Friday, March 14, 2008

The Sunset Limited

On a student recommendation, I read Cormac McCarthy’s play The Sunset Limited a week or two ago. It’s a single act (McCarthy calls it a novel in dramatic form), a single setting – a room in a New York City tenement – and only two characters populate that setting: White and Black.

A fast read, fast enough so that you can go back and read it again immediately after finishing it, and well worth reading. White and Black carry on what is, in essence, a Platonic dialogue about faith.

Through the first half, I found myself entirely an observer, not particularly taken by anything either character said. Same old same old, really, I felt, when it comes to this sort of conversation. But, midway through Black’s “jailhouse story” (notwithstanding that the entire dialogue is, in essence, a jailhouse story, the door to the tenement room being covered in locks and chains) of conversion, White describes the tale as “the story of how a fellow prisoner became a crippled one-eyed halfwit so that you could find God.”

“Whoa,” says Black.

Whoa, said I. I was no longer an observer. What White said was exactly what I would have said, and exactly what I have said, about such stories. This is what has, for so long, fundamentally offended me about assertions like, "All things happen for a reason," or "God must be trying to teach me something," or "God sure showed me what I needed to know, now that I look back on it." And McCarthy saw it and gave it to White.

The second half, then, took off. I certainly did not become White, nor did I identify entirely with what he said throughout the rest of the play, but I found myself paying much, much closer attention. And that’s a great experience, when literature, when art, when a film, when a piece of music, when a landscape, when a moment, can grab a relatively passive you, shake you, wake you up, and push you, even for a limited time, into wakefulness.

Now, would I teach it? Probably not, just given that I don’t want – at least, not yet – my entire English class to be built around McCarthy. And since we already read The Road, and most of my students read No Country for Old Men, and some read All the Pretty Horses, I think I’ll leave it at that.

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