For the protagonist of the American west, to ride off into the sunset is to complete the heroic mission and to take a solitary journey, perhaps to the end of things. The historical Sunset Limited was a transcontinental train that crossed the American south from Atlantic to Pacific. Metaphorically, to ride the sunset limited is to take the mythic train west, to go to the western wall, to sail over the edge of the world. The literal train in McCarthy’sThe Sunset Limited is a New York subway, but the destination of the suicidal professor White is the solitude of death, an escape from the hell of other people, from the human history of war and genocide, and from his own intractable alienation.
Cormac McCarthy’s tenth novel, The Road, is his most harrowing yet deeply personal work. Some unnamed catastrophe has scourged the world to a burnt-out cinder, inhabited by the last remnants of mankind and a very few surviving dogs and fungi. The sky is perpetually shrouded by dust and toxic particulates; the seasons are merely varied intensities of cold and dampness. Bands of cannibals roam the roads and inhabit what few dwellings remain intact in the woods.
It’s the early 1980s, and Sheriff Ed Tom Bell has presided over his small south Texas border county for decades. In all that time he has sent only one criminal to death row in and is otherwise secure in his belief that “it takes very little to govern good people.” Unbeknownst to Bell, however, a local welder named Llewellyn Moss has, while out hunting near the Rio Grande, stumbled across the bodies of a half dozen drug runners who have killed each other off during a deal gone bad. Moss has discovered and made off with a satchel containing two million dollars in cash found near the site of the carnage. Moss, a former sniper during his tours of duty in Vietnam, is himself unaware that the satchel contains a radio transponder. After a lapse of caution enables the drug dealers’ bosses to identify him, Moss and his young wife find themselves fleeing from the cartel hitmen who have been dispatched to recover the satchel of money, and Sheriff Bell finds himself confronting a surge of violence the likes of which his quiet community has never before experienced.
Cities of the Plain, the final volume of Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy, binds together the separate tales of John Grady Cole from All the Pretty Horses and Billy Parham from The Crossing to create a more realistic Billy and a more mythic John Grady. Within the confines of a relatively spare 293 pages, the classic “all-american cowboy” John Grady devotes himself to saving every hurt or wounded creature that crosses his path, a noble and impossible task that leads ultimately to his own destruction. The tragedy of his failed rescue of the epilectic prostitute Magdalena makes a martyr of the near-faultless John Grady, yet McCarthy stubbornly refuses to let the novel backslide into blubbery melodrama. Told in both McCarthy’s signature lyrical style and his dead-on ranchero dialogue, Cities of the Plain ends the trilogy at the height of McCarthy’s storytelling skill.
The Crossing, publicized as the second installment of McCarthy’s Border Trilogy, is the initiation story of Billy Parham and his younger brother Boyd (who are 16 and 14 respectively when the novel opens). The novel, set just before and during World War II, is structured around three round-trip crossings that Billy makes from New Mexico into Mexico. Each trip tests Billy as he must try to salvage something once he fails in his original goal. On both his first and last quest he is reduced (or perhaps exalted) to some symbolic futile gesture in his attempt, against all obstacles, to maintain his integrity and to be true to his moral obligations. This novel explores such issues as guilt, the acquisition of wisdom, heroism, and the crucial importance of stories.
Cormac McCarthy’s only published screenplay,The Gardener’s Son (Ecco Press, 1996) was actually written in 1976. It was McCarthy’s first screenplay and his first historical work, predating his historical novel, Blood Meridian, by almost a decade. The completed film of The Gardener’s Son, directed by Richard Pearce for the PBS series Visions, was originally broadcast on December 16, 1976. Based on actual events which took place in the mill town of Graniteville, South Carolina in 1876, McCarthy’s drama concerns two families: The Greggs, founders of The Graniteville Manufacturing Company, and the McEvoys, an Irish Catholic family, previously farm owners, who have come to Graniteville to work for the mill with the promise of steady wages, “a sealed house and a garden patch.”
Ridley Scott’s sci-fi spectacular appeals across the generations, with strong expectations for half term
The winner: The Martian
Declining a slim 21% from its opening frame, Ridley Scott’s The Martian had no trouble holding on to the top spot at the UK box office. After 12 days, the film has taken an impressive £13.21m.
