• Britta Eastburg Friesen

All the Long Sentences: The Compassion of Cormac McCarthy

In my Book Talk posts, I discuss a work of literature (old or new) through the lens of particular style choices.

Reading Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses has led me to ask a question I might not otherwise have considered: Is it possible for syntax to be compassionate? Can the mere structure of a sentence influence the empathy of readers? Though McCarthy’s writing has other characteristics which lead me to believe he has compassion for his characters, I think his long, flowing sentences and minimal punctuation also lend themselves to a more empathic and epic reading.

McCarthy’s prose is marked by a scarcity of commas, apostrophes, and quotation marks and an abundances of clauses connected by the conjunction and. This makes for a very fluid syntax. Besides periods, there is little to signal a pause for the reader, so the eye moves quickly through each sentence and across each line: “He lay listening to the horse crop the grass at his stakerope and he listened to the wind in the emptiness and watched stars trace the arc of the hemisphere and die in the darkness at the edge of the world and as he lay there the agony in his heart was like a stake.”

Long, strung-together sentences like this one compound details and condense time. One gets the feeling that everything is happening all at once or that individual moments are blurring together into one powerful image or emotion. That is also the case in this epic of a sentence:

They rode up into the mountains trailing three horses apiece in their string with packhorses to haul the grub and cooktent and they hunted wild horses in the upland forests in the pine and madroño and in the arroyos where they’d gone to hide and they drove them pounding over the high mesas and penned them in the stone ravine fitted ten ears earlier with the fence and gate and there the horses milled and squealed and clambered at the rock slopes and turned upon one another biting and kicking while John Grady walked among them in the sweat and dust and bedlam with his rope as if they were no more than some evil dream of a horse.

This long sentence does not contain a single comma, though there are thirteen ands. All these details and events are able to build on each other exponentially because they are grouped within a single sentence, linked by time but also literally by conjunctions. This means that by the time we reach the end of the sentence (“John Grady walked among them in the sweat and the dust and bedlam with his rope as if they were no more than some evil dream of a horse”) the line carries far more gravitas than it would if it stood on its own. It reads like part of a myth or a chapter of a long epic.

I think it is this epic quality that positions the characters empathetically. During these long sentences, it is difficult not to see the characters as connected to a grander narrative that encompasses vast space and time. It is as if the syntax and the punctuation are saying, yes, come in, enter the story which is already flowing and which will continue flowing when you leave it.