E=RxA/LB: A Literary Theory of Relativity

on Thursday, January 13, 2011
Einstein, as the people of Tasmania have always attested, was right. Everything is relative. I thought I'd follow my incredible first book of the year up with another highly-lauded work, Cormac McCarthy's Border Trilogy. I absolutely love McCarthy. Nobody can write a villain like he can. He doesn't pander to trends. Every word he writes is a big "fuck you" to the literati. And he is the only author that can get me interested in reading Westerns (previously, my experience in the Wild West was limited to a computer game called The Wild Bunch that I played incessantly as a kid in the mid-1980's with my late, great friend David Horowitz). A couple of years ago, another friend, Ariel (who also recommended The Brothers Ashkenazi) bought me The Border Trilogy for my birthday. It still contains the best inscription ever: "I couldn't find you Brokeback Mountain so this was the next best thing."

Since then, the book has sat languishing on my bookshelf waiting for me to build up the courage to tackle its 1000 pages of rolling plains and tobacco-chewing men on horses. Ariel kept assuring me it was a classic. That I'd love it. Convinced that after Ashkenazi he could do no wrong I decided I'd keep going with his suggestions. Hitting that imposing brick would also serve a few other purposes. Firstly, I 'aspired' at New Year to read a book cycle in its entirety and figured this would be about as good a series as I was likely to find. Secondly, I've read everything else McCarthy has written and don't think I can wait for the three books he is supposedly working on at the moment. And finally, it is considered an American classic so counts towards another of my New Year's aspirations.

So, with gleeful anticipation, I jumped in and, five days later, had ripped through all three like, well, a rider on a storm. I liked them all, each more than the next. In true McCarthy style they were bleak and brutal, but also had a peculiar country warmth that he rarely lets into his other books (probably the polar opposite to Blood Meridian). All The Pretty Horses was a great, classic cowboy story that lulled me into a false sense of comfort before shocking me with that jail sequence. The Crossing was the coldest of the three, the most conventionally McCarthy (and I mean that in a good way). Cities Of The Plain was, for me, the most enjoyable even though I'm not quite certain how Billy and John ended up meeting, nor can I work out why the simplest narrative with lashing of schmultz won me over so comprehensively. And so props where they are due, well done to Ariel for another great recommendation.

But, and this is a big but (I cannot lie), I didn't love The Border Trilogy as much as I had hoped. It is clearly great but I just didn't have that visceral, drooling adulation for it like I did for The Brothers Ashkenazi. Which leads me to believe that it is a bad idea to read a supposedly great book straight after you have read something you truly loved. It simply cannot stack up. Nor will you give it its full dues. Our literary compass is re-calibrated with each book we read. Some books we love might simply be our reaction to a good book drought, while others we found disappointing might only have been so in the context of our heightened lit-pulse. I don't know, I've never been good with maths or physics, but I get the feeling relativity really does play a big part in what we think of the books we read. We will always compare that which we hold in our hands with everything that came before, whether it be our all time favourites or the one that came immediately before. Hence my formula, E=RxA/LBR (Enjoyment = Reputation x Actuality / Last Book Read). Which kind of explains why I liked Cities Of The Plain the most when, in theory, I ought to have liked it least. It basically was the furthest removed from The Brothers Askenazi. Time and space y'all. Time and space. And so I put The Border Trilogy out to pasture, a noble steed that served me well but didn't quite reach the lofty heights the stud farm promised (and yes, I've now got all the awful Western puns out of my system)

As for me, I'm off to relive my glory days on vast plains of the American west. I just found an emulator for the ZX Spectrum and yep, it has The Wild Bunch. Check it out at www.zxspectrum.net and scroll down to 1984. Be seein' ya'll there.


Anonymous said...

True you almost wonder how it would have played out if you had of read them the other way round

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