Warning: this article contains plot details that will ruin for the reader the book that, Mr. Moore argues, was already ruined intentionally by the author himself.
There is nothing more frustrating, more annoying -- more rip-snorting, tear-the-book-in-half rage-making, than when an author gets your ire up with a phenomenally bad move. Sure, when it comes to other forms of entertainment, we've all seen the gladiator wearing socks, the car rolling along in the background of a medieval movie, or the microphone dip down from above into our favourite TV show -- it happens. It's a small distraction inside of a larger one, and it doesn't take the brain long to roll over it and keep moving. Same thing with the radio, or a typo in a newspaper -- we forget about it; it is insubstantial and doesn't alter the story or the broadcast or the main storyline.
Mistakes happen; they happen all the time in our media and our entertainment.
But in books - yes, in books... Here is a place where the potential for anger and insult is nearly off the scale. Characters we have grown with, moved with, thought like and walked beside through the story: they become friends, because we helped create them. There is a certain intimacy with a book, especially one penned by a writer who knows his stuff. When a narrative gives us some detail and still lets us paint the main image ourselves, we co-create that world. We share in the act of authorship -- good writing does this.
In such an act of dual creation, it's like another relationship stacked into the plot. We might sympathize with, understand, love, or despise the characters, but we need the author to be in it as much as they need us. And just as in any other relationship, there's an amount of give and take. If suddenly geographic direction becomes involved in the description of a place, and your mind has to go back and edit this new fact in -- "Oh, the house is on the OTHER side of the river, if they're leaving it via the bridge heading east..." -- then the writer has done us a disservice. If direction is important, it must be mentioned from the first, in order to keep the mind's film flowing smoothly.
And herein lies the book version of the mic in the shot or the gladiator's sock. Just imagine the reaction in a crowded theater, if suddenly and without warning, the set behind the actors was immediately and violently reworked; no-one would sit through the rest of a film like that -- and that is where the reader takes his turn; in our head, as we create the world, we can easily and without much mental qualm, go back and rework the position of a structure without leaving the theater. This is where we bend. Little things like this can happen from time to time in a novel, and it's much like that microphone dipping low on television, or the Canadian flag in the background of a movie set in California; we as the audience can handle these little erasures, these corrections, without difficulty. But in the act of co-creating the world of a novel, the Author and the Reader are entering into a contract; he says "I will provide the materials," and you say, "I will give you the land". Then we get to work.
After that, the less we think of the author, the better -- just let it flow.
But every once in a while, we encounter a rare turd of a novel; one with a mistake so glaring mistake that it is unforgivable. This happens in Cormac McCarthy's novel, No Country for Old Men. And the funny thing is, the movie is pretty true to the book, and it doesn't piss me off half as much. Figure that one out.
Now, I'd better announce a spoiler alert here -- but I think it's kind of unnecessary, too. It will probably ruin the book for you -- but it might also save your time, since it won't really be me who's ruined it. Cormac already did it. In this book, it is the author's annihilation of a key scene that has him murdering his own plot -- and that's the most unfortunate death in a book riddled with untimely ends.
So, briefly, it goes like this: the main character is hunting in the desert when he comes across some vehicles on the horizon. He approaches and finds the results of a gun battle between drug smugglers: bodies all around, cocaine in the back of a truck, and a big bag full of wads of hundreds. There is one man yet alive, bleeding his life out through bullet wounds -- a Mexican; he begs for 'agua'. Our hero grabs the money and leaves. After getting back to his trailer, he stashes the cash but can't sleep -- the thirsty, dying man gnaws at his conscience. He returns with a jug of water. Nice guy, huh? We're already rooting for him. It's great -- he's gotten away scot-free, but his morality turns this story ugly. I am pleased as my anxiety builds -- he shouldn't go back, and he, I, and McCarthy know it -- and it is good. Headlights appear on the hill behind him, beside where he has parked his truck, as he realizes the thirsty man has died in his absence. So much for that. The chase is now on; our hero flees, pursued by those who know he's snagged the money.
Jump ahead a bit. In the interim, we've had a classic chase seen -- the guy runs, the baddies follow; all is well and good and as it should be. In the course of my reading, I haven't had to reverse the flow of a river, flip north to south on the compass, or adjust anyone's hair or eye colour -- the mind-film rolls smoothly. Cormac certainly knows what he's doing -- our relationship is peaches.