An apt comparison might be Interstellar, in which Matt Damon, curiously, also played an astronaut stranded on a distant planet. That film fell 29% on its second weekend, by which time it had grossed £12.13m. It then fell hard and fast, with consecutive drops of 50%, 39%, 47% and 65%, suggesting that it quickly burned through its audience after the initial rush of Christopher Nolan fans.
The same fate may yet befall The Martian, but it seems unlikely. One good sign is that it appears to be playing to a younger audience than might have been expected.
Distributor Fox agrees that “this seems very much in line with what we are hearing and how the film is playing – throughout the day, to young and old, teens and adults, men and women alike”. They are hoping for a strong half-term hold, despite competition from other titles.
Director Scott’s biggest hit in the UK remains Gladiator, with £31.2m. The Martian has a long way to go to match it, but it should soon push past Robin Hood(£15.6m) and then overtake Hannibal (£21.6m). Fox would presumably be delighted to reach as far as Prometheus, which managed £25m.
The Stonemason, a five-act play, is Cormac McCarthy’s first published excursion into the realm of drama even though he had written the screenplay toThe Gardener’s Son fifteen years earlier. In fact, The Stonemason had been written, several years prior to its publication, as part of a dramatic series sponsored by the National Theater in Washington, D.C. For various reasons, however, it was never actually produced.
In All the Pretty Horses, Cormac McCarthy begins his Border Trilogy with a coming of age tale that is a departure from the bizarre richness and mysterious violence of his early novels, yet in many ways preserves the mystery and the richness in a more understated form. Like Blood Meridian, this novel follows a young man’s journey to the regions of the unknown. John Grady Cole, more heroic than the protagonists of McCarthy’s earlier novels, confronts the evil that is an inescapable part of the universe as well as the evil that grows out of his own ignorance and pride. His story is told in a style often restrained and simple, embedded with lyrical passages that echo his dreams and memory.
Orhan Pamuk (Istanbul, 1952) has written another monumental novel, A Strangeness in My Mind, which comes after The Museum of Innocence, published in 2009. With intelligent and moving meticulousness, the Turkish Nobel Prize-winner tells of 40 years in the life of a humble Istanbul street vendor. It’s a book about happiness (or the lack of it), and about time. While reading it, it’s impossible not to feel that its protagonist, Mevlut, embodies the very Istanbul he describes, and, in fact, when one travels to Istanbul and listens to its racket and rejoicing, it seems obvious that Pamuk has made any and all of these characters stand up in his fiction on these old streets. We talk in the house Pamuk lives in, in Bujukada, the beautiful island his parents would take him to from the day he was born. He still spends his summers there, writing in a peace that’s only disturbed by “the soft passing of time,” marked by the shadows the sun throws over his bare balcony. Before we talked he offered us watermelon and apricots. He looks happy, as if he’s fallen in love, and not only with literature.
Question. You say in this book that we have to believe in the novel when we are reading it. Why is it so important to believe in what you are reading?
Answer. Because literature, whether it is fantastic or realistic, works with what Samuel Taylor Coleridge called suspension of disbelief. If you’re a cynical person, if you are not a sincere believer in the strength of literature, then you should avoid reading books. In the end there is a very old-fashioned side to reading novels in our age – blogs, internet, so much information and so much humanity. Why read novels? Because we believe in the power of literature. We’re not cynical or sarcastic or suspicious about it. Literature works with intentionally well-meaning readers. You say I’m going to give 10 hours to this Istanbul street vendor’s life. Then you’re not sarcastic any more. You’re with the characters and you take the writer’s work for granted. You should not take it for granted and not question it, at least at the beginning.
It's the fastest-selling novel for adults of all time – and it's very adult in content. Why have millions of women been seduced by Fifty Shades of Grey, asks Zoe Williams
Zoe Williams Friday 6 July 2012 22.55 BST
t's pointless to deny that there's something going on here: EL James has now sold 4 million copies of her Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy via her UK publisher, Random House, to add to the 15 million (it beggars belief) that have been shifted in the US and Canada. In three months. In the UK, it's the fastest-selling book ever in both physical and ebook incarnations. There's just been an extra print run for the UK market, to meet demand: 2.75 million copies. It's the fastest selling adult novel of all time. By which they mean "it's the fastest-selling novel of all time that isn't Harry Potter". But its content is, of course, rather adult.
