Academic journal article The Cormac McCarthy Journal

The Hum of Mystery: Parataxis, Analepsis, and Geophysiology in the Road

Academic journal article The Cormac McCarthy Journal

The Hum of Mystery: Parataxis, Analepsis, and Geophysiology in the Road

Article excerpt

When Cormac McCarthy agreed to sit down with Oprah Winfrey in 2007 to discuss The Road (2006), which the television host had selected for her book club, it was a rare opportunity to hear the author talk about his work. Prior to this televised discussion, he had granted only three print interviews, and in none of those did he discuss his own work at much length.1 While Winfrey's questions often drifted close to the typical sentimental tone of her show, she managed to elicit a few comments on his own work and the writing process from an often uncomfortable-looking McCarthy. At one point, she asked him what he wanted people to "get" from The Road. He replied that he hoped people "just simply care about things and people and be more appreciative. Life is pretty damn good, even when it looks bad, and we should appreciate it more. We should be grateful. I don't know who to be grateful to, but you should be thankful for what you have."2

Given that any critical appeal to authorial intention is problematic at best, and utterly fallacious at worst, this essay sidesteps that thorny issue by framing its central question thus: if we grant, for the sake of argument, that part of the novel's affective power lies in its encouragement of appreciation and gratitude for what we have, how is this affective response encouraged? More specifically, what stylistic, structural, and thematic techniques contribute towards the novel's encouragement of this affective response?

I argue that there are at least three ways in which the novel instills gratitude in the reader by generating a sense of the mysterious and ultimately vulnerable nature of life itself. The first is through its use of parataxis, which undermines the conceptual categories of causality and hierarchical importance, thus allegorically inscribing in the novel's syntax a profoundly non-anthropocentric ontological framework. The second is the novel's generation of stark contrast through its depiction of an utterly depleted world and the consequent vividness of its occasional analeptic depictions of the natural world prior to the unspecified catastrophe. Thirdly, the novel is replete with suggestive conflations of the physiological and geophysiological, thereby blurring the boundaries between the two and suggesting that the proper functioning of the ecosphere is as vulnerable to disruption and collapse as that of an individual organism. All three of these techniques contribute to the novel's insistence on life's contingency and amplify the mysterious hum referred to in the novel's coda.

"Barren, silent, godless": Paratactic Style

Parataxis, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is "the placing of propositions or clauses one after another, without indicating by connecting words the relation (of coordination or subordination) between them." Such a narrow literal definition is often broadened to encompass a more inclusive paratactic style, in which polysyndeton, the use of many coordinating conjunctions to connect clauses, also operates in a paratactic way. Examples of this rhetorical figure can be found throughout McCarthy's corpus. The following two demonstrate, respectively, a broadly asyndetic parataxis and a polysyndetic one:

He ate, he stared at the walls. He used the bedpan or chamberpot. Sometimes he could hear a radio in another room. One evening what appeared to be some hunters came to see him.

They talked for a while without the door. Then the door opened and the room filled up with men. They gathered about Ballard's bedside. He'd been asleep. He struggled up in the bed and looked at them. Some he knew, some not. His heart shrank. (Child of God 168)

They were running on the plain harrying the antelope and the antelope moved like phantoms in the snow and circled and wheeled and the dry powder blew about them in the cold moonlight and their breath smoked palely in the cold as if they burned with some inner fire and the wolves twisted and turned and leapt in a silence such that they seemed of another world entire. …

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