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am 21. Juni 1998
Cowboy 1: Hey, Bud, did you read that new book by Cormac? Cowboy 2: I might of looked at it. 1: Care to opine? 2: Well, I've read better. 1: You can say that again. 2: John Grady deserved better'n that. 1: I don't know if him or the dog was better off. 2: And how bout that epilogue! 1: I know, what you're sayin', Bud. I mean I gotta blow my nose in the morning, but I don't share it with strangers I meet. 2: I guess ol Cormac thought predictable and windblown was the way to go on that one.
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am 11. April 2000
I'd read the first twobooks and was anxiously awaiting the publication of this lastinstallment in the Border Trilogy... the first thing I noticed was theodd choice of title: "Cities of the Plain" was for years and years the favorite title for English translations of Proust's "Sodom et Gomorrah" colume of "Remembrance of Things Past" -- something not likely to have passed McCarthy by (i.e., as a writer, unless I was Kathy Acker and feeling particularly postmodern, I can't imagine naming one of my novels "The Tin Drum", irregardless of the fact that "Die Blechtrommel" was the title Gunter Grass gave it in German) -- if you don't get the Biblical allusion, the title must seem fairly straightforward: cities, Great Plains, cowhands, etc. But the reference to Sodom and Gomorrah seems so utterly off: Billy Parham as Lot, and John Grady as Lot's wife, turned to a pillar of sand? El Paso as Sodom, and Juarez as Gomorrah? And so on, nothing really matching. The metaphor's too vague...
Grady -- and to a lesser extent, Parham -- seem to use their dreams, their unspoken fantasies, to project the world they live in only a precarious step or two ahead of where they're already at. It rarely reflects their surroundings more than haphazardly, gets them into all sorts of trouble, and is resolved for Grady in tragedy, vengeance, and death, and for Parham in perhaps the most oblique of all the sinister Mexican parables with which McCarthy has so generously salted and peppered the whole trilogy. That projection -- that use of the world as a screen, simultaneous with the reader using the book in the same way -- which worked so well in the first two books, through the characters of Grady and Parham as boys, in many ways precisely because they were boys -- doesn't work particularly well here. They're not boys any longer, their characters don't scan as boys' characters within the situations and dialogue we find them in, and yet they don't seem to be adults. Or older. They seem less like people than spirits, old ghosts divorced too long from the tickings of flesh to be particularly reliable witnesses to the waning of their personal and historo-geographical eras. Add to this the terminally arhthymic heartbeat of the book -- the time signatures of the plot change so rapidly and patternlessly one rarely gets any sense of the passing of real time -- and you have an unwieldy, misshapen appendage of a Volume 3 which completes the trilogy with all the grace and continuity of a pair of donkey's ears protruding from a human head. I'm not saying it couldn't work just as perfectly as here it fails, in some different setting, as a book on its own, as the opener of a trilogy. And I'm not saying there's not some stunning prose here (though by this time one takes it for granted coming from McCarthy), not to mention the beautiful, odd surprise of the epilogue (marred only by the aforementioned overlong parable of the dream of the man dreaming of the sacrifical altar, etc.) -- but it remains a deeply, deeply inconsistent and flawed book, full of inexcusably rushed transitions, often paperthin characterizations, and cross-cultural interchanges diluted nearly to the point of parodies (there are Mexican voices here that ring as cliched as Uncle Remus did in "Song of the South")
I've searched the texts and my mind for some pattern or reason behind the ways McCarthy chose to carry out (undermine, sabotage) this otherwise seismically-affecting trilogy's conclusion, and I must admit, if such are there, they go entirely by me. The final feeling was a let-down -- and -- and what? Is he trying to say that about human life? And yet everything else in the books would deny that, as suffuse as they are with hyperventilated observation, flora and fauna and natural wonder, third ways, and third ways' thirds ways (fourth ways), and meditations on life and death and love and solitude and the relationships between men and horses. I was left scratching my head. END
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am 11. April 2000
("The scorching memoirs of young man-about-town Jack Saul. With his shocking dalliances with the lords and ladies of British high society, Jack's positively sinful escapades grow wilder with every chapter!" -- amazon.com synopsis of James Jennings' "Sins of the Cities of the Plain")
I'd read the first two books and was anxiously awaiting the publication of this last installment in the Border Trilogy... the first thing I noticed was the odd choice of title: "Cities of the Plain" was for years and years the favorite title for English translations of Proust's "Sodom et Gomorrah" colume of "Remembrance of Things Past" -- something not likely to have passed McCarthy by (i.e., as a writer, unless I was Kathy Acker and feeling particularly postmodern, I can't imagine naming one of my novels "The Tin Drum", irregardless of the fact that "Die Blechtrommel" was the title Gunter Grass gave it in German) -- if you don't get the Biblical allusion, the title must seem fairly straightforward: cities, Great Plains, cowhands, etc. But the reference to Sodom and Gomorrah seems so utterly off: Billy Parham as Lot, and John Grady as Lot's wife, turned to a pillar of sand? El Paso as Sodom, and Juarez as Gomorrah? And so on, nothing really matching. The metaphor's too vague...