After a while -- close catches, near misses, and much conniving and cogitation by both sides -- a new tracker is called in by those who want their cash: a psychopathic hit man. Mmmm, good! I love it. The guy even has a seriously nasty weapon he enjoys using; a hydraulic cattle-killer: a steel cylinder that punches an even hole through the cow's skull and into the brain; death strikes instantly. It's also handy for opening deadbolts -- and human skulls, as it were. Neat! I'm on board 100%!
The body count starts to rise as this wackjob pursues our newly rich and still-running main man. I'm rapt; I can barely pull my eyes from the book to take on my normal daily routine -- it's intense and the writing is superb. Then, suddenly, somewhere along the line I get confused. Another motel (they are central to the theme of a man hiding and running for his life, of course), more dead people. But as the cop describes the body on the floor, and the scene continues to unfold, it sounds stunningly like our guy is one of the ones lying there, his mortal coil recently left behind to stiffen and bewilder the local police force.
I flip back a few pages, scan the page. Flip a few more. No -- the layout of the last place was different. What the hell?
I turn back to the page my thumb has saved, and continue on... Something is not right here. I go back again, return. I'm confused. I read ahead quickly, thinking what I'm 'seeing' will soon be explained -- but no. No, the scene at the latest motel ends, the cops are stymied, and suddenly the psychopath's got another notch on his belt; my guy is dead. The thing that I'd been anticipating, the final ultimate stare-down between our good-guy-got-lucky-then-troublingly-not hero -- due to his sense of morality, no less -- and the remorseless, fatalistic, uber-violent death-dealing assassin, had already gone down -- my man was dead, and the story moved on with little more than a paragraph break.
I put the book down. I was so angry. I was livid. It was as if the film had suddenly snapped -- my mind was reeling from the absence of any notable closure. Mr. McCarthy and Mr. Moore were no longer peaches -- we weren't even sour grapes. This was serious. This was a deal breaker. It was as if, as the iceberg closed the gap on its fatal trajectory toward the Titanic, the camera panned away to show a pod of belugas go snorkeling by.
I felt I'd been robbed -- cheated. This was the most vital scene of the whole plot! What if, after hundreds of cartoons, Warner Brothers had decided to finally grant Wile E. Coyote the ultimate feast of his tireless quarry in some amazing final chase, and we never saw the penultimate Acme mail-order death machine that finally got the job done -- just a few slapstick shots and then that crafty, loveable loser, the hungriest coyote we've ever known and loved to watch fail, bloated and picking his teeth with a roadrunner wishbone.
It was a travesty. Three quarters of the way through a riveting tale of flight and pursuit between two polar opposites of characterization, life and money on the line, and the real death was the plot. McCarthy had murdered his own story.
What did he think, how was he killed? All we are told of are the bodies: he and the female hitchhiker who had picked him up. We don't know how the assassin found them, how it went down. We don't know if his last thought was of his wife, if he'd put up a fight or succumbed after so much flight. What had been said between them?
I was deeply troubled. I finished the book, but it had already ended for me many pages before. It ended and I didn't know how. I didn't know why.
Imagine if the Mona Lisa didn't have a mouth. That's how I felt. That strange little smile that has tugged at mankind's wonder for almost five hundred years -- what if it was glaringly absent?
I've gone on to read more McCarthy and loved everything else. The Road has got to be one of the most disturbing, if most wonderful, books I've ever read. I'm a fan of old Cormac -- our relationship, rocked by that stupid, stupid move of his -- has rebounded. He's lucky. I often don't give those I'm intimate with second chances. But in some cases, such as this one, doing so is a good thing for both author and reader. I eventually put a little more money into his pocket, he eventually put a little more excitement into my head.
Still, I'll never forgive him for murdering his own damned plot. I know it was done for a good reason; he's not an idiot writer by any means, and there is a meaning or a purpose in leaving out the most important part of the story. If I wanted to, I'm sure I could travel that path and tell you all about the why, figure out the point -- but I don't care. Call me silly or stubborn, but I'm not going to. That's not what I signed up for -- it's not what I read it for, and I simply can't patch over such a vast hole in the story with any conviction or ease. No Country For Old Men has a massive stinking hole in the dead center of it, and for some damned fool reason, that's how the author wanted it.
I personally feel the hero should have lived, but it wouldn't have bothered me so much even if he hadn't. I don't mind when someone I've come to love in a well written novel comes to an untimely or violent end; sometimes it's as satisfying a finish as a victory, or it can be. Yes, I could have easily dealt with his death and felt not a lick of anger at McCarthy -- if I'd only been invited to be there when it actually went down -- but I wasn't. And if you read it, you won't be, either, and that's a disservice to the book and to the reader. It begs for a correction that will never come to this particular Country.
So skip this one and take The Road instead -- but watch yourself there, too.