The trilogy features Anastasia Steele, who falls in love with Christian Grey, a troubled young billionaire who likes sex only if he can accompany it with quite formal, stylised corporal punishment. The narrative drivers are pretty slack – improbable dialogue ("I'm a very wealthy man, Miss Steele, and I have expensive and absorbing hobbies"); lame characterisation; irritating tics (a constant war between Steele's "subconscious", which is always fainting or putting on half-moon glasses, and her "inner goddess", who is forever pouting and stamping); and an internal monologue that goes like this … "Holy hell, he's hot!"; "No man has ever affected me the way Christian Grey has, and I cannot fathom why. Is it his looks? His civility? Wealth? Power?" Yuh huh. Civility puts me in a blue funk too.
In normal circumstances, it would be lazy, but here, it is more like a shorthand. James writes as though she's late for a meeting with a sex scene. Here, her voice is quite different: meticulous, inventive, radical and conflicted; Grey is only interested in a dominant/submissive relationship (with these "hard limits" – no fire, no faeces, no blood loss, no gynaecological instruments, no children or animals, no permanent disfigurement, no breath control and no direct electricity – I paraphrase for brevity). Steele just wants a regular boyfriend (or does she? Yik yak yik yak). This is Fifty Shades of Grey I'm talking about. We'll come to Fifty Shades Darker later. Goddammit. I've been infected by James's ominous, staccato delivery. After 1,600 pages of the stuff, you will too. I'm doing it again. I can't help it.
There is a little light spanking in Jilly Cooper (Octavia, Rivals), and the romance genre (as distinct from chicklit) would be many pages lighter if nobody ever got tied to a bed with a scarf, but this is in a different league. Its popularity has come as a bit of a surprise to publishers, who thought they knew what women wanted. It must be a bit like being married to someone for 20 years, and suddenly finding out they like fisting. People who like to trace all new trends back to new technology have offered this explanation – that women who wouldn't be seen dead reading smut on the tube could read it on their Kindle, and this launched a whole world of sales.
The unexpected element is that the shame of erotic fiction is largely in the imagination, and once people had read it, they felt happy to discuss it openly. It was word of mouth that launched the paperback version on the back of the ebook.
Where do you stand on erotica in public spaces? Someone in a tube carriage last week with three people reading the paperback (and God knows how many reading it on their Kindles) tweeted, "isn't it a bit early for that sort of thing?" – as though there were an erotica yardarm, and we all knew when it was. After lunch? When the sun goes down? It seemed a bit random, yet I can see why he'd query the wisdom of summoning a sustained erotic vignette on one's way into work. But what do I know? I work at home. Maybe people do that all the time.
Consider, furthermore, the way high culture and low culture have collided. It's long been acceptable to read the Financial Times and also watch the Eurovision Song contest, read Philip Roth as well as Marian Keyes. Because erotica is niche to start with, this revolution took longer to reach it, and only now have we loosened up a bit. By this reckoning, Fifty Shades is just Mills & Boon for the generation that would once have been embarrassed to be seen reading Mills & Boon.
No, there is more to it than that. First, the reason sex scenes are so difficult to write is the gear change, rather than the sex itself. It is extremely difficult to write a regular story spliced with sex, just as it would be difficult to tell a story interspersed with explicit sexual detail. That's why the Bad Sex Award exists, and is so easy to bestow. In the very act of describing sex as an incidental, you create an excruciating sex scene.
James's sex scenes are not incidental, they are the meat of the plot, the crux of the conflict, the key to at least one of and possibly both the central characters. It is a sex book. It is not a book with sex in it. The French author Catherine Millet wrote: "For me, a pornographic book is functional, written to help you to get excited. If you want to speak about sex in a novel or any "ambitious" writing, today, in the 21st century, you must be explicit. You cannot be metaphorical any longer." I'm not sure James's writing is that ambitious, but she has certainly understood the bit about not being metaphorical.
As history is written by the victors, so S&M is written by the Ss, and the problem with sadists is that they exaggerate. They're not looking at it from the masochist's point of view – it's in their job description not to. If the Marquis de Sade thinks any garden– variety submissive is going to get a kick out of having their back broken on a cartwheel, he's dreaming. Conversely, two opposite predilections, across a very broad scope, might easily collide in a fantasy written from the perspective of the masochist or naïf. So that's the popularity of volume one.
