For the protagonist of the American west, to ride off into the sunset is to complete the heroic mission and to take a solitary journey, perhaps to the end of things. The historical Sunset Limited was a transcontinental train that crossed the American south from Atlantic to Pacific. Metaphorically, to ride the sunset limited is to take the mythic train west, to go to the western wall, to sail over the edge of the world. The literal train in McCarthy’sThe Sunset Limited is a New York subway, but the destination of the suicidal professor White is the solitude of death, an escape from the hell of other people, from the human history of war and genocide, and from his own intractable alienation.
Cormac McCarthy’s tenth novel, The Road, is his most harrowing yet deeply personal work. Some unnamed catastrophe has scourged the world to a burnt-out cinder, inhabited by the last remnants of mankind and a very few surviving dogs and fungi. The sky is perpetually shrouded by dust and toxic particulates; the seasons are merely varied intensities of cold and dampness. Bands of cannibals roam the roads and inhabit what few dwellings remain intact in the woods.
It’s the early 1980s, and Sheriff Ed Tom Bell has presided over his small south Texas border county for decades. In all that time he has sent only one criminal to death row in and is otherwise secure in his belief that “it takes very little to govern good people.” Unbeknownst to Bell, however, a local welder named Llewellyn Moss has, while out hunting near the Rio Grande, stumbled across the bodies of a half dozen drug runners who have killed each other off during a deal gone bad. Moss has discovered and made off with a satchel containing two million dollars in cash found near the site of the carnage. Moss, a former sniper during his tours of duty in Vietnam, is himself unaware that the satchel contains a radio transponder. After a lapse of caution enables the drug dealers’ bosses to identify him, Moss and his young wife find themselves fleeing from the cartel hitmen who have been dispatched to recover the satchel of money, and Sheriff Bell finds himself confronting a surge of violence the likes of which his quiet community has never before experienced.
Cities of the Plain, the final volume of Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy, binds together the separate tales of John Grady Cole from All the Pretty Horses and Billy Parham from The Crossing to create a more realistic Billy and a more mythic John Grady. Within the confines of a relatively spare 293 pages, the classic “all-american cowboy” John Grady devotes himself to saving every hurt or wounded creature that crosses his path, a noble and impossible task that leads ultimately to his own destruction. The tragedy of his failed rescue of the epilectic prostitute Magdalena makes a martyr of the near-faultless John Grady, yet McCarthy stubbornly refuses to let the novel backslide into blubbery melodrama. Told in both McCarthy’s signature lyrical style and his dead-on ranchero dialogue, Cities of the Plain ends the trilogy at the height of McCarthy’s storytelling skill.
The Crossing, publicized as the second installment of McCarthy’s Border Trilogy, is the initiation story of Billy Parham and his younger brother Boyd (who are 16 and 14 respectively when the novel opens). The novel, set just before and during World War II, is structured around three round-trip crossings that Billy makes from New Mexico into Mexico. Each trip tests Billy as he must try to salvage something once he fails in his original goal. On both his first and last quest he is reduced (or perhaps exalted) to some symbolic futile gesture in his attempt, against all obstacles, to maintain his integrity and to be true to his moral obligations. This novel explores such issues as guilt, the acquisition of wisdom, heroism, and the crucial importance of stories.
Cormac McCarthy’s only published screenplay,The Gardener’s Son (Ecco Press, 1996) was actually written in 1976. It was McCarthy’s first screenplay and his first historical work, predating his historical novel, Blood Meridian, by almost a decade. The completed film of The Gardener’s Son, directed by Richard Pearce for the PBS series Visions, was originally broadcast on December 16, 1976. Based on actual events which took place in the mill town of Graniteville, South Carolina in 1876, McCarthy’s drama concerns two families: The Greggs, founders of The Graniteville Manufacturing Company, and the McEvoys, an Irish Catholic family, previously farm owners, who have come to Graniteville to work for the mill with the promise of steady wages, “a sealed house and a garden patch.”
Ridley Scott’s sci-fi spectacular appeals across the generations, with strong expectations for half term
The winner: The Martian
Declining a slim 21% from its opening frame, Ridley Scott’s The Martian had no trouble holding on to the top spot at the UK box office. After 12 days, the film has taken an impressive £13.21m.
