The Short Version: After recovering from a serious head injury and receiving a significant settlement, a man begins a search for authenticity of moment by creating bigger and bigger reenactments – of things that may or may not have actually ever happened.
The Review: What a strange novel.
This is one of those books that, if you pick it up in a bookstore, strangers will come up to you and tell you how great it is. I know, because it has happened to me more than a few times, and every time I’ve put it back down. What baffles me is that it’s this book that people are excited about in the same way I get surprised when people go gaga for Cloud Atlas. The books are quite similar in my mind (although their content could not be more different): they are both technically astounding novels that, at their core, lack a certain level of emotional engagement. They feel constructed as opposed to created.
I’m well aware that this may well have been McCarthy’s point. After all, isn’t that essentially what our unnamed narrator is doing? He is attempting to do something that cannot be done: to recreate an organic moment. It’s an astounding conceptual attempt, one that defeats us on a daily basis. We feel happy/blissful/excited/content and want to live in that moment forever but by the time we recognize the moment, the moment will be gone. (ed. note: yes, that’s a John Mayer lyric. Yes, “Clarity” is one of my all-time favorite songs. Yes, it’s directly applicable to this book and I’ll fight you if you say otherwise.)
Of course, our narrator isn’t recreating a happy moment. Instead, he’s looking at moments in a completely disconnected way – I want to say lacking empathy but it goes even further than that. He is like an alien observer, trying to understand something that we cannot even put into words. He sees the patterns and connections beyond the individual actions, even beyond the cycled repetitions… but it’s not clear whether or not he can make sense of them.
And this, I think, is where the book falls down for me. Conceptually, it is certainly interesting to pursue the philosophical ramifications of existence, creation, and memory. Once you get into what McCarthy’s doing, I think the reader discovers that there are even worthwhile steps forward, philosophically. Anybody who has ever gotten caught in a loop of something – playing a riff over and over again, moving an object and back and forth, even something on a larger scale like replicating the exact same commute – can attest to the mysterious attraction of it. It’s order (or the appearance of order) placed upon the chaos that is everyday life and, for that reason, it appears magical. McCarthy takes this one step further, attempts to discover why that magic occurs. Of course, he can’t get all that far – he is only human, after all.
Instead, the narrator begins to show signs of greater neurological distress – at a worrying rate, in fact – to the point that I thought this book was going in a different direction for a little while. As he begins to get closer to a sort of euphoria-of-recreation, he zones out into a trance of sorts… or it’s a petit mal seizure. McCarthy feints in the direction of being worried about his character but, mostly, he just rolls on and the anonymity of our narrator begins to be a bit of a drag on the novel itself. Who is this guy, who we got glimpses into earlier in the novel (a friend, an ex of sorts, a job) but who, after he has recovered from the accident, has become a total cipher? How is the reader meant to hold onto something so ethereal?
Again, I understand that this might well have been McCarthy’s point.
I’ll admit to feeling tired and bored by this book at times, despite its short running time. There’s something fascinating, yes, to the idea of recreating these moments and living in them (see [seriously, see it] the underappreciated Synecdoche, New York) but the novelty wears off after a time when it’s unclear where things are going. Our narrator could continue to recreate moments ad infinitum but we don’t have that kind of time – so how will it escalate? There is a moment, when the narrator decides to recreate a gang shooting, that I felt an unexpected pang of modern-day resonance and imagined, briefly, an art project where people went and recreated police murders in the spots where they happened, on a loop. There’s something interesting to me about the idea of putting these moments into view in a way that they perhaps weren’t when they happened – putting bodies into space instead of on a screen. But McCarthy was writing several years ago and doesn’t seem to have anything social-justice-y on the brain – instead, he’s bringing our narrator closer to actual authenticity by the threat of violence. It is in this that we can see the progression begin to develop and it is through this that the plot development of turning the final(?) recreation into reality can be accepted as rational as opposed to an author just deciding to do something crazy with the last 1/4 of his book.
Although it is still crazy. Please don’t get me wrong: the bank stuff is completely bonkers and at times feels like it is out of a different story – but, again, this may well have been McCarthy’s point. Because as the final reenactment plays out and it develops organically because there were too many variables to predict, our narrator actually seems to achieve the highest bliss: he skips the seizure part and instead blisses out into this sort of zen meditative place that carries him through the rest of the book. And we, the reader, enjoy this section and zip through it in a way that McCarthy’s more stoic prose resists earlier in the novel. It’s no disrespect to his prose – the man crafts and hones beautiful sentences, from page 1 to page 300 – but rather a reflection of circumstances. Everything has been over-crafted in the narrator’s life and, as the world asserts itself into chaos, chaos helps push the reader into more engagement with the text.
As someone who loves order, this is a reminder: a little chaos is the only way to actually live your life well. It is also, as it turns out, the thing that all books need in order to feel… well, engaging, I guess.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5. It’s just a little too constructed for me. I don’t always mind that (obvious construction) but there’s an artificiality here that, while I admire it immensely, keeps me at arm’s length. Every time a rough edge or a weirdness appeared, McCarthy made pains to smooth it back out – just as the narrator does with the apartment block and the ensuing reenactments. Conceptually, this is interesting – but in practice, a book requires more than just superb craftsmanship. Even the biggest brain requires some heart to balance it out (ed. note – and vice versa, although that’s a completely different argument). Otherwise, you’re just appreciative of the technical beauty but left cold about the project as a whole. Like I was here.