Early Times

Sat Apr 10, 2010

I had trouble reading Suttree in the room with my sleeping infant daughter, as I often couldn’t stop myself from cackling. It’s one of the funniest books I’ve read: probably more funny than Bouvard and Pecuchet, Decline and Fall, Cold Comfort Farm, or any of a variety from Wodehouse, which would be the closest contenders in recent memory. I’ve now taken the step of reading some of the criticism on the book, and I was somewhat surprised that there wasn’t more of it. (I didn’t yet finish the long recent article in Contemporary Literature by J. Douglas Canfield, though I did notice at least one recent University of Alabama book that is available in its entirety from google books, in what I hope is a continuing trend.)

Who thinks Suttree? Free indirect style seems to be used, but it’s implausible to imagine that Suttree’s consciousness operates in the way that the rest of the narrative does. Though he attended university,* he’s never described reading anything except newspapers, magazines, and dime store novels, so lexically, at least, the descriptions in the book are not attributable to his mind during the fact. As a memoir written among consoling dictionaries, an attempt to shape a formless experience with exact words, it has a certain plausibility and logic. I can’t imagine that “murenger” and “macule” leapt unbidden from his wordhoard. “Grumous” and “anthroparians”** share a page (188). McCarthy’s dialogue is not as strong as his descriptive writing, I don’t find, being frequently poisoned by eye dialect. He has to be among the worst offenders ever for using “would of” constructions in dialogue, for example. I once thought that this might be deliberate, in that he was trying to reproduce the inner lexical structure of the words as they would be written by their speakers, but the characters in this book are frequently of dubious literacy, so I’m not sure how far that would go. It’s more likely that he simply hasn’t realized that “would of” and “would’ve” sound the same.***

Toward the end of the book, Suttree, felled by typhoid fever, (which mirrors an unelaborated histoplasmosis fugue that his troglodytic familiar Harrogate suffered earlier), has a series of “Circe”-style hallucinations.

I was drunk, cried Suttree. Seized in a vision of the archetypal patriarch himself unlocking with enormous keys the gates of Hades. A floodtide of screaming fiends and assassins and thieves and hirsute beggars pour forth into the universe, tipping it slightly on its galactic axes. The stars go rolling down the void like redhot marbles. These simmering sinners with their cloaks smoking carry the Logos itself from the tabernacle and bear it through the streets while the absolute prebarbaric mathematick of the western world howls them down and shrouds their ragged biblical forms in oblivion.” (458)

This passage shows something of the complexities of McCarthy’s style, with the mild archaism of “prebarbaric mathematick” evoking both Babel and Heraclitus and then being cannily qualified with “western world.” I remain interested in the politics, if you want to call it that, of McCarthy’s work, which have received significant, often negative, attention in recent years.**** An early article on McCarthy referred to the “ambiguous nihilism” of his work.***** Here it seems that Suttree presents a justification of his descent into the underclass of McAnally Flats before his imagined jury. The Logos has to be smuggled from the tent and born through the streets of the world to purify it.****** There is one and only one Suttree, as he tells the priest, and he has been purified by his descent into the underworld, now being demolished for a superhighway. That poverty and blight are metaphysical conditions—-preterition, even—-and that only a descender from the heavenly realms (upper middle classes) can describe it in thoughts worth having would seem to be an easy criticism to make of the book, as would its apparent scrupulous avoidance of the large-scale socioeconomic forces that have deformed the lives of most of its characters.

Among the items that the Harry Ransom Center acquired for its David Foster Wallace collection was his edition of Suttree. He noted on the title page, alongside an amusing doodle on McCarthy’s author photo, that it starts very slowly. I couldn’t help but think of Wallace when I read this in an interview that McCarthy gave to the WSJ:

But the indulgent, 800-page books that were written a hundred years ago are just not going to be written anymore and people need to get used to that. If you think you’re going to write something like The Brothers Karamazov or Moby-Dick, go ahead. Nobody will read it. I don’t care how good it is, or how smart the readers are. Their intentions, their brains are different.

I wonder if he mentally included Suttree among those unread works (though only 500 pages.) It’s easily as difficult in its way, but the idea that people’s brains are different is a subject for another post.

*I’m sure this country sheriff’s sentiment would make a fine addition to a University of Tennessee recruitment brochure, for example: “I will say one thing: you’ve opened my eyes. I’ve got two daughters, oldest fourteen, and I’d see them both in hell fore I’d send them up to that university. I’m damned if I wouldn’t” (158).

**Spelled “anthroparion,” this seems to be a Greek word for “homunculus,” which fits the context. See Joseph Needham’s Science and Civilization in China, v. 5, p. 487, viewable at google books.)

***People have disputed this point with me before, though I’m not sure on what grounds.

****There were several disparaging, and to my mind, not very well considered, remarks about McCarthy in the recent “Bad Books” featurette, for example.

*****Vereen M. Bell, “The Ambiguous Nihilism of Cormac McCarthy,” The Southern Literary Journal, 15.2 (Spring 1983): pp. 31-41.

******It has been suggested that this passage was the inspiration for the relevant scene from Indiana Jones.