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The Morning News and Powells Present
2006 Tournament of Books
APRIL 4, 2006
Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men unfolds in the same physical and spiritual wilderness that has preoccupied the author for two decades. A hunter happens upon the gruesome aftermath of a desert heroin deal gone awry and absconds with more than $2 million in unmarked bills. He’s tracked to the novel’s end by a rural Texan sheriff and a homicidal outlaw who have different ideas about how things should turn out for him.

These stock McCarthy players—the gunslinger, the lawman, and the basically well-intentioned outdoorsman who succumbs to greed—hold the leading roles, but the prose is so whittled-down, it often reads like stage directions. Gone is the Biblical cadence of Blood Meridian, the ornate diction of All the Pretty Horses. No Country for Old Men makes Hemingway look effusive. True, McCarthy intersperses the bloodletting with the sheriff’s sentimental diary entries, but these don’t add depth; they come off as a hackneyed, tacked-on contrivance. Even the book’s most resonant dialogue (i.e., “Let me tell you somethin, little sister. If there is one thing on this planet you don’t look like it’s a bunch of good luck walkin around”) can’t infuse meaning into this otherwise mechanical exploration of man’s capacity for pointless brutality. “There’s no such thing as life without bloodshed,” McCarthy once said, when questioned about Blood Meridian. Nor, conversely, is there bloodshed without life, but here McCarthy forgets to examine the latter.

Ali Smith’s The Accidental, on the other hand, teems with life—of a more domestic variety—but life filtered through stream-of-consciousness narration that frequently feels artificial. A family endures a dismal summer holiday in Norfolk until a beautiful stranger arrives and privately reveals to each character the lie he or she has been living. Before the stranger’s arrival, the mother naps on the floor while pretending to write her novel; the stepfather perfunctorily screws his grad students; the teenage son feels responsible for a girl’s suicide and considers ending his own life; the pre-adolescent daughter doesn’t experience life at all, opting instead to record it with her expensive video camera. Smith endeavors to particularize each family member’s point of view in close third-person narration that, at its best, recalls Woolf’s To The Lighthouse.
Tinny originality would be easier to stomach
from a writer of Smith’s talents
were it not so prized, and so distressingly
prevalent, in literary fiction on this side
of the pond.
Unfortunately, as in her prior Hotel World, Smith’s wordplay is nearly as distracting as it is spellbinding. I frequently had the sense that the author was not breathing life into her characters so much as ventriloquizing her own observations through them. For every five singularly poignant associations in Smith’s book, there’s a line of forced whimsy like this one: “The words come out of Astrid’s mouth like the kind of heated-up stones they use at the place her mother goes for massage, the kind that leave red places on people’s skin after they’ve been put on and taken off.” Perhaps Astrid, the 12-year-old daughter, really would liken her words, in her own mind, to massage parlor stones, but I don’t buy it. This simile strikes me as one seized upon by an author seeking the most innovative description of a sensation instead of the most apt. Tinny originality would be easier to stomach from a writer of Smith’s talents were it not so prized, and so distressingly prevalent, in literary fiction on this side of the pond.

Frankly, I wouldn’t press either No Country for Old Men or The Accidental on a friend. But Smith’s novel wins the subway test—I nearly missed my stop two different mornings while reading it—and the characters and their predicaments have lingered in my mind these past weeks far more than I anticipated. Based on these wholly subjective criteria, I choose The Accidental to advance to the next round of the tournament.

The Peanut Gallery
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