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Time Stand Still

August 23, 2012

He crossed the cabin and stretched himself out on the cot.  Closing his eyes.  A faint breeze from the window stirring his hair.  The shantyboat trembled slightly in the river and one of the steel drums beneath the floor expanded with a melancholy bong.  Eyes resting.  This hushed and mazy Sunday.  The heart beneath the breastbone pumpingThe blood on its appointed rounds.  Life in small places, narrow crannies.  In the leaves, the toad’s pulse.  The delicate cellular warfare in a waterdrop.

In this passage from Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree, the title character rests on his houseboat and his mind, in a moment, will drift back toward the day of his grandfather’s death.  Two things are happening in the meantime.  The first is that Suttree’s perception of time appears to slow down.  The second: his awareness of nature and the cycle of life expands within these lengthened instants.

It would be a simple to matter to merely state that Time seemed to slow down and get on with it. In fact, this is what a lot of authors do.  But McCarthy wants to show us what that state of mind looks and feels like without directly stating what is happening.  And he does this in two ways. The first  is through language, specifically through verbs and sentence fragments.  Note all of the passive verbs and action-less fragments highlighted in bold.  What these do is occlude the action and stack details one atop another so that we have the impression of many things happening simultaneously.

The second is the direction in which the details in the closing lines lead us: from the heart pumping within Suttree himself, to the life (the vermin and insects) that resides hidden on the houseboat, and finally out into the trees and  the water droplets collected on the leaves.  Inward to outward.  From there, McCarthy is freed to follow these carefully chosen details all the way back around to Suttree’s flashback.

As writers, we receive a lot of advice telling us to avoid things like passive verbs, gerunds, and fragments. But as McCarthy shows us here, the great writers employ every tool in the box to create specific effects.


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One Comment
  1. Excellent analysis. Oh, and I love fragments.

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