Hello and welcome to this installment in Another Year of Fiction (AYOF). I’m back to novels as we approach the end of this year’s experiment, last time wrapping up an analysis of workplace comedy and now pivoting toward an author who is a favorite of mine: Cormac McCarthy and his masterful 2005 work No Country For Old Men.
This author is quite established as one of the greatest contemporary storytellers. I had already read (and been blown away by) The Road several years ago, and wanted to take another dive into McCarthy’s western worlds. This was without a doubt one of the best novels I’ve read in some time, but I want to pull out the major lessons before I get to why I felt it was such a great book.
Finding your voice. There can be no doubt that this author provides a master class in how to do this throughout the work. It is well known that McCarthy is possibly the only author to get away with using the most minimal punctuation required. Character speech is never demarcated by quotation marks (he only ever uses “Chigurh said” this, or “Moss said” that), he constantly jams up two or more words into one (“shirtpocket,” “domelight,” “dumbernhell”) and generally plays with language in ways that most editors would never let an amatuer get away with. This indicates an author in supreme command of his skills, and it never really distracted from the text for me. It was that good.
Using the novel to talk about society. McCarthy sets this novel in 1980, enabling him to populate it with veterans of two wars: Moss (Vietnam) and WWII (Bell). This shades their experiences in many ways, with Moss seeing how his life can change with stolen drug money and Bell attempting to rectify leaving his men on the battlefield in Europe. This is masterfully interwoven with the drug runner story, told partially through interludes with Bell as he describes the falling away of the country over the last few decades. Some critics weren’t fans of McCarthy’s pseudo-sermonizing, but it’s worth mentioning that not a lot of “good guys” come out on top at the end of the book. Take from that what you will.
Overall, if you can stomach the appalling levels of violence, this book can teach yards to any aspiring writer. If nothing else it’s worth reading just for the stunning control over his writing that McCarthy displays on every page. I’ll even go as far as to say no other author comes close to displaying how to find and use one’s voice than this guy.
(I also made an exception and re-visited the astounding, Oscar-winning film adaptation directed by the Coens ten years ago to see how much it represented the novel. While not quite as good, you’ll hardly find a better example of directors using source material in every way to tell a gritty and great story.)
It’s looking like I have room to fit at least one more work before this year wraps up, so I’m going to take on an epic that has echoed through the ages: Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. I was lucky to pick up a Norton Critical Edition which contains a ton of extra essays, criticism and analysis of the work, so I hope to be able to add some commentary on this story and how it has affected literature for decades.
Hope everyone has safe travels over this holiday weekend, and thanks as always for reading.
Hello and welcome to this installment of Another Year of Fiction (AYOF). I wrapped up the short story portion of this year’s experiment with a trip through the mind of Raymond Carver and his twisted characters. Now I’m back in novel territory with Joshua Ferris’s 2007 workplace farce Then We Came to the End.
Workplace comedy had found a steady tranche in the cultural zeitgeist by the time this novel appeared (Steve Carell’s smarmy boss on NBC’s re-working of The Office being perhaps the best example of the period), and this book is no exception. I mostly read it as a counterpoint to the manuscript I’m still laboring through rewrites, Observe and Detach. I was pleasantly surprised to see this book is not much like my own, and I found some important areas of difference in some of the lessons I drew from the book.
Use of narration. Ferris decided that a sort of weird first-person plural narrative form was best suited for this story (explained in an interview with the author at the back of my copy - about how ad agencies referred internally to the company as “we”). While I understand why he made this choice, overall it did not work for me and I found it to be slightly distracting at times. This might be due to the obsession in my own books with using singular first-person narration. Or it could be that when Ferris drops this in the middle of the book for a large section on a main character’s battle with cancer I found the prose to flow much better. Despite using this to try and make it seem like the reader is just one of the crew, I never felt that compelled to empathize.
Use of form. This might actually be what I liked least about the work - Ferris works backward through time as various people in the office tell stories from their disparate points of view. Sometimes this works, but often it ends up with a bunch of quotations packed into a dense paragraph, the characters not so individual that they can be recognized through what they say. There’s a converse to this as I will point out in a moment, but I have a feeling a better editor would have structured these paragraphs better (and maybe even use actual indentation, which Ferris manages later in the book).
Showing characters through dialogue. Despite the odd structure, Ferris is a master of capturing the minutiae of the office worker’s daily life, barraging the reader with a ton of pointless anecdotes and bizarre actions on behalf of the “creatives.” He even manages to work in a terrifying situation that has become all too real in the age Newtown and Las Vegas, even if nobody dies in this version. There are some brief forays into the territory of my own novel - mostly emails and inter-office politics. Still, I feel the form of my manuscript is sufficiently different from this one to stand out in the marketplace (once I finally get to that point).
All of this being said, I would recommend the book to anyone who likes this sort of farcical take on real life scenarios. It was well-written enough to compel me to finish it pretty quickly, allowing me to tackle at least one more novel in this experiment: Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 epic tale No Country for Old Men.
As I’ve said before, I plan on shaking up the experiment a little bit next year (or at least not be so formal about it), adding in other types of reading material such as graphic novels, and I may even try to write more about television and film. Also, a wise co-worker of mine recently pointed out the relative lack of women versus men on my reading lists, so if any of you out there have some female authors that could shake up my perspective, feel free to email/comment. I also hope to get one more essay on writing posted here before I start up some new projects in 2018. As always, thanks for reading!
John Abraham-Watne is an author and freelance journalist located in the Twin Cities, where he lives with his wife Mary and their two cats. This blog is his attempt to catalog all the events that culminate a local writer's life.