Sunday, 27 March 2011

The Sunset Limited - a "huh" of a book

The Sunset Limited by Cormac McCarthy (2006: Vintage Books. First published in the UK in 2010 by Picador). A novel written as a conversation between two men – one an ex-con ex-addict who has found God, the other a professor whose world view has led him to the brink of suicide. Between them, they debate which is more valid - the ex-con’s hope or the professor’s lack of it.
It was never going to be a cheery ride from the man that brought you No Country for Old Men and The Road. If Coldplay is “music to slit your wrists by” then Cormac McCarthy seems to be the literary equivalent. If I were his parents, I’d be worried about that boy.
Not a frown-upside-down sort of book then. But let’s not write it off entirely just because it fails in the cheeriness stakes.
It is, as the cover suggests, a “novel in dramatic form.” Which means the entire book has the look of a script. It’s easier to read than most scripts, mainly because it’s a two way dialogue set in a single room; just two voices to keep track of, 140-odd pages of a single conversation.
I did, however, breeze through it. Not entirely with a hop in my step, of course, but with a furrow of thought etched firmly on my forehead.
This is a thinker of a book, slap bang in the “really makes you think, huh” genre. The script style really works, mainly because McCarthy achieves two very distinct voices and maintains them with a strict discipline. It’s easy to forget that the two characters are products of the same mind. You really do feel like a fly on the wall of really quite an interesting conversation.
And what a conversation. The cover (rather dramatically) touts it as a debate over the meaning of life. Don’t let that put you off too much though. It’s not all grand statement and metaphysical dilemma. That does creep in of course, but McCarthy delivers the big questions (and struggling answers) in such an authentic voice that it doesn’t jar (much); it doesn’t appear too forced or unnatural.
Another tick in the credit column is the length. I think McCarthy has got this just about right. It’s a very quick read. Novella length really, and the script format means that the pages fly by. Which is needed. Dwelling on a single conversation in a single room for too long could be fatal. Similarly, tackling the themes he does without giving enough room for you to ease into it is a big danger. The book steers well between the two potential gutters.
So, it’s a clever, thought provoking, well paced, well written book. But (and it’s perhaps the biggest but outside of hip hop) it didn’t force me back into my seat. I didn’t look at it longingly, counting the seconds until I could pick it up again and have a bit of a read. When I turned the last page, I uttered out loud the kind of “huh” that is more commonly provoked by finding out I’ve got 50p more than I thought I had in my pocket. This was not a “wow, I just found a £20 note under the sofa” book.
Interesting? Yes.
Worth reading? Certainly.
Worth shouting from the roof tops about? Breathtaking? Joyful? No, no and no.
Not a bad score in the context of GBR, which is turning out to be quite a strict scale. 6 GBR is good. 6 GBR means go read it. It won’t take much time, and you’ll be glad you did.
Just don’t expect it to change your life.

p.s. Just found out the book was also made into a TV film for HBO starring Samuel L Jackson and Tommy Lee. Aired in the States in Feb apparently. Might have to try and get me a copy of that. God bless our dual region DVD player...


Anonymous said...

I am now going to go and buy this and read it. Nice work sir.

Anonymous said...

I bought and read this book as a direct result of your review. I thought it was better than you had suggested, but I kind of agreed with a lot of your points.

Thanks for the work, keep it up...

Gav Collins said...

Thanks anonymous, glad you liked it. Don't want to downplay this one, I certainly enjoyed it.

Nigel C said...

Borrowed it but didn't like it. It had little discussion on the philosophical issues - the different sides were stated but not properly investigated or compared. In addition it seems to be an either/or outline which for me is a big flaw. Its is possible to be happy without god!

Gav Collins said...

Thanks NIgel C - yeah, there's definately holes in the thinking for this, but I found it pretty intriguing in places. I'd hope the holes are products of the characters' viewpoints rather than just a poorly thought through argument by the author.

I guess the lesson is if you want proper philosphy, then read philosophy books. If you want a few interesting questions put in the context of a short fictional plot, then pick this up.