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Outer Dark – Cormac McCarthy

May 4, 2011

So I have finished Cormac McCarthy’s novel Outer Dark. In the final day of its reading, Sunday, I unintentionally read 170 pages – I had intended on letting it last for another couple days. But the story picked up, and the suspense of the novel kept me turning pages, and the flow of the language made me completely unaware of how far I had gotten into the book.

This is the third of McCarthy’s commentaries on human nature that I have read, and it may actually be the most dark. Not quite as depressing as The Road, and not quite as violent as No Country for Old Men, but I think it is far more mysterious. It starts with a brother and sister, who have a child together. The child, on the eve of its birth, is put outside by the brother out of shame for what he has done with his sister. Once there, the child is collected by a tinker (or tradesman), and taken to a nursing mother so that it may survive.

Once discovering this, the mother sets out to find the child. The brother of the mother and father of the child sets out the find her. As their adventure takes them through a long-lost world of American Appalachian wilderness, deliriously careening down mysterious roads, sleeping in forests, and relying on the kindness of strangers for water and food and work and accommodation, they leave behind them a wake of destruction. Lives are destroyed or lost, and there is fear in the air.

Nobody trusts anybody in this story, and yet everybody is friendly enough to ensure that others survive. Until the one group of people who isn’t arrives at your doorstep and ensures that you don’t.

This novel is filled with tense moments, written in action-focused prose acted by characters that seem simple but are undeniably complex. They are products of a time completely unfamiliar to our own, and yet in whom you recognize aspects of yourself. I was amazed, and frightened, at how frequently I would read dialogue between strangers and think that I have had those conversations before – and enjoyed them about as much as the characters appeared to be.

I don’t know if I agree with McCarthy’s stark and concerning portrayal of the world, but I have to admit that I come from a part of the world where I have not been affected by enough of the violence and hate that animates his universes to be able to relate. I am certain that there are places and people that can far better. I hear about it in the news – I know it exists. And, part of the intention of those novels I have read (particularly Outer Dark and No Country For Old Men) is the outline the randomness of violence, and how it can affect those who suspect it just as rapidly as it can alter the lives of those who don’t.

The way that McCarthy writes about violence is shocking. It isn’t graphic. He invites mystery into his novels and tells your imagination to fill in the blank. I last wrote about this novel marking the massive difference between his voice and that of Kathleen Winter, and I believe this to be the primary result: Winter paints the picture for you to see, McCarthy provides the underlying sketch and then asks your imagination to add the colour. Going from a rather poetic voice to this one requires an effort of mind at first.

I would recommend this novel, if you are a fan of suspense. It is a period piece, and it is alarming, and it tells something about human relationship (I would love to consider the relationship between Culla and Rinthy Holme, the mother and father of the lost child), and tells something of human suffering in an imperfect world, and tells something of human attraction to committing acts of violence. It asks the question of innocence, and points out that nobody is – and yet, it seems that it also notes that nobody is deserving of violence. This is a story about suffering, not redemption or justice; of mystery made from the natural and myth from the normal.

I exalt Mr. McCarthy to the halls of my most preferred authors, and look forward to reading more of his writing so that he may be confirmed in this place once more and once more and once more.

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