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Chute and Crash: This is your War and Peace, on drugs

I’m almost exactly a week behind schedule:  we’d said we’d finish the book by tomorrow, but I finished last week’s material yesterday.  Oh, well.  It’s become clear what the four parts of the novel represent, and also clear that McCarthy sets out specific limits to his commitment to a realistic depiction of the life of a young man during the Great War.  Due to those limits, I’m finding it easier to respect and admire this novel rather than be really moved by it.

The novel turns out to work very hard to create connections between Serge’s childhood and his existential situation, and the plot of his years in war and peace.  Some of these connections are the brilliant similes and metaphors that Josh mentioned way back:  I kept seeing echoes of the descriptions of the women and the moths in the Hatching Room in later passages, for instance.  Most of these are motivated by Serge’s dreamy free associations between new experience and past ones:  “Sliding his mind’s gaze between the old images [of the war reconnaissance photographs] and these updated ones, Serge has a flickering apprehension that the whole landscape’s moving, as though animated./  ‘Like a cat’s leg,’ he says.” (198)  This is of course an echo of the taxidermified and galvanized cat from p.77.  We might call this kind of repetition or echo Bergsonian/Proustian realism; when you add to it Freud, who felt that we deliberately yet unconsciously repeated patterns in our emotional lives, trying to find a girl just like the girl that married dear old dad, there’s plenty of room for an expanded psychological realism to accommodate rhythm and pattern.

C. goes beyond this, and extends repetition and coincidence into the plot.  The most obvious example of this is underlined by the section heading:  Serge is saved from death during the war by a silk parachute, and silk is a fabric which his family has produced.  That kind of recombination of elements has no psychological basis; it’s a sort of artifice that gives the novel a sort of lyric unity, that’s also abstract:  the author came up with a ruling metaphor, and tailored Serge’s biography and his war years to develop the metaphor.  I guess that’s why we would want to call this an experimental or avant-garde epic/novel:  in this case, the theme and variations take precedence over verisimilitude, and possibly over our investment in the character of Serge.  Silly Pat, mooning over the premature death of Sophie: she wasn’t that kind of fictional character.  So it is easier to admire and respect this book than to be really moved by it, so far.

Or maybe the distance that I take from the main character is not because of the novel’s conception, but the natural response to a character who is himself distant from his own life.  He’s as much his mother’s son as his father’s son (he might not be Carrefax Sr.’s biological son at all):  she is dreamy, an opium addict, silent and uncommunicative. More and more over the course of the novel, so is he.  The novel is quite plausible at describing how an eccentric son of an eccentric country squire might dream his way through the most devastating war of England’s history (and actually more devastating to the upper classes than later wars were, too).  Perhaps you all were not surprised that this had to do with drugs.  I was, though.  I can’t say that I’ve read all of the fiction, especially not the recent fiction, describing World War I (I’ve never actually read much about the aerial war during World War, unless you count Snoopy versus the Red Baron).  But I am pretty sure that the airplane observer and gunner as drug addict is a new –possibly inverosimilitudinous, possibly not– character in these stories.  It felt anachronistic to me.  Much as everyone correctly treats M*A*S*H as not being about the Korean War but the Vietnam War, I felt that McCarthy was using the Great War to also talk about the combat experience of more recent Western warriors –which, as it turns out, I haven’t really read, either, so the effect for me was limited.  (Meanwhile, the description of the observational technology during the war, especially the underground station that Serge visits on pp.191-5 (“You’re filming sound?”), didn’t seem to me so much anachronistic as premonitory:  the author is doing all he can to create a precursor to what’s really important about the long-distance wars of the 21st century.)