Grady -- and to a lesser extent, Parham -- seem to use their dreams, their unspoken fantasies, to project the world they live in only a precarious step or two ahead of where they're already at. It rarely reflects their surroundings more than haphazardly, gets them into all sorts of trouble, and is resolved for Grady in tragedy, vengeance, and death, and for Parham in perhaps the most oblique of all the sinister Mexican parables with which McCarthy has so generously salted and peppered the whole trilogy. That projection -- that use of the world as a screen, simultaneous with the reader using the book in the same way -- which worked so well in the first two books, through the characters of Grady and Parham as boys, in many ways precisely because they were boys -- doesn't work particularly well here. They're not boys any longer, their characters don't scan as boys' characters within the situations and dialogue we find them in, and yet they don't seem to be adults. Or older. They seem less like people than spirits, old ghosts divorced too long from the tickings of flesh to be particularly reliable witnesses to the waning of their personal and historo-geographical eras. Add to this the terminally arhthymic heartbeat of the book -- the time signatures of the plot change so rapidly and patternlessly one rarely gets any sense of the passing of real time -- and you have an unwieldy, misshapen appendage of a Volume 3 which completes the trilogy with all the grace and continuity of a pair of donkey's ears protruding from a human head. I'm not saying it couldn't work just as perfectly as here it fails, in some different setting, as a book on its own, as the opener of a trilogy. And I'm not saying there's not some stunning prose here (though by this time one takes it for granted coming from McCarthy), not to mention the beautiful, odd surprise of the epilogue (marred only by the aforementioned overlong parable of the dream of the man dreaming of the sacrifical altar, etc.) -- but it remains a deeply, deeply inconsistent and flawed book, full of inexcusably rushed transitions, often paperthin characterizations, and cross-cultural interchanges diluted nearly to the point of parodies (there are Mexican voices here that ring as cliched as Uncle Remus did in "Song of the South")
I've searched the texts and my mind for some pattern or reason behind the ways McCarthy chose to carry out (undermine, sabotage) this otherwise seismically-affecting trilogy's conclusion, and I must admit, if such are there, they go entirely by me. The final feeling was a let-down -- and -- and what? Is he trying to say that about human life? And yet everything else in the books would deny that, as suffuse as they are with hyperventilated observation, flora and fauna and natural wonder, third ways, and third ways' thirds ways (fourth ways), and meditations on life and death and love and solitude and the relationships between men and horses. I was left scratching my head.
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am 26. August 1999
I couldn't wait to read this book after reading and enjoying the first two book of the border triology. "All the Pretty Horses" is my favorite book of the series; the writing is lovely in its description of the western landscape and the cowboy lifestyle that is disappearing in the modern world. The beginning of the second book, "The Crossing", is marvelous in its evocation of the link between man and nature, and natures link to the true law or character of our world. The rest of the book had too much philosophy and mysticism for me, but it was still an interesting read. "Cities of the Plains", the final book of the triology, has both the main characters from the previous novels. This is my least favorite of the three, but I still think McCarthy's work is of a very high caliber. In this novel he tries to combine the themes (death of the western lifestyle, the existence of a world of truth beyond our own, the indifference of the universe to the events of our lives) of the previous two two novels. I think that he ultimately succeeds but the much of the writing does not contain the lyrical beauty and poinancy of the first two novels. I also find the habit of writing some of the important dialogue between two characters in Spanish very annoying. It is difficult enough to understand what is meant in the passages of this book, as McCarthy does not express or explain the thoughts or emotion of his characters, without trying to understand the Spanish. Also the end of the book contains a mystical, philisophical conversation about a dream which may be puzzling to some readers, although I think that it enhances the meaning of the plot and themes of the novel. I recommend this book as a challenging and interesting read, especially if you have read the previous two novels of the border triology.
