Monday, July 22, 2013

Everything's black and white: Cormac McCarthy's THE SUNSET LIMITED

Cormac McCarthy's "novel in dramatic form" (so says the cover), The Sunset Limited, leans toward allegory in its pas de deux of a black ex-con and white professor hashing out "to be or not to be," but it remains too grounded in its particulars, and too invested in its arguments, to go wholly in that direction. Instead it's an argument fraught—or overwrought—with significance, in which one man's life comes to represent, in its particularities, the human predicament as a whole.

Rather than give these characters names, McCarthy labels the men "Black" and "White." It's a decision that implies something about each character's cultural narrative, though that's a problematic road, requiring, as it does, broad assumptions about these cultural types that, while aiming to load them with significance, strips them of individuality. The black man is poor, uneducated, a former convict, a man who has known and done violence, a reformed soul, and a reader of but one book, the Bible. The white man is a college professor of whose background we know even less—he's not only white, he's pallid, character-wise—save that he has reached a nihilistic conclusion about life and made what seems to him to be the obvious choice, to jump in front of a train (the titular "Sunset Limited"). The black man, having appeared from nowhere on the trail platform, somehow "catches" and rescues the white man and transports him back to his below-humble abode, a lair that, we are told, is frequented by society's rejects. McCarthy's labeling of the characters "Black" and "White," however, doesn't quite satisfy his need to stereotype them, so in the stage directions, the white man is "the professor" and the black man is "the black." Why McCarthy didn't see this as problematic phrasing baffles me, and suggests that, shrewd as the dialogue is, his ear was tin for at least this decision. Additionally, the labeling suggests, in its sheer American-ness, that the piece will have something more to say about race, but that's not a direction the work goes.

The black man's dialogue is the gem in this work. Easy to hear, richly phrased, full of life and intent, the language shifts in tone as the man works every rhetorical trick to convince the white man to live. Much of this circles around an argument for God . . . maybe. Though White is convinced that Black is trying to convert him to religion in order to save him, Black doesn't argue that belief in God is a necessity in order to see value in life. The finest argument in "the trick bag" is likely (and I assume McCarthy agrees with this) the one he doesn't explicitly make: in a discussion of cooking, Black gets White to see that, though the poor have castoff ingredients with which to work, the meal becomes a thing of both sustenance and joy because the poor "improvise." What White lacks is the necessary empathy to see that other people keep living not because they've figured things out nor because they refuse to see their own suffering but because, moment to moment, they make do with what that universe makes available.

The ending wasn't completely satisfying, mostly because it let me down rhetorically rather than in its expression of ideas. The characters just seem to run out of room to negotiate and run out of energy for each other.

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