When I wake up and drink my tea, I lie in bed and stare out my window. There is a tree outside of my bedroom window that has branches that resemble, to me, a man running forward, with his arms outstretched. I project this onto the tree—this vision—and soon enough I also see other branches as other people running, arms outstretched. The question is: are they running away or toward something? This question seems very important to me, and yet, it’s a tree with branches. And so I can make up whatever meaning I want. Really.
When reading fiction, many people argue the reader can take away whatever meaning he gleans from the text. That the author’s intention doesn’t matter. I find this take on reading fiction fits with certain writers, and here I will argue (in another essay) that Brian Evenson is one of them. And in general, I agree that this can be an interesting way to engage in literature, but I also feel that in many cases, it causes for the inversion of meaning. The inversion of meaning is not the same as “misunderstanding”. It is the turning upside down of a meaning. It is beyond missing the point, it is, for the writers such as Cormac McCarthy and Flannery O’Connor, a sort of blasphemy.
McCarthy is a man who has much more in common with Sarah Palin than he does with any of the young men who worship his work. Young men like violence and they love the violence in Cormac McCarthy’s work as well. I have met so many twenty-something year old literate men who talk reverently about McCarthy’s violence in his work. Words and phrases that are used are like “violence is everywhere” or it is “meaningless” or “inevitable” and so on. These young men, often without any real experience of violence (we’re not talking about soldiers here, we’re talking about students) find it engaging or “interesting”. (Other people do as well, but I’m not discussing them here.) They like to watch it, read about it, and discuss its meaning or lack thereof (see Note 1, below).
Here are some of the ideas out there regarding the character Anton Chigurh, from No Country for Old Men: He is called “evil”, “the epitome of evil”, he’s considered to suffer from “bloodlust”. None of these things are true and in fact, they are the actual meaning of his violence inverted. Anton is an angel, sent by God to destroy all of those who suffer from greed. He is punishing normal, human sinners, which is something the Catholic God does. Anton (after Saint Anthony, renowned for his work against the Devil) kills everyone who in any way took money, drug money, which did not belong to them. He is the opposite of evil. He is divine power. He is fighting the Devil in the shape of drugs and drug money. Bell basically sums up the plot and moral center of this novel during one of his first person italicized parts when saying, “I think if you were Satan and you were settin around tryin to think up somethin that would just bring the human race to its knees what you would probably come up with is narcotics.” One of the main things God does in the Catholic religion is fight against the Devil, and that fight takes place in our very lives. We are but a battleground for forces much larger than us, and I think that is the best way to read No Country For Old Men. McCarthy’s characters exist to demonstrate his vision of how this universe works.
Bell, one of the only characters who doesn’t die, and who has no stake in the drugs or the drug money, explains his point of view by saying, “Maybe he did. (in regard to the Devil bringing narcotics to humanity.) I told that to somebody at breakfast the other mornin and they asked me if I believed in Satan. I said Well that aint the point.” And the reason why it isn’t the point is because it doesn’t matter what we believe. It matters what is. This is reiterated over and over again by Anton, who speaks for God while he works hard to fight the results of the placement of the Devil’s instruments, in this case, narcotics.
Here is Anton talking to the man in the gas station, who just flipped a coin that saved his life: “Anything can be an instrument…Small things. Things you wouldn’t even notice. They pass from hand to hand. People don’t pay attention. And then one day there’s an accounting. And after that nothing is the same.”
Anton is there for the accounting. And nothing else is about to be the same. When he leaves the gas station, the nervous attendant “laid the coin on the counter and looked at it. He put both hands on the counter and just stood leaning there with his head bowed.” Yes, his head was bowed, in reverence.
There is a part later in the book, where Wells says of Anton, “you could say he has a sort of morals”. Now, this has been taken to be “chilling” or even worse, “irony”. But, without a doubt, Anton has morals based on the code of Catholic law. It is not funny. It is the truth.
Of course all of this started with Llewellyn’s choice. He took the money and “His whole life was sitting there in front of him. Day after day from dawn till dark until he was dead. All of it cooked down into forty pounds of paper in a satchel.” Greed is no joke. And drugs and money are instruments, without a doubt. And then comes the accounting.
Here’s some more talk about Chigurh, when Wells first gets hired.