Serge, then, is as much a function for the novelist as a full character, for a number of reasons.  As predicted in classical theory about the historical novel (Lukàcs when he settles down into being a Marxist, not the unintelligible Hegelianism of his Theory of the Novel), the main character ought to be a minor character who observes events and participates in them, rather than being the hero of them.  Serge watches; his job is to observe –ever since he was the witness owl in that pageant about the rape of Persephone–.  Sure, Serge kills Germans, but from so far away that he can even reinterpret his actions: “He can’t explain it.  What he means is that he doesn’t think of what he’s doing as a deadening.  Quite the opposite: it’s a quickening, a bringing to life.  […] caus[ing] the ground’s scars and wrinkles to shift and contort from one photo to another: it’s an awakening, a setting into motion.  In these moments Serge is like the Eiffel Tower, a pylon animating the whole world, calling the zero hour of a new age of metal and explosive, geometry and connectedness” (200). Serge is like an Italian Futurist or a Derridian post-humanist, without the anger at the bourgeoisie.  But McCarthy is certainly not the kind of Lukacsian who wants his observer to be a representative or socially responsible witness: his war experiences are muffled by drugs, but also by a dark passive suicidal side, that allows him to be impassive about the deaths of all his fellow fliers, but especially allows him to look forward, sort of, to his own death, postponed by the parachute that rescues him and then once again from the firing squad by the Armistice (I didn’t recognize the image of the boat pulling off the jetty that comes to his mind at that point (238); do any of you?).  His various sexual relations tend to be dark without being overtly suicidal:  the sick girl at the spa, but even more the lower-class masseuse, and then the unhappy prostitute with the German poetry book, and most obviously the drug addict chorus girl who goes to the spiritists to look for her dead brother:   I did find that section to be extremely realistic, and had the second-order disappointment that, by this point in the novel, I was no longer expecting such realism and was hoping for some actual messages from Sophia.  Recalibrating my expectations, I thought this whole section was terrific –always, however, with the caveat that these are not the scenes that I associate with England 1918-20, which is portrayed in Woolf’s and others’ fiction (even pop fiction like very early Agatha Christie) not as the decadent Jazz Age we see here (England had that too, but four or five years later), but rather as a shell-shocked nation, really unable to savor its victory as it absorbs the reality of its massive loss of blood and treasure.  Again, I read McCarthy’s decision to not give us that shell-shocked 1919 as his attempt to describe the feelings of the soldiers of Bush and Blair’s Middle Eastern wars of the ’00s returning to the economic bubble of financial-gogo London.  On that level it works for me.

I love the last sentence of what we read for this –err, I mean, last– week:  I’m ready to go to Egypt.  If this novel is partly going to trace the technological but also existentially exhausted life of an Englishman in the age of Bush and Blair’s Middle East, Egypt seems like a great place for Serge to go next. (It’s also more or less where Rimbaud goes when he renounces poetry; it’s also the scenery of Lawrence of Arabia, and in general a great site for thinking about colonialism and anti-colonialism.)  When I started this novel I presumed for some reason that the novel would end in the 21st century with a superannuated Serge; now it’s pretty clear to us all, I should think, that it’ll be quite a surprise if he lives to be 30.  Suicidal drug addicts tend to live only about that long.

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July 23, 2015 - Posted by | C

3 Comments

  1. I’ve finished the book now. Chute is my favorite part of it by far, the place where I think all the ideas and images he’s working with come together the best. I love the painter who tells him you can’t paint the landscape from above because you can’t tell “which is cloud? which is land?” (184). I love the translation from landscape to Morse code map coordinates, to Popham strips, to artillery (177-178), culminating in this: “it seems to Serge that the shell and the plane are interchangeable — and that the shell and he are interchangeable, just like the radians and secants on his clock-code chart, the smoke-and-vapour-marked points and trajectories around him, the angles of his holding pattern’s quadrant and the Popham strips’ abrupt cloth lines. Within the reaches of this space become pure geometry, the shell’s a pencil drawing a perfect arc across a sheet of paper; he’s the clamp that holds the pencil to the compass, moving as one with the lead; he is the lead, smearing across the paper’s surface to become geometry himself…”

    And this, which seems like a grotesque echo of the deaf children making sound in the beginning of the book and the relay stations for radio that will become important later: “The sound’s loud here. The men’s deformed mouths seem to be either transmitting it or, if not, then at least shaping it, their twisted surfaces and turned-out membranes forming receptacles in which its frequencies and timbres are unravelled, recombined, then sent back out into the air both transformed and augmented, relayed onwards.” (222)

    I also noted the thing about filming sound and about bringing the future into existence…

    One additional thing to pick up and trace is the repetition of carbon (C) — in graphite, in their word for pilots that burn up (carbonise) — “All his memories, and everything he ever thought about or did, reduced to battery chemicals.” (162) C is also the symbol for when you can buy cocaine (264)

    After the war, “Versoie seems smaller, and the world seems smaller, seems like a model of the world.” (241)

    Then later (in keeping with your theme of paranoia), addict Serge “starts seeing all of London’s surfaces and happenings as potentially encrypted” and picks up “tell-tale signals” of fellow addicts all over town. (264) There’s also great paranoia among the spies on 330-331 and 336-337.

    Comment by Joshua Malbin | July 24, 2015

  2. Pat: great insight about the metaphor creating plot, and how the silken chute does that, wow that is just incredible.

    Comment by adkriefall | July 28, 2015

  3. Josh: thanks for citing that amazing passage about “he and the shell are interchangeable”. Listening to it as an audiobook, one cannot catch such rich sections well, they go by too fast. I think you are right that we learn a lot about Serge from this strange reflection

    Comment by adkriefall | July 28, 2015


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