The second volume is a bald and rushed go at monetising the brand. The deviant stuff is largely excised, and the move towards mainstream sexual endeavour seems to bore the author. Her fantasies turn instead to what presents she'd like if she fetched up with a billionaire (an iPad. An Audi. No, a Saab! Nope, I feel cheap. OK, OK, just the Saab, and some clothes, ooh, a bikini, for $541 … what a terrible waste, and yet how pert my breasts look).
Now we're looking at a book you'd be embarrassed to be caught reading on the tube. Small habits begin to grate: the way everybody always seethes, scolds, smirks or whispers and nobody ever just says; the way his eyes are constantly blazing, and she is constantly biting her lip.
The link between volumes is so clumsy that you have to look away ("He thinks he doesn't deserve to be loved. Why does he feel that way? Does it have to do with his upbringing? His birth mom, the crack whore?"). The need for a plot invites in some true gothic horror show and, stripped of his deviations, Christian Grey is just a controlling, unpleasant man whom, even 30 years ago, no sane heroine would ever have married, however Holy-hell-shit-I-can't-breathe hot he was.
The third in the series, Fifty Shades Freed, is … Oh what am I doing? You're going to read it. Of course you're going to read it. You've probably already read it.
As the countdown begins to this year’s prize, we take a look at the most tipped authors. Are you rooting for old favourites Philip Roth or Haruki Murakami, or someone else entirely?
It’s that time of year again. With the Nobel prizes for medicine, chemistry and physics already announced, tomorrow is literature’s turn. We know the game: names such as Philip Roth, Haruki Murakami are perennials on the list – but we also know how famously difficult it is to predict, and how much the Swedish Academy loves to surprise and confound. Here are this year’s top ten tipped authors according to bookies Ladbrokes on Wednesday, with Belarusian journalist Svetlana Aleksijevitj leading the pack.
Two boys were sitting on the wall by the jetty playing dice. A man was reading a newspaper on the steps of a monument in the shadow of a hero wielding a sabre. A young girl was filling her tub with water at a fountain. A fruit seller was lying close to his produce and looking out to sea. Through the empty openings of the door and window of a bar two men could be seen drinking wine in the back. The landlord was sitting at a table in the front dozing. A small boat glided lightly into the small harbour, as if it were being carried over the water. A man in a blue jacket climbed out onto land and pulled the ropes through the rings. Behind the man from the boat, two other men in dark coats with silver buttons carried a bier, on which, under a large silk scarf with a floral pattern and fringe, a man was obviously lying.
If some frail tubercular lady circus rider were to be driven in circles around and around the arena for months and months without interruption in front of a tireless public on a swaying horse by a merciless whip-wielding master of ceremonies, spinning on the horse, throwing kisses and swaying at the waist, and if this performance, amid the incessant roar of the orchestra and the ventilators, were to continue into the ever-expanding, gray future, accompanied by applause, which died down and then swelled up again, from hands which were really steam hammers, perhaps then a young visitor to the gallery might rush down the long stair case through all the levels, burst into the ring, and cry “Stop!” through the fanfares of the constantly adjusting orchestra.
The Great Wall of China was finished at its northernmost location. The construction work moved up from the south-east and south-west and joined at this point. The system of building in sections was also followed on a small scale within the two great armies of workers, the eastern and western. It was carried out in the following manner: groups of about twenty workers were formed, each of which had to take on a section of the wall, about five hundred metres. A neighbouring group then built a wall of similar length to meet it. But afterwards, when the sections were fully joined, construction was not continued on any further at the end of this thousand-metre section. Instead the groups of workers were shipped off again to build the wall in completely different regions. Naturally, with this method many large gaps arose, which were filled in only gradually and slowly, many of them not until after it had already been reported that the building of the wall was complete. In fact, there are said to be gaps which have never been built in at all, although that’s merely an assertion which probably belongs among the many legends which have arisen about the structure and which, for individual people at least, are impossible to prove with their own eyes and according to their own standards, because the structure is so immense.
You have done me the honor of inviting me to give your Academy an account of the life I formerly led as an ape.
