Suttree: another gem from Cormac McCarthy


It is marvellous. Somewhat as McCarthy, I’ll refract and draw a few straight lines but first one way of seeing it whole. It’s ethical, of course, and not moral, and the distinction between the two is immense in this book. An oddyssey of one man who is all souls in an underworld (literally most of the settings are beneath the city, under bridges, in transit as the rivers and creeks carry grotesque reminders of the respectable world; the normal world is not present at all. Suttree’s divorce from his father was never of Freudian dimension but simply a repudiation of, and the vital distaste for contemporary collective values that protect the safe in an equity by which their suffering is dreamlike only like their lives). It’s ethical because it has the old testament sounding prophetic questions and voice, the root boundaries of living and death, and the eternal question as to whether a man down with thieves and murderers and scum (etc.) can be good. And Suttree, who is all that is left of all that is left of what we have to hold on to, is a lovely guy. It’s ethical because it is about suffering and sin (as in mistakes made to escape suffering), and like its generic cousins because it shows that a life is important, an individual is godly (inasmuch as any individual is godly, all are).

Formally, it’s very tight. A continuity of imagery and motif (not quantitavely but always in the background): most obvious is the reference to eyes, and from this to the cold lens of a camera and the complexities of represented histories (photographs) and the borderless space between the living and the dead; thence to representation generally, at one point a specific reference to a stage with pulleys and winches and wings, and here the city does get pictured – as a backdrop. Shifting representations, light used like a painter, for instance how the formless grey muggy quotidian city only becomes delineated at night by its contours of light. Roads, lines, patterns,shapes, described and commented upon as abstract concepts too. The ‘mathematical certainty of death’. The brilliantly depicted, formed hallucinations of madness counterposed with helix and corridor, door and window, bricolage everywhere from some power to order.

The way he handles time is tight too. So that, and this is probably the nearest I’ve come across a subjective valorisation of the experience of being in time, rather than any mimesis or spatialisation, it is compressed, condensed, displaced, segues a few months from one sentence to the next, and yet like a dream with all its weird workings nevertheless does set a limit around things so that at the end you think that yes you have been through some of Suttree’s life.

And it is very funny too!


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