All the pretty words

All the Pretty Horses

by Cormac McCarthy

McCarthy placed his hands on my shoulders and told me to take a long, deep breath. He calmed me, sat me down and unfolded this beautiful, slow story. I normally read fast, but All the Pretty Horses forced me to take my time. That’s mostly due to McCarthy’s long sentences and sporadic punctuation, but also because his story is one that demands a great deal of thought. The images McCarthy conjures up are impressionistic sketches. He relies on his reader’s imagination to bring them fully to life. And so this novel must be read at a slow pace.

Now let’s talk about the imagery itself. McCarthy knows that a picture paints a thousand words, but that a novelist can use only a handful to conjure a striking image in a reader’s mind. That’s his strategy in this book. He writes what I might call sketches – mere flashes of action or scene that only just constitute a story, but that the reader must visualise and consider fully if he or she is to have the exquisite experience on offer. In this way McCarthy comes close to that holy grail of literary novelists, the marriage of content and form. Brief glimpses of landscape and naturalistic punctuation are almost wedded to the scenes the author describes. It is a truly extraordinary experience to be able to feel the mesas and deserts McCarthy’s characters inhabit, and to sense his characters as if they were sitting beside you. Technology companies may be inventing evermore realistic virtual experiences for us to enjoy, but none will be able to achieve such an intellectual immersion as McCarthy has with this novel.

The book’s action is simple and, in many ways, classic or traditional. The themes are grand and by no means novel: a young man’s sense of adventure and freedom, friendship strengthened through shared experience, and, most touchingly, resistence to the decline of a lifestyle enjoyed by one’s forebears for generations. McCarthy presents these themes through characters that require very little history and yet at the same time are familiar and captivating.

All the Pretty Horses is a wonderful piece of modern literature and I can’t wait to read the next two novels in the same trilogy.

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