another truck arrives. From there, the chase is on.

The novel was originally drafted as a screenplay which may explain its style of mostly short, functional sentences. It indeed had the effect of reading the treatment of a screenplay: I felt like I was holding a camera, following the characters, and transcribing their actions and words. No time for poetic prose or introspection. Functionality over everything.

This narrative distance however also means that we don’t get any introduction to the characters. We are just thrown into the action and have to figure out what is actually happening and why. Who is Llewelyn Moss? Who is Anton Chigurh? What are their likes, their dislikes? What is their background? Their motivation? We really don’t know for the most part. All we learn about them is what they tell us or what sheriff Bell finds out. That is it.

However, McCarthy employs another interesting stylistic choice which actually helped me along the way: he doesn’t use quotation marks. He doesn’t even separate a character’s actions from his speech. They occur together in the same paragraph and it is up to us, the reader, to figure it out. The only help we get is that McCarthy uses vernacular spelling and idiomacy expression for direct speech (e.g. “sit” becomes “set”).

The resulting effect of this choice on me was that, as a reader, I constantly had to be on my toes. I had to read closely and couldn’t skim over a sentence or space out. Yet, still, I’m not sure I picked up every clue and hidden nod towards what was actually going on. Anton Chigurh, for example, remains a mystery to me.

Having said this, the story is actually quite engaging although there is no reason why we should care for any of the characters since we don’t know enough about any of them and none of them are really portrayed as likeable – with the only exception perhaps being sheriff Bell, who is also the only character we get to know a bit about in the form of brief, journal-like excerpts that open up every chapter.

If you enjoy (modern) Westerns or thrillers involving mysterious characters and nebulous motivations, or if you’re more interested in plot than poetic prose, No Country For Old Men is for you. It’s gritty, rough around the edges and unpretentious. In that, its style reflects the content.

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