Tuesday, 11 January 2011

The Sunset Limited [2006] by Cormac McCarthy

Released in the same year as The Road, an immediate 21st century masterpiece, it's no wonder that The Sunset Limited slipped by unnoticed. Lazily compared to Beckett on the sleeve (not every dramatic conversation about death has to be "redolent of Beckett") the play concerns a conversation between 'Black' and 'White'; the former an evangelical ex-con and ex-addict, the latter a cynical, suicidal professor. You quickly learn that Black saved White from leaping in front of a train earlier on and has brought him back to his flat in an attempt at persuading him that life is worth living. Failure means that White takes a walk back to the station to face the oncoming rush of The Sunset Limited.

As befits a work described as a "novel in dramatic form" the play doesn't contain much in the shape of actual drama. Instead McCarthy presents an open, often one-sided, conversation that explores the dichotomy inherent in McCarthy's work. White an unflinching, and world weary nihilist, believes he has seen everything that humanity is capable of and is appalled; Black holds an unswerving faith in God and redemption, his belief in God is mystical and focused on perceptions of right and wrong. Black tries to instill his passion in White, realising that without this White will succumb to suicide.

McCarthy manages to keep this doom-laden conceit compelling enough, with Black's humanism and folksy charm just about keeping the narrative from spilling over into a mordant abyss. Yet, as with most of McCarthy's work, the conceptualising of death is often beautiful in its starkness. There are moments of nihilism that are shocking in their logic. White's closing statements, delivered after hearing all the evidence Black can muster, comes as a complete rebuttal of religion and brotherhood:

"I loathe these discussions. The argument of the village atheist whose single passion is to revile endlessly that which he denies the existence of in the first place. Your fellowship is a fellowship of pain and nothing more. And if that pain were actually collective instead of simply reiterative then the sheer weight of it would drag the world from the walls of the universe and send it crashing and burning through whatever night it might be capable of engendering until it was not even ash. And justice? Brotherhood? Eternal life? Good god, man. Show me religion that prepares one for death. For nothingness. There's a church I might enter."

The Road had a relatively simple narrative, one that allowed McCarthy to focus more on the father-son relationship at the novels heart, which in turn allowed him to discuss themes of death, despair, renewal and hope. The Sunset Limited follows this pattern and in its reductive plot and setting allows many ideas and emotions to come to the fore without distraction. McCarthy's next novel is reported to concern a young man's coming to terms with his sister's suicide, another simple yet rich scenario. It will be interesting to see how much further McCarthy can refine his beautiful and affecting style.

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