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am 19. November 1998
The last installment on the Border Trilogy proves to be well worth the wait. Although not McCarthy's best effort, any effort by McCarthy shines out like a lighthouse beacon over the dark waters of the standard fare of modern fiction (one shrinks from using the word literature for 99.9% of published fiction). McCarthy intertwines and concludes the tales of John Grady Cole from All the Pretty Horses and Billy Parham from The Crossing. A 20-year-old John Grady and a 28-year-old Billy Parham are working together on a ranch in New Mexico near El Paso in the early 1950s. In this tale, Billy becomes the everyman, doomed to walk the lands in search of the ever receding revelation which will give meaning to his life and healing to his pain, while Cole becomes the symbol for honor and redemption through deeds in a fallen (and still falling) world. All of the key elements of McCarthy's body of work are here - the quest, the violent nature of our race, the recurring nature of societies in an ancient land, our search for meaning in the seemingly arbitrary events of our lives, the pathos of our struggle against overwhelming fates. The epilogue is fifty years after the heroic Cole has done battle with the beast in his lair (there is something of the Norse myth about McCarthy - warriors in a recurring cycle of violence, Ragnarok when the gods and the forces of darkness annihilate each other at the end of all days) and has killed and been killed. (The best that can be hoped for in McCarthy's world is a hard fought draw in the unending battle with shadow forces.) A 78-year-old Billy, wandering his world aimlessly, homeless, waiting only for death, encounters a nameless stranger who is a shaman, a dream interpreter. The final scene is the summary statement of the Border Trilogy, and a defining moment in modern American literature. The basic questions of our existence - who are we and why are we here? - are answered in the only manner possible, with beauty and simplicity.
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There is little doubt to me that McCarthy is the best living American writer, and that even his weaker work (which Cities of the Plain unfortunately is) is still better than anything else I have read since The Crossing. McCarthy should be commended for having the courage to take up an impossible task. The worlds of All the Pretty Horses and The Crossing do not really intersect. The former is McCarthy at his grittiest and most realistic (even more so that in Suttree and Blood Meridian whose intensity pushed past realism)and the latter is McCarthy at his metaphysical best, combining the everyday observation and heartbreaking poetry with a philosophical sophistication usually lacking in contemporary American writing. The Crossing combined early McCarthy weirdness with the straighforward parched power of his Texan phase. Cities of the Plain should have sounded more like The Crossing. That is the way McCarthy was obviously trying to go, but I suspect that he lost his nerve to some extent. His treatment of the metaphysical has always been unabashed, and just as the wolf was the conceptual persona of the Crossing, the central image around which all of the poetry and thought cohered, so Magdalena should have been in this novel. McCarthy made a step in that direction by making her disease a kind of ersatz sacrament. The philosophy of love, of mystery (and of the false search for mystery), of death, of the innocence of degradation, all cohere around the figure of the girl. But where is the poetry around her? Where are the speculations, the lyric flights, the gravity of an image taken up and filled with meaning? Take this passage from The Crossing, when Billy buries the wolf: "He took up her stiff head out of the leaves and held it or he reached to hold what cannot be held, what already ran among the mountains at once terrible and of great beauty, like flowers that feed on flesh. What blood and bone are made of but can themselves not make on any altar nor by any wound of war. What we may well believe has! the power to cut and shape and hollow out the dark form of the world surely if wind can, if rain can. But which cannot be held never be held and is no flower but is swift and a huntress and the wind itself is in terror of it and the world cannot lose it." Where are such passages in Cities of the Plain? The girl was the perfect image on which to base the novel, but I worry that McCarthy feared such a speculation would not be accepted (the woman as muse, as metaphysical conduit, etc). Too bad. He would have done it beautifully. What he does do is push the life of Billy Parham even further past the point at which he left him in The Crossing. He also gives us a picture of John Grady Cole that opens up his reticence and makes it even more poignant. How do we fit into the world, and into the picture of the world we carry with us? How does loss push past negativity to become the very materiality of our lives? "This life of yours is not a picture of the world. It is the world itself and it is composed not of bone or dream or time but of worship" There is much beauty and truth to be found in this novel. McCarthy is probably the only living American writer who knows that great writing is not done with personalities, but with those forces, natural and supernatural that make possible what we recognize as the personal, the psychological, the ethical. Read Cities of the Plain (and the rest of McCarthy) before you read any of McCarthy's contemporaries.
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am 19. Mai 1998
Regarding McCarthy's finale to the Border Trilogy, and following along with the common thread throughout his corpus thusfar, comes a deep if complex sense of satisfaction. Somewhat 'visceral', as if having come up from the ground and through the feet into ones' body, ones' embodiment, is how the act of reading his work could be described. The characters unfold into a tale in an amorphous fashion, indeterminate and fascinating, not unlike 'they'whom we meet in extemporary experience, perhaps not unlike that which refers to us 'as ourselves'. The story line moves forward in an unconventional manner, deftly avoiding serial connections into a narrow beam of easily discerned plot markers. No, with McCarthy, one walks into a landscape of great breadth and sensate qualities, buttressed by the detailed description of settings themselves that tie you as reader, co-conspirator, into his inner world creation. One wonders at times whether it is the characters history you are reading, or that of your own? The reading therefore is requiring of a dialogue between the author and you as participant, and this occurs seamlessly; you participate in his creations. The context of the tale, it's continuation in this case to a finale, revolves around change, around a dissemination of a once known world and its ways, into an uncertain future. There is consanguinity with our times in this, as has been expressed throughout the time of humanity's fumbling progression toward an unknown future. It isn't always pleasant, often profound, mostly mystifying {eventually}, and McCarthy splays this outward and across the pages, mindful at times of Philip Larkin's poem, 'Aubade' wherein, "the dread of dying, and being dead, flashes afresh to hold and horrify." Yet there is hope. There is hope; there are characters and events, segues, histories, amusements, burlesques, all richly allayed and of deep and insightful rendering, all leading into a landscape of eternity wherein we put the last page of the novel down. We could! then, perhaps, walk outside, observe the clouds rolling by, and feel a part of the unfolding of the world, It is in part our world, along with all the worlds richness which we are infused within. McCarthy's novel, as in all his corpus, brings us home. It remains to be seen whether our home will be the same thereafter.