An apt comparison might be Interstellar, in which Matt Damon, curiously, also played an astronaut stranded on a distant planet. That film fell 29% on its second weekend, by which time it had grossed £12.13m. It then fell hard and fast, with consecutive drops of 50%, 39%, 47% and 65%, suggesting that it quickly burned through its audience after the initial rush of Christopher Nolan fans.
The same fate may yet befall The Martian, but it seems unlikely. One good sign is that it appears to be playing to a younger audience than might have been expected.
Distributor Fox agrees that “this seems very much in line with what we are hearing and how the film is playing – throughout the day, to young and old, teens and adults, men and women alike”. They are hoping for a strong half-term hold, despite competition from other titles.
Director Scott’s biggest hit in the UK remains Gladiator, with £31.2m. The Martian has a long way to go to match it, but it should soon push past Robin Hood(£15.6m) and then overtake Hannibal (£21.6m). Fox would presumably be delighted to reach as far as Prometheus, which managed £25m.
The Stonemason, a five-act play, is Cormac McCarthy’s first published excursion into the realm of drama even though he had written the screenplay toThe Gardener’s Son fifteen years earlier. In fact, The Stonemason had been written, several years prior to its publication, as part of a dramatic series sponsored by the National Theater in Washington, D.C. For various reasons, however, it was never actually produced.
In All the Pretty Horses, Cormac McCarthy begins his Border Trilogy with a coming of age tale that is a departure from the bizarre richness and mysterious violence of his early novels, yet in many ways preserves the mystery and the richness in a more understated form. Like Blood Meridian, this novel follows a young man’s journey to the regions of the unknown. John Grady Cole, more heroic than the protagonists of McCarthy’s earlier novels, confronts the evil that is an inescapable part of the universe as well as the evil that grows out of his own ignorance and pride. His story is told in a style often restrained and simple, embedded with lyrical passages that echo his dreams and memory.
Orhan Pamuk (Istanbul, 1952) has written another monumental novel, A Strangeness in My Mind, which comes after The Museum of Innocence, published in 2009. With intelligent and moving meticulousness, the Turkish Nobel Prize-winner tells of 40 years in the life of a humble Istanbul street vendor. It’s a book about happiness (or the lack of it), and about time. While reading it, it’s impossible not to feel that its protagonist, Mevlut, embodies the very Istanbul he describes, and, in fact, when one travels to Istanbul and listens to its racket and rejoicing, it seems obvious that Pamuk has made any and all of these characters stand up in his fiction on these old streets. We talk in the house Pamuk lives in, in Bujukada, the beautiful island his parents would take him to from the day he was born. He still spends his summers there, writing in a peace that’s only disturbed by “the soft passing of time,” marked by the shadows the sun throws over his bare balcony. Before we talked he offered us watermelon and apricots. He looks happy, as if he’s fallen in love, and not only with literature.
Question. You say in this book that we have to believe in the novel when we are reading it. Why is it so important to believe in what you are reading?
Answer. Because literature, whether it is fantastic or realistic, works with what Samuel Taylor Coleridge called suspension of disbelief. If you’re a cynical person, if you are not a sincere believer in the strength of literature, then you should avoid reading books. In the end there is a very old-fashioned side to reading novels in our age – blogs, internet, so much information and so much humanity. Why read novels? Because we believe in the power of literature. We’re not cynical or sarcastic or suspicious about it. Literature works with intentionally well-meaning readers. You say I’m going to give 10 hours to this Istanbul street vendor’s life. Then you’re not sarcastic any more. You’re with the characters and you take the writer’s work for granted. You should not take it for granted and not question it, at least at the beginning.
Garth Risk Hallberg on how fiction can ‘make it new’
In his 1992 novel, Texaco, the Antillean writer Patrick Chamoiseau fuses a vast range of materials into an epic of the dispossessed. The author of acclaimed new novel City on Fire salutes this path-breaking bricolage
Garth Risk Hallberg
Thursday 15 October 2015 16.00 BST
was 21 and in uneasy transit between the visions of the poet and the compromises (I thought) of prose, when an older poet brought me a novel – a sturdy Granta Books hardcover, published a few years earlier. Its author’s name, Patrick Chamoiseau, didn’t ring any bells. Nor had I learned yet to appreciate those virtues its greyscale jacket evoked. Dignity. Maturity. Sobriety. Of Martinique, the book’s setting, I knew essentially nothing. Yet a peculiar contrast sparked my imagination. Beneath a muted photograph of a labourer’s folded hands was a trademark from the junk-culture landscape I had grown up in: Texaco.