I regret that I cannot comply with your request to the extent you desire. It is now nearly five years since I was an ape, a short space of time, perhaps, according to the calendar, but an infinitely long time to gallop through at full speed, as I have done, more or less accompanied by excellent mentors, good advice, applause, and orchestral music, and yet essentially alone, since all my escorters, to keep the image, kept well off the course. I could never have achieved what I have done had I been stubbornly set on clinging to my origins, to the remembrances of my youth. In fact, to give up being stubborn was the supreme commandment I laid upon myself; free ape as I was, I submitted myself to that yoke. In revenge, however, my memory of the past has closed the door against me more and more. I could have returned at first, had human beings allowed it, through an archway as wide as the span of heaven over the earth, but as I spurred myself on in my forced career, the opening narrowed and shrank behind me; I felt more comfortable in the world of men and fitted it better; the strong wind that blew after me out of my past began to slacken; today it is only a gentle puff of air that plays around my heels; and the opening in the distance, through which it comes and through which I once came myself, has grown so small that, even if my strength and my willpower sufficed to get me back to it, I should have to scrape the very skin from my body to crawl through. To put it plainly, much as I like expressing myself in images, to put it plainly: your life as apes, gentlemen, insofar as something of that kind lies behind you, cannot be farther removed from you than mine is from me. Yet everyone on earth feels a tickling at the heels; the small chimpanzee and the great Achilles alike.
When it had already become unbearable – by an evening in November – and I was running along over the narrow carpet in my room as on a racetrack, frightened by the sight of the lights in the street turned around again and was given a new goal in the depths of the room, at the bottom of the mirror, and I cried out, just to hear the scream which is answered by nothing, and from which nothing takes the strength of the scream, which therefore rises up, without any counterpoise, and cannot cease even when it grows silent; a door was opened in the wall so hastily, since haste was indeed necessary, and even the wagon-horses down on the pavement reared, like crazed horses in a battle, their throats exposed.
I want you to go have a beer with your friends, for you to be hungover the next morning and ask me to join you anyway because you feel like having me in your arms, for us to nuzzle against one another. I want to talk in bed in the morning about all sorts of things, but sometimes, in the afternoon, I want us to decide to take different paths for the day.
I want you to tell me about your evenings with your friends. To tell me that there was a girl at the bar who gave you the eye. I want you to send me text messages when you're drunk with your friends, for you to tell me unimportant things, just so you can be assured that I think of you, too.
I want us to laugh while we're making love. For us to we start laughing because we're trying new things and it just doesn't make sense. I want us to be with our friends, for you to take me by the hand and take me to another room because you cannot take it anymore and you feel like right there you have to make love to me. I want to try to stay silent because there are ears that could hear us.
I want to eat with you, want you to make me talk about me and for you to talk about you. I want us to rant about the North Shore vs. South Shore, West suburb versus East. I want to imagine the loft of our dreams, knowing that we will probably never move in together. For you tell me about your plans with neither head nor tail. I want to be surprised, for you to make me say: Take your passport; we're leaving.
I want to be afraid with you. To do things I would not do with anyone else, because with you I am confident! To return too drunk after a good evening with friends. For you to take my face, kiss me, use me like your pillow and squeeze me so tightly at night.
I want you to have your life, for you decide on a whim to travel for a few weeks. For you to leave me here alone bored and wishing for the small Facebook pop-up with your face that tells me "hi."
I don't always want to be invited for your evenings out and I don't always want to invite you to mine. Then I can tell you about it and hear you tell me about yours the next day.
I want something that will be both simple and at the same time not so simple. Something that will make sure that I often ask myself questions, but the minute I'm in the same room as you, I know. I want you to think I'm beautiful, for you to be proud to say that we're together. I want to hear you say you love me and I especially want to tell you in return. I want you to let me walk ahead of you so you can watch my bottom swing from left to right. For you to let me scrape the windows of my car in winter because my butt wiggles and it makes you smile.
I want to make plans not knowing whether or not they will be realized. To be in a relationship that is anything but clear. I want to be your good friend, the one with whom you love hanging out. I want you to keep your desire to flirt with other girls, but for you to come back to me to finish your evening. Because I will want to go home with you. I want to be the one with whom you love to make love and fall asleep. The one who stays away when you work and loves it when you get lost in your world of music. I want to live a single life with you. For our couple life, would be the equivalent of our single lives today, but together.