Every text represents an experience that both the author and the reader jointly construct; the author writes the details, drawing from empirical influence, and the reader filters those details through his or her own experience. When the reader is the intended reader, the author’s most manipulative ability apropos of writing can greatly shape the reader’s perception, though. McCarthy’s 2005 novel, No Country for Old Men, features his prowess in maintaining control of the reader’s perception and guiding it toward a particular, dismal comprehension of the reality of American civilization.
In order to adequately position my assessment of this novel, especially for reader-response criticism, it is incumbent upon me to concede that I watched the film adaptation of the novel several times before reading the text itself. The film, therefore, played a significant role in shaping my perception of events in the book, especially because many scenes in the film are almost direct adaptations of their corresponding scenes in the book. Part of my argument involves the notion that the book itself—its narration, its imagery, its description, the pacing of its plot—strikes me as being very cinematic. As such, it is important to note that some measure of that perception is indubitably resultant of having viewed the film prior to reading the novel.
That said, the text operates on a balance that privileges show over tell, giving the reader a walkthrough of the plot that is cinematic even in comparison to many other contemporary works in American literature. The syntax occupies what I may have simply dubbed a southern vernacular were it not for the contextual specificity I gleaned from the film, but with very little time at all, the book does establish (after strongly suggesting) that the story is a work of border fiction, a subgenre often attributed to multiple different genres including modernism and postmodernism due to their contemporariness.
The text both provides the requisite materials and establishes the necessary boundaries to create the reading, (i.e. the experience), and in so doing, “It creates for itself an implied reader and uses certain structures to predispose the actual reader, who brings his own unique set of experiences to the act of reading the text, to respond as the implied one” (Dobie 140). In other words, there is a type of reader for whom the work is intended, and that reader is familiar with the drug trafficking that occurs between the United States of America and the United Mexican States. Many North Americans are quite cognizant of the fact that the southern border of the United States is fraught with drug trafficking, drug wars, and even guerilla warfare; all of which sustains a drug economy for which neither country officially accounts. The relevance of the text’s cinematic read stems from the fact that the aforementioned materials it provides and boundaries it establishes come to fruition by way of this cinematic narration. The scenes move quickly, and the narration is thorough in its descriptions despite only describing select things. The story expects that the reader is one who can extrapolate with minimal prompt and only the bare essentials certain key concepts that trigger understandings of what is occurring. For example, when Llewelyn Moss happens upon what remains of a drug deal gone wrong, very little is said. Dialogue is sparse, and every observation Llewelyn makes is important for the reader to understand what is being seen.
McCarthy manipulates the reader in a variety of subtle ways, playing on the empirical knowledge he expects of the reader, which he knows will lend the reader to make certain assumptions that drive the plot themselves. When Llewelyn reaches the site of the botched drug deal, he finds holes in all the cars, several dead Mexicans, and two dead dogs. The surface details are important, and the reader is expected to recognize that a shootout occurred. Analyzing more closely, though, one Mexican is still alive, and this leads the reader to surmise prior to seeing any drugs that the conflict is fresh. The narration also never enters characters’ minds, so the reader is responsible for understanding what characters are thinking based on their words, actions, and behaviors only. Llewelyn finds the drugs and inquires about an “última hombre,” a survivor whom he knows must have taken the money. It is from the question and Llewelyn’s subsequent actions that the reader is to surmise that he intends to find the money, which marks a critically tragic decision on Llewelyn’s part.
The antagonist, Anton Chigurh, is an excellent character to observe for the analysis of how McCarthy manipulates the reader into understanding what he is trying to convey. Chigurh is a complex character with a code of ethics that one might say borders on insanity, and his sociopathic nature is much harder to communicate to the reader implicitly than explicitly. It would be easier for the writer to simply compose discursive paragraphs dedicated to the in-depth analysis of the character so that the reader can understand the character properly, but McCarthy elects only to show the character through exchanges with others and interactions with the world around him.