The effect, for me, was of a smiley-face slapped on to that Van Gogh painting of the boots. Or of a Donald Barthelme story crash-landing in the middle of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Or perhaps it’s simpler to say that the effect was to scramble my assumptions about the range of textures a single piece of prose might encompass. And that was just the cover. I carried the book back to my matchbox apartment and started reading it. As I recall, I didn’t stop except for food and sleep until, two days and 400 pages later, I reached the end.
Chamoiseau, it turned out, had been a poet, too, at the start – and in this way, like me, an exile at the gates of the novel. A Martinican of African descent, citizen of a former French colony, he also had a necessarily complicated relationship with the literary traditions of the metropole. His early critical writing (according to an afterword) explored the tensions between a French “more French than that of the French” and an ideal he called “Creolité”. But in Texaco, he not only braved these tensions; he turned them into drama. Among the supporting cast, for example, is one Monsieur Gros-Joseph, a bourgeois merchant who has amassed a library of classics as a kind of bulwark against the dissonance of colonial life. With the outbreak of the second world war – a revelation of dissonance even at the heart of the empire – Monsieur Gros-Joseph loses his mind and begins quite literally to devour his books.
The poems, the wretch would say, tasted better than the novels – more delicate. Rimbaud gave off a taste of silty cockle, something that choked and tortured the mouth before spreading out layers of smells, then turning into a sheaf of powder and desert sand. Lautréamont reigned in a bouquet of star-apple-green-lemon, but in large quantities would cause stomach ache. And Montaigne, alas, oh flamboyant spirit ... his books dissipated their virtues in the mouth only to leave the taste buds the impression of stale paper. Ah Zola taste of shit, Ah Daudet taste of shit, and he would fling them across the room, pages torn by his teeth.
I was reading all this in English, of course, my own French having stalled around “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi”, but I could glean from Rose-Myriam Rejouis and Val Vinokurov’s translation that Chamoiseau’s language was not that of the Académie – or not only that. Studding the long sentences like petals on a bough were “booboos” and “bekés” and “the Noutéka of the hills”; “Mentohs”, asbestos, and the “pissied” city streets. And vining around the main narrative in similar profusion were folktales and folk wisdom and an endless, vivid catalogue of the windfalls harvested by the urban poor of Martinique: “a box of wrapping paper to line a hutch, a pan to reinforce a shaken facade, a fork, a cracked plate, a piece of tulle, a bottle, a string ... ”
These bricoleurs, the dispossessed rather than the merchant class, are the novel’s real subject. Texaco takes its name from the shantytown they construct after the war, a sprawl of crate-wood hutches hard by the oil tanks that fuel the capital city of Fort-de-France. For years, as the novel opens, police from the city centre have been conducting raids on the Texaco quarter, levelling homes, asserting property rights under the banner of public safety. Lean-tos can always be rebuilt – hence those long lists of scavenged materials. But now, in the 1980s, a new threat has appeared: an urban planner with visions of a more permanent incursion.
A prologue follows him as he wanders around Texaco, studying its hutches, assessing “the usefulness of [its] insalubrious existence”. Layers of neighbourhood gossip muddle what happens next, but we know some things for certain. Offence is taken. A stone is thrown. Blood is drawn. Finally, the injured urban planner is brought to the community’s elder and co-founder, a septuagenarian “femme-matador” named Marie-Sophie Laborieux. “What’s the use of visiting something you’re going to raze?” she asks the planner, having poured him a glass of rum. And finding him at a loss for words, she says, “Little fellow, permit me to tell you Texaco’s story”.
The remainder of Texaco is that telling. Marie-Sophie begins 90 years before her own birth, when her grandparents are slaves on a sugar plantation. In a series of indelible set pieces, we learn of the manumission of her father, Esternome; of his unhappy attempts to find love and work as a freeman in “l’En-ville”; of the broader abolition of slavery in Martinique; and of the volcano that destroys the city of Saint-Pierre, sending Esternome and thousands of other refugees toward the capital. If Chamoiseau’s marked orality and in medias res opening have gestured toward epic, this section of the novel makes good on the promise, in the manner of One Hundred Years of Solitude, or Edward P Jones’s The Known World. “My poor Esternome” is a figure of great sympathy, beset from all sides, and his odyssey knits the origins of Texaco into the larger history of a people.