“‘The invincible Mr. Chigurh.’
‘Why do you say that?’
‘Somewhere in the world is the most invincible man. Just as somewhere is the most vulnerable.’”
God is invincible. Anton Chigurh is that his servant. I’d say as an angel, he is hard to beat.
With a seemingly creepy touch, McCarthy employs a strange, animal method with which Anton kills the innocent victims during his all important fight against the devil. Anton guns down every person directly involved with the drugs and the money, but for those few he must sacrifice who are not culpable, he kills them with a livestock stun gun. This symbolizes how we are the “sheep” and he is the Shepherd. It is not “random” or sick or anything but another sign that Anton is doing God’s work and that sacrifices must be made in order to obtain His goal.
One of the final scenes, where Anton kills Carla Jean, wonderfully combines McCarthy’s use of chaos theory to bolster his Catholic vision. But prior to Anton’s great speech on destiny, he explains himself as aligned with God’s word to Carla Jean:
“You give your word to my husband to kill me?
He’s dead. My husband is dead.
Yes. But I’m not.
You dont owe nothin to dead people.
Chigurh cocked his head slightly. No? he said.
How can you?
How can you not?
Yes. But my word is not dead. Nothing can change that.
You can change it.
I dont think so. Even a non-believer might find it useful to model himself after God. Very useful, in fact.”
The key points are that his word is not dead—God’s word lives. And, in saying that “even a non-believer might find it useful to model himself after God” Anton is giving Carla Jean advice. Advice too late, but advice nonetheless.
And so lastly, we get Anton’s speech, his explanation how he is just acting out her destiny, God’s destiny for her, that her actions, her free will, put into motion:
Every moment in your life is a turning and every one a choosing. Somewhere you made a choice. All followed this. The accounting is scrupulous. The shape is drawn. No line can be erased. I had no belief in your ability to move a coin to your bidding. How could you? A person’s path through the world seldom changes and even more seldom will it change abruptly. And the shape of your path was visible from the beginning.
I find it hard to miss that her path was visible to Him, to God, and to Anton, God’s servant.
But it is the inversion of meaning by McCarthy’s followers is what gets me. They talk of a “godless universe” when actually, McCarthy puts the hand of God everywhere. No one can escape his vengeance: He’s God. To see God everywhere, or to deny His existence is more than misunderstanding, not that I believe McCarthy cares. McCarthy, like Flannery O’Connor, is a writer so steeped in Catholicism as something that just IS, he doesn’t care at all about belief. So why would he care about what his readers think? He knows and writes about his version of a Divine truth.
And no one gets that. Perhaps this is McCarthy’s cross to bear: we all have one. He has a following, a chorus of people who sing his work, who themselves write violent material where the violence is “everywhere” and without “meaning”. His influence is huge, and instead of seeing violence as precise and as often the work of God as it is of the Devil, his followers see it exactly in the opposite way. They invert the very most important thing for McCarthy: his heart and belief in the world has been turned inside out by the very people who make his name in this world, who make him famous and rich, and some may see this as ironic, while others can see it as divine punishment.
Note 1: There was a wonderful Granta eons ago that had an excellent essay discussing violence and young men and lack of work in a very particular South Asian country but I can’t remember exactly where. But the two things—young men (groups being a part of the argument), idleness—always beget violence, was more or less the author’s argument. (Similar arguments can be made for certain African nations with their child soldiers.)
Paula Bomer is the author of Baby and Other Stories (Word Riot Press), which O Magazine put as number one in their “Titles to Pick Up Now” and called it a “brilliant, brutally raw debut collection.” Her fiction has appeared in dozens of journals and anthologies, including Open City, Fiction, The Mississippi Review, Nerve and elsewhere. She grew up in South Bend, Indiana and now lives in New York, where she graduated from City College New York with an MA in English and Writing.
John Madera is the author of Nervosities (Anti-Oedipus Press, 2024). His other fiction is published in Conjunctions, Salt Hill, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and many other journals. His nonfiction is published in American Book Review, Bookforum, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Rain Taxi: Review of Books, The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, and many other venues. Recipient of an M.F.A. in Literary Arts from Brown University, New York State Council on the Arts awardee John Madera lives in New York City, Rhizomatic and manages and edits Big Other.