Language as the Ghost of Meaning: Cormac McCarthy's Amazing Sentences

What is it about Cormac McCarthy? I actually tried to resist Blood Meridian, keeping a critical distance, pointing out flaws to myself as I read. Frequently during the first hundred pages or so I had trouble figuring out who the characters were, where they were, and whether there was any sort of plot other than a group of men riding over the desert plain engaging in vividly described acts of brutality. But in the end it got to me, this book. Now it sticks in my craw like Melville, luminous and prophetic. As in Moby Dick, much of the power of Blood Meridian flows from the terrible beauty of its language.

To paraphrase Ellen Bryan Voight, the subconscious relies on patterns in music and prose to establish a certain level of comfort, so that it may take pleasure in the variations on those patterns. A writer’s patterns should fit the subject matter. McCarthy’s diction embodies a sense of forward motion, prophecy, and violence. In Blood Meridian the sentences are like horses galloping across the plain, rushing toward murder and death or a headlong plummet to hell. Unlike Virginia Woolf, whose frequently interrupted sentences create a feeling of time passing slowly, McCarthy’s long unpunctuated sentences almost never contain “interruptive” phrases—“it seemed,” “of course,” “perhaps,” or modifiers like “writing, ineptly, about adverbs,” etc—which adds to the sense of a forward rush under frantic devilish spurs to the apocalypse. Imagine McCarthy writing about a stockbroker in 1980s Manhattan:

The shell of the building was gray and cased in thincut marble.  No soul human or devil occupied the office save the chittering horde of the secretarial pool.  Poindexter came and went into his corner office and he picked up the phone and he called his wife to tell her he’d forgotten his lunch and it was as if the wrath of hell itself shook the very coaxial cables and he hung up and the phone rang again and this happened again and again interminably for the rest of the day until the light outside shone blood red through the blinds and Poindexter rose from his desk and put on his hat and said goodnight to the receptionist. . .

It doesn’t work, and I don’t think that’s only because of the lame story line.  For McCarthy’s elevated language you need actual devils and death struggles to go along with the escarpments and clouds passing overhead like thundering horsemen and savages bred on human flesh and the night descending like an executioner’s hood over the land.

In Blood Meridian I marked a number of passages that seemed musical and/or vivid and/or especially characteristic of McCarthy’s style.  Rereading them I found that almost all fell into two basic structural types, as follows:

Type 1: Boiling over

Now come days of begging, days of theft.  Days of riding where there rode no soul save he.  He’s left behind the pinewood country and the evening sun declines before him beyond an endless swale and dark falls here like a thunderclap and a cold wind sets the weeds to gnashing. The night sky lies so sprent with stars that there is scarcely space of black at all and they fall all night in bitter arcs and it is so there numbers are no less. 

Type 2: Closing in 

The wheels shrank and the spokes reeled in their hubs and clattered like loomshafts and at night they’d drive false spokes into the mortices and tie them down with strips of green hide and they’d drive wedges between the iron of the tires and the suncracked felloes.  They wobbled on, the trace of their untrue labors like sidewinder tracks in the sand.  The duledge pegs worked loose and dropped behind.  Wheels began to break up.

In Type 1 there are a few short sentences followed by a longer paratactic riff, whereas Type 2 begins with a long paratactic and ends with few shorter sentences.   Clearly, passages of types 1 and 2 are the inverse of one another, and it could fairly be argued that the only real pattern here is rhythmic: short sentences alternating with long ones for variety and to avoid boring the reader.   But for me the two types are qualitatively different in the effects they achieve. At the risk of belaboring the point, here is another brief example of Type 1 passage:

The sun that rises is the color of steel.  His mounted shadow falls for miles before him.  He wears on his head a hat he’s made from leaves and they have dried and cracked in the sun and he looks like a raggedyman wandered from some garden where he’d used to frighten birds.
 And another brief Type 2 passage:

A pair of horses drew the cart and they went on up the road in a faint miasma of carbolic and passed from sight.  He turned and watched them go.  The naked feet of the dead jostled stiffly from side to side.

I see a real emotional difference.  Type 1 with its lengthening sentences creates an impression of initially suppressed feeling boiling over in a cascade of vivid images, often charged with foreboding or violence. Type 2’s relatively long paratactic beginning creates a sense of driving motion, and the short sentences at the end arrest that motion and close in on a single image—also often charged with foreboding or violence—isolating and emphasizing it and thereby giving it a greater impact.

The majority of McCarthy’s more lyrical passages fall into one of these patterns.  Paragraphs with a large number of short simple sentences together, or paragraphs with nothing but a few long paratactics, are less common and represent variations on the pattern.  Another variation on the pattern, of course, is dialog (which I feel McCarthy does extremely well, but that would be another blog entry).

To borrow a phrase from the poet Chris Forhan, McCarthy’s language fits Blood Meridian like the “ghost of its meaning,” a dire wind blowing through every chapter.  The reader is swept up in the bloody ride across the desert with Glanton’s murderous crew, at least in part because the diction echoes that movement.  The structure of McCarthy’s sentences and paragraphs allows them to accommodate a simmering suppressed emotion that is liable to boil over into random acts of brutality and unbridled fits of evil.