The implied reader is not just someone familiar with problematic, North American drug policies but also with the grim perspective that North American society is rife with sociopaths and generally senseless violence, making it no country for old men. Chigurh is first seen strangling a police officer to death after having been arrested and booked. He takes the police cruiser, pulls someone else over, kills him, and takes a new car. These are crimes that can be rationalized, but Chigurh is subsequently seen throughout several scenes in the book as being completely irrational, which challenges the idea of what constitutes rationality in the first place—a challenge literary modernism often makes.
One scene depicts a conversation between Chigurh and a gas station manager. Chigurh is hostile toward him in ways that do not advance any particular agenda, and he deliberately takes an argumentative response to everything the manager says. Finally, he tosses a coin and forces the manager to call heads or tails. He never explicitly threatens the man’s life, yet the reader is expected to understand that the man’s life is at stake. Though Chigurh does tell him that he stands to win everything and that he has been putting it up all his life without knowing it, it is worth considering that American culture may simply be so susceptible to the idea of losing everything on a coin toss that McCarthy could simply let these lines speak for themselves and allow the reader to draw the right conclusions from there. Capitalism, after all, engenders the attitude that privileges boldness and the ability to take risks because of its promises of the potential for upward mobility and the so-called pursuit of happiness, so it makes sense to an American that risks be taken, that every opportunity be seized, and that there is always an omnipresent possibility that one might lose everything as a result. In tandem with pop culture’s many depictions of coin tosses making very serious decisions (e.g. DC Comic’s villain, Two Face), it is likely that the implied reader is highly susceptible to this manipulation.
Later in the novel, Carson Wells tells Chigurh that he is crazy, and Chigurh asks for clarification, thinking that Carson means that the conversation is crazy. At the end of the novel when Chigurh prepares to kill Carla Jean, she refuses to call heads or tails for her coin toss, explaining that the coin is not the authority and that, rather, Chigurh is making the decisions, which she asserts on the basis that only a rational creature (i.e. a human-being, not a coin) can even attempt to exact fate. Chigurh responds, though, that he reached her the same way the coin did, a point that implies a status for self that is equivalent to that of an inanimate object. The reader is constantly given one opportunity after another to observe Chigurh as being the kind of criminal of which one cannot make heads or tails; all of which makes it easy for the reader to consider society as being unpredictably, senselessly dismal and savage.
A broader element that McCarthy uses to manipulate the reader is the separation of the story into pieces. The frame of the story is much different from what is considered conventional in American literature prior to the emergence of literary modernism. Three strands of the narration center on Sheriff Bell, Chigurh, and Llewelyn, respectively. Each can truly be argued to be a protagonist of sorts, even Chigurh. The fragmentation of the narration creates these pieces that are not independently coherent but interdependently form a cohesive work by commenting on one another. This is why the three characters follow a train of experiences in series. For instance, Llewelyn sees the crime scene first and makes a pivotal decision based on what he observes; thereafter, Chigurh sees the same scene and decides to pursue Llewelyn. Finally, Sheriff Bell also observes the scene. In parallel, the same can be said of Llewelyn’s couch in his trailer where each of them sits. When Bell sits there, Wendel asks him if he thinks Llewelyn has any idea what’s coming for him—alluding to his fate. Bell answers, “He ought to. He seen the same things I seen and it made a impression on me” (McCarthy 115). Several complex ideas coalesce in this statement, but one is that, on one hand, there is nothing new under the sun; however, people commonly say, “you learn something new every day.” The paradox is that one never sees fate coming for oneself despite knowing and even recognizing it for others as a universal truth—the fact that death befalls all.
Ultimately, McCarthy uses exceptional narrative techniques to manipulate the implied reader into understanding what occurs, but more deeply, he uses them to manipulate the reader into accepting a very dismal perception of reality. This perception is neither without merit nor without precedent as literary realism, a common attribute of modernism, often lends itself toward these notions; moreover, the unresolved ending is a modernistic means to bolster those same points.
Dobie, Ann B. Theory into Practice: An Introduction to Literary Criticism. 4th ed. Boston: Thomson Heinle, 2015. Print. McCarthy, Cormack. No Country for Old Men. New York: Vintage Books, 2006. Ebook.