The central hero of Texaco, though, is Marie-Sophie, who commands the second half of the novel. After the death of her father, she goes to work as a servant in various households (among them the Gros-Josephs’). The situation of the merchants may improve with decolonisation, but that of the working classes, in Chamoiseau’s account, seems no better – just different. Marie-Sophie is in her own way as unlucky as her father; she cannot hold on to a job, or to love. But the stories she has inherited inoculate her against despair. Even as the urban planner encounters her – “an old câpresse woman, very tall, very thin, with a grave, solemn visage and still eyes” – she remains open to the world in all its richness and contradiction, and ingenious in building what she needs out of whatever is to hand. Unable to bear children, she becomes the mother figure of the resistance, distributing the gifts of nurture and nature to the broader family of the Texaco quarter. And her most resourceful construction is the novel itself, a feat of narrative prodigality that staves off, word by word, the destruction of an entire community.
This feat, to make an obvious point, is Chamoiseau’s, too. And interestingly, for all its formal dazzle, it succeeds because we believe so strongly in Esternome and Marie-Sophie and their vivid, tangled stories. Maybe at 21, I harboured a hope that Texaco would reject the dubious old magic of prose fiction – would, like Monsieur Grand-Joseph, fling character, plot and invention across the room, “torn by teeth”. Instead, by stirring them into its concretion of the oral and the written, the poetic and the prosaic, the local and the global, Texaco made everything I’d ever loved about reading feel new.
It seems to me at 36 that the source of Texaco’s literary power is precisely its hybridity, its capacious Creolité, its embrace of “both/and” where it would be easy to see an “either/or”. I’ve read enough now to recognise this as a venerable tradition, extending back to Scheherazade and Don Quixote and forward to Midnight’s Children and Beloved. It’s an aesthetic inseparable from the novel itself. But in a world of continued dispossession, of millions of people struggling merely for a home, Chamoiseau’s Creolité may point the way to an ethic, too – sceptical, imaginative, humane. At the very least, it wins over the urban planner of Texaco, who as the novel ends is ready to stand with Marie-Sophie against the wrecking balls and high-rises of the “domineering, geometrical grid”. Their resistance will likely be fragile, even doomed. But long after Texaco is gone, the vision she’s granted him will endure:
In the centre, an occidental urban logic, all lined up, ordered, strong like the French language. On the other side, Creole’s open profusion, according to Texaco’s logic. Mingling these two tongues, dreaming of all tongues, the Creole city speaks a new language in secret and no longer fears Babel. [...] The Creole city returns to the urban planner, who would like to ignore it, the roots of a new identity: multilingual, multiracial, multihistorical, open, sensible to the world’s diversity.
It's the fastest-selling novel for adults of all time – and it's very adult in content. Why have millions of women been seduced by Fifty Shades of Grey, asks Zoe Williams
Zoe Williams Friday 6 July 2012 22.55 BST
t's pointless to deny that there's something going on here: EL James has now sold 4 million copies of her Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy via her UK publisher, Random House, to add to the 15 million (it beggars belief) that have been shifted in the US and Canada. In three months. In the UK, it's the fastest-selling book ever in both physical and ebook incarnations. There's just been an extra print run for the UK market, to meet demand: 2.75 million copies. It's the fastest selling adult novel of all time. By which they mean "it's the fastest-selling novel of all time that isn't Harry Potter". But its content is, of course, rather adult.
The trilogy features Anastasia Steele, who falls in love with Christian Grey, a troubled young billionaire who likes sex only if he can accompany it with quite formal, stylised corporal punishment. The narrative drivers are pretty slack – improbable dialogue ("I'm a very wealthy man, Miss Steele, and I have expensive and absorbing hobbies"); lame characterisation; irritating tics (a constant war between Steele's "subconscious", which is always fainting or putting on half-moon glasses, and her "inner goddess", who is forever pouting and stamping); and an internal monologue that goes like this … "Holy hell, he's hot!"; "No man has ever affected me the way Christian Grey has, and I cannot fathom why. Is it his looks? His civility? Wealth? Power?" Yuh huh. Civility puts me in a blue funk too.
In normal circumstances, it would be lazy, but here, it is more like a shorthand. James writes as though she's late for a meeting with a sex scene. Here, her voice is quite different: meticulous, inventive, radical and conflicted; Grey is only interested in a dominant/submissive relationship (with these "hard limits" – no fire, no faeces, no blood loss, no gynaecological instruments, no children or animals, no permanent disfigurement, no breath control and no direct electricity – I paraphrase for brevity). Steele just wants a regular boyfriend (or does she? Yik yak yik yak). This is Fifty Shades of Grey I'm talking about. We'll come to Fifty Shades Darker later. Goddammit. I've been infected by James's ominous, staccato delivery. After 1,600 pages of the stuff, you will too. I'm doing it again. I can't help it.