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am 2. Mai 2000
Lots of reviews here complain about this book not having the drive or originality of the first two books in the trilogy. I'd have to agree, since this book just repeats the plots of the first two in a deliberate and symmetrical way. As Marx said, history happens twice, the first time as tragedy and the second as farce. Once again John Grady stupidly decides that he'll be able to save a Mexican girl, and once again Billy loses a brother.
In some ways this is a really ruthless book. The figure of the cowboy is given no possible redemption, no future. But what were we expecting? From the first it was clear that guys like John Grady and Billy are unforgivably short-sighted. They never "see" Mexico, they only fantasize about it (something for all you people who complained about the Spanish to think about--get a damn dictionary, for pity's sake!) They think of themselves as masters of all they survey, and as a direct result they end up dead or in despair.
And yet, and yet, and yet . . .
This is also a very serene and forgiving book that captures, more than any other western I can think of, the reality of the cowboy as worker--starved, broke, hanging on to the ranching life out of some kind of genuine love. If you get bored reading about the details of ranch life, just go read some pulp cowbody romance with shoot-outs and steamy sex scenes and get it over with.
McCarthy doesn't tell us which of his two visions of the cowboy is the true one, but he does leave them separate with no attempt to solve the problem he's laid out. I don't know whether this is good or bad, but McCarthy has brought a clarity and honesty to the Western that it was badly in need of.
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am 27. Mai 1998
Cities of the Plain is quite different from the first 2 installments, but it is no less powerful. Cities' narrative focus is tighter, with a greater emphasis on dialogue which makes much of CM's signature descriptive work stand out in even greater relief. He brings the west and the men and women and creatures that inhabit it to life as only he can and I highly recommend it (you need not have read the first 2 of the border trilogy to enjoy Cities, but I wouldn't have missed them for anything).
There has been some criticism of the doomed love affair--criticism with which I do not agree. This aspect of the book seemed ultimately convincing and effective to me, and fit with my understanding of the character. Further, it was consistent with the larger theme of a person's ability/need to imagine a world that is good, a world of possibility, but that imagining is almost an act of self defense b/c it is in direct contradiction to the way the world really is, and the way things tend to go for us mortals.
My one criticism is that it was concise and tight--these are virtues, of course, but I wanted even more to chew on. Not mentally, because the book lingers with the power of its story and the great writing, but in terms of pure volume. This is an extremely short work (particularly considering the ample margins and generous sections of dialogue). I found myself slowing down toward the middle of the book to make it last. Obviously this is less a critique--wishing the book were longer--than a compliment. So I guess I will have to satisfy myself with re-reading Cities or revisiting some of his earlier work.
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am 2. Juni 1998
Poignant story of love and life lost in the Texas-New Mexico cattle country at mid-century. The two protagonists, Billy Parham and John Grady Cole have survived their adventures in Mexico and Texas (All the Pretty Horses and The Crossing). The dialog and characters are excellent. The story is not crisp and clean, nor is it intended to be. The dialog and presence in the story are equal to Hemingway. The story is more mystical and implies a unity of humanity and nature that is being destroyed. The story has the ambiguity of quantum mechanics--characters, like electrons, move randomly in space and time. They appear to have some overall direction, but no one has determined the destination. John Grady follows an irresistable path to destruction with Magdelena, and in the process, his friend Billy. The tragic nature of the events is intensified by the maturity and intelligence with which John Grady pursues his demise. The substories are intense and beautiful: the dog hunt, the enigmatic blind maestro, the ancient drawings on the stones, the behavior of coyotes, the precocious shoe-shine boy, and the women who are loved and lost. This world is transient. It is threatened physicially by government expansion south from Alamogordo, and spiritually by humanity through self destruction. McCarthy is the best of the fin de siecle American authors. He is not existentialist--there is none of Sartre's whining pain of existence or the more objective pain of Walker Percy's characters, and Cities spiritually surpasses Faulkner's stories. He takes Hemingway's presence to another level of existence.
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