The View From Here

The Counselor by Cormac McCarthy

The Counselor by Cormac McCarthy
Michael Bonner

The coverage in last weekend’s broadsheet arts pages of Cormac McCarthy’s new book was puzzling, to say the least: there wasn’t any. As you might expect, there were plenty of reviews of Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge, which was also released this week – The Times even ran with a preview/review of The Goldfish, Donna Tartt’s first novel in a decade, which isn’t published for another month. But, strangely, the publication of The Counselor by Cormac McCarthy passed by without comment.

I suspect that part of the reason might be that The Counselor is a published screenplay, rather than a novel. It has staggered publication dates – on sale in the UK this week, and October 15 in America. McCarthy’s publishers, Picador, have released it as a hardback. The film it’s based on isn’t released until November 15 here. I don’t want to speculate on whatever negotiations may have taken place between Fox, who’re releasing the film, or Picador, McCarthy’s publishers, regarding the specific release pattern for the book and film, but I must admit, I’m struggling to think of another writer whose screenplay has appeared in print ahead of the film’s release. Of course, the publication of screenplays used to be quite a thing in the late 90s/early 00s - Faber used to publish scripts by Tarantino, the Coens and Woody Allen, and (I think) Paul Thomas Anderson. But anyway, here we are with what is, effectively, a new work by Cormac McCarthy.

At this point I should probably say turn away now if you don’t want to know what happens in the story: you might well be saving yourself for Ridley Scott’s film in November. While I won’t give away any major plot points, I need to discuss some things in the story you might not want to find out. So, (some) spoilers ahead.

And there’s another thing. I’m not sure exactly how precisely Scott has followed McCarthy’s screenplay. It was interesting to watch a new clip of the film released earlier this week, featuring characters played by Cameron Diaz and Penelope Cruz – who appeared semi-naked, wrapped loosely in towels, lying by a swimming pool. As the scene appears in the book, they're both fully clothed, having coffee in a mall and the conversation includes a lengthy discourse about Catholic confession. I think it’s an important distinction to make. McCarthy’s book; Scott’s film. I’m here specifically to talk about McCarthy’s book.

Did I enjoy it? Yes, but with some reservations. I found myself appreciating it more as a creative exercise than the kind of immersive experience I’m used to with McCarthy’s writing. I suspect this comes from the form – the traditional rhythms and structures of his sentences, and how they function on a descriptive and also emotional level are largely absent, as you’d imagine from a screenplay, and instead McCarthy favours very exact, very visual passages, more like reportage than creative writing. These are actually pretty effective on page – and McCarthy’s ability to sustain this high level of very precise writing is especially impressive: “Two-lane blacktop road through the high desert. Night. A car passes and the lights recede down the long straight and fade out. A man walks out from the scrub cedars that line the road and stands in the middle of the road and lights a cigarette. He is carrying a roll of thin monel wire over one shoulder. He continues across the road to the fence. A tall metal pipe is mounted to one of the fenceposts and at the top – some twenty feet off the ground – is a floodlight. The man pushes a button on a small plastic sending unit and the light comes on, flooding the road and the man’s face. He turns it off and walks down the fence line a good hundred yards to the corner of the fence and here he drops the coil of wire to the ground and takes a flashlight from his back pocket and puts it in his teeth and takes a pair of leather gloves from his belt and puts them on.” The rest of this section, incidentally, runs for twice the length.

The dialogue itself, on the other hand, moves from the elliptical to the baroque. The story itself concerns an outwardly respectable lawyer, the Counselor, who gets involved in drug trafficking, a “one-time deal” involving 625 kilos of cocaine being transported from Mexico to Chicago in a septic tank: “If the whole deal were to go tits up in ditch the papers would put the street value at a hundred mil. We’re probably looking at twenty. Maybe a little more.” As you might imagine, it doesn’t end particularly well. The Counselor is a curiously passive character: much of the book involves his participation in conversations regarding greed, sex and death. It’s the latter two which, for the most part, McCarthy is interested in here. The book opens with a bed scene where the Counselor and his girlfriend, Laura, are talking dirty. It’s very intimate, very close-up. Later, Reiner – a contact of the Counselor – describes in forensic detail an incident where his girlfriend, Malkina, had sex with his car. There are detailed discussions about the particular type of assassination favoured by certain Mexican drug cartels. For the most part, these particular horrors happen off screen: of what we’ll broadly call ‘the speaking parts’ there are only three on-screen murders, one of which is particularly graphic beheading. As this is a screenplay, McCarthy explores his familiar ideas of violence and morality through dialogue, rather than description, which makes The Counselor a frequently uncomfortable, pretty unsettling read. What’s worse, I guess: seeing someone beheaded in a second on a film, or hearing the means and execution of a beheading discussed at length over a five-minute scene? And, remember, this isn’t Tarantino – there’s no jokes to lighten the humour.
“Do you know how many people were killed in Juarez last year?”
“No. A lot?”
“Yes. I think three thousand is a lot. These people are another species, Counselor. You might want to think about that as well. They will rip out your liver and eat it in front of your dog.”
There is an especially unpleasant subtext involving disappeared young girls that moves the story from – broadly – a crime thriller into something more transgressive. McCarthy’s writing has always been caught up with notions of moral degradation and cruelty – the obsessive detailing of the depravities carried out by Indian scalpers in Blood Meridian, for instance. But what unfolds here is especially appalling stuff. Another key McCarthy preoccupation lies in subverting codes and conventions – much as he re-evaluated the Western in Blood Meridian and the Border Trilogy, you could argue that The Counselor is basically a particularly brutal satire on crime movies.

Where does it fit, then, with McCarthy’s most writing? It’s interesting, perhaps, that his last publication was “a novel in dramatic form”, The Sunset Limited, from a 2006 play. Ignoring The Road, I’m reminded that the novel of No Country For Old Men read in part like a screenplay in the making – not just the storyline, but the descriptive precision of the writing had a script-like quality that he uses again here with The Counselor script.

Anyway, I’ve rattled on for longer than I intended, but a final thought: the role of women in The Counselor. McCarthy isn’t historically noted for his portrayal of woman, but here he gives us two good ones – Laura and Malkina. I think it would be remiss of me to go into too much detail about what happens to them, but they represent diametrical points of view: Laura, a Catholic, the most innocent character in the story; Malkina, a femme fatale of unusual tastes. “Forever can be pretty fucking short,” she observes.

The Counselor by Cormac McCarthy is published now by Picador; the film opens in the UK on November 15.

Follow me on Twitter @MichaelBonner.

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