There is a little light spanking in Jilly Cooper (Octavia, Rivals), and the romance genre (as distinct from chicklit) would be many pages lighter if nobody ever got tied to a bed with a scarf, but this is in a different league. Its popularity has come as a bit of a surprise to publishers, who thought they knew what women wanted. It must be a bit like being married to someone for 20 years, and suddenly finding out they like fisting. People who like to trace all new trends back to new technology have offered this explanation – that women who wouldn't be seen dead reading smut on the tube could read it on their Kindle, and this launched a whole world of sales.
The unexpected element is that the shame of erotic fiction is largely in the imagination, and once people had read it, they felt happy to discuss it openly. It was word of mouth that launched the paperback version on the back of the ebook.
Where do you stand on erotica in public spaces? Someone in a tube carriage last week with three people reading the paperback (and God knows how many reading it on their Kindles) tweeted, "isn't it a bit early for that sort of thing?" – as though there were an erotica yardarm, and we all knew when it was. After lunch? When the sun goes down? It seemed a bit random, yet I can see why he'd query the wisdom of summoning a sustained erotic vignette on one's way into work. But what do I know? I work at home. Maybe people do that all the time.
Consider, furthermore, the way high culture and low culture have collided. It's long been acceptable to read the Financial Times and also watch the Eurovision Song contest, read Philip Roth as well as Marian Keyes. Because erotica is niche to start with, this revolution took longer to reach it, and only now have we loosened up a bit. By this reckoning, Fifty Shades is just Mills & Boon for the generation that would once have been embarrassed to be seen reading Mills & Boon.
No, there is more to it than that. First, the reason sex scenes are so difficult to write is the gear change, rather than the sex itself. It is extremely difficult to write a regular story spliced with sex, just as it would be difficult to tell a story interspersed with explicit sexual detail. That's why the Bad Sex Award exists, and is so easy to bestow. In the very act of describing sex as an incidental, you create an excruciating sex scene.
James's sex scenes are not incidental, they are the meat of the plot, the crux of the conflict, the key to at least one of and possibly both the central characters. It is a sex book. It is not a book with sex in it. The French author Catherine Millet wrote: "For me, a pornographic book is functional, written to help you to get excited. If you want to speak about sex in a novel or any "ambitious" writing, today, in the 21st century, you must be explicit. You cannot be metaphorical any longer." I'm not sure James's writing is that ambitious, but she has certainly understood the bit about not being metaphorical.
As history is written by the victors, so S&M is written by the Ss, and the problem with sadists is that they exaggerate. They're not looking at it from the masochist's point of view – it's in their job description not to. If the Marquis de Sade thinks any garden– variety submissive is going to get a kick out of having their back broken on a cartwheel, he's dreaming. Conversely, two opposite predilections, across a very broad scope, might easily collide in a fantasy written from the perspective of the masochist or naïf. So that's the popularity of volume one.
The second volume is a bald and rushed go at monetising the brand. The deviant stuff is largely excised, and the move towards mainstream sexual endeavour seems to bore the author. Her fantasies turn instead to what presents she'd like if she fetched up with a billionaire (an iPad. An Audi. No, a Saab! Nope, I feel cheap. OK, OK, just the Saab, and some clothes, ooh, a bikini, for $541 … what a terrible waste, and yet how pert my breasts look).
Now we're looking at a book you'd be embarrassed to be caught reading on the tube. Small habits begin to grate: the way everybody always seethes, scolds, smirks or whispers and nobody ever just says; the way his eyes are constantly blazing, and she is constantly biting her lip.
The link between volumes is so clumsy that you have to look away ("He thinks he doesn't deserve to be loved. Why does he feel that way? Does it have to do with his upbringing? His birth mom, the crack whore?"). The need for a plot invites in some true gothic horror show and, stripped of his deviations, Christian Grey is just a controlling, unpleasant man whom, even 30 years ago, no sane heroine would ever have married, however Holy-hell-shit-I-can't-breathe hot he was.
The third in the series, Fifty Shades Freed, is … Oh what am I doing? You're going to read it. Of course you're going to read it. You've probably already read it.