Saturday, September 4, 2010

The Sunset Limited

A Novel in Dramatic formA work of such terrible beauty that you will struggle to look away. It will knock the breathe from your lungs.

by Cormac McCarthy 

"This is a room in a tenement building in a black ghetto in New York city. There is a kitchen with a stove & a large refrigerator. A door to the outer hallway and presumably to a bedroom. The hallway door is fitted with a bizarre collection of locks & bars. There is a cheap Formica table in the room and two chrome & plastic chairs. There is a drawer in the table. On the table is a bible & a newspaper. A pair of glasses. A pad & pencil. A large black man is sitting in one chair(stage right) and in the other a middle aged white man"

The Sunset Limited starts with the the stage direction above & all we know are that the characters Black & White are there in this room. It's only through their dialogue that the story unfolds & we learn that White is a Professor & that  Black was an addict & has spent some time in the "Jailhouse" for murder. We also learn that Black somehow saved White from throwing himself under a train (The Sunset ltd). We do not know why they are in this room.

Through their conversation, we discover that whilst he was close to death in a prison hospital, Black believes he was visited by God & is now an evangelical Christian, which means little to White, who as an Atheist, has nothing but contempt for religion.

Through their continued dialogue Black, tries to understand White's reasoning behind his suicide attempt & to convince him that life is worth living. But White believes that all reason leads to the inevitable conclusion that death is the only solution & that everything else is just delusion through fear of death.

White constantly tries to leave the apartment, leaving Black to come up with ways to stop him (offering food, coffee etc.). They probe each others beliefs (or lack of), batting back & forth ideas to counter each others arguments, yet neither succeeding being to tied to their own ideology, whether it's Black with everything hanging on his faith & salvation or White with his rationalism & despair that humanity has reached it's nadir.

Through this dialectic, we follow both characters, as one and then the other argue their opposing views, with White's aim to escape the apartment to meet The Sunset ltd (his suicide) & Black increasingly desperate to find a way to stop him, ending with White losing his patience & he lets loose with a vehement denunciation  of Black's faith.

"I don't believe in God. Can you understand that? look around you man. Cant you see? The clamour  & din of those in torment has to be the sound most pleasing to his ear. I loathe these discussions. The argument of the village atheist whose single passion is to revile endlessly that which he denies the existence of in the first place. Your fellowship is a fellowship of pain  and nothing more...."

This seems to leave Black nonplussed & it becomes apparent that there could be more than White's soul at stake, but in the end White's argument wins out, forcing Black to unlock the door, so White can leave to makes his appointment with The Sunset Ltd. Black is left behind, lamenting the outcome.

"He collapse to his knees in the doorway, all but weeping.

Black -" I'll be there, "

He looks up

Black - " He didn't mean them words. You know he didn't. You know he didn't. I don't understand what you sent down there for. I don't understand it. If you wanted me to help him how come you didn't give me the words? you gave em to him. what about me?"

He kneels weeping rocking back & forth.

Black - "That's all right. That's all right. If you never speak again you know I'll keep your word. You know I will. You know I'm good for it."

THeir aim is no less than this. To discover the meaning of life.

The Sunset Limited is a beautifully lean yet muscular book, it's prose is precise & seems to work as an internal dialogue espousing both points of view, balancing with the skill of a tightrope walker both Black's & White's standpoints. Expressing both the optimism & despair of the human condition. This book is extremely thought provoking. It's also extremely dark and extremely funny.

The world premiere of the The Sunset Limited was performed on stage in May 2006 by the Steppenwolf Theatre Company of Chicago. The New York premiere was in October of the same year  and it’s currently being made into a film starring Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L Jackson.


Cormac McCarthy (wikipedia)

The Sunset Ltd (wikipedia)

Cormac McCarthy (official web page)


Christopher said...

Cormac McCarthy is brilliant, and may well be the greatest modern American author. Just my opinion, mind you. I haven't read this play yet, but intend to. I own and have read (and reread, and reread) all of his novels. Like I said, he is bloody brilliant!

I see that we definitely do share a deep and abiding love for poetry. I can see that it'll be fun and enlightening to spend some time trawling about your postings here. Stop by and visit mine sometime too. Cheers! Chris

@parridhlantern said...

Hi Chris, I'm guessing we're talking living authors here, as David Foster Wallace would be a contender, although amongst the living you've still got Pynchon, but from what I've read. McCarthy is definitely high up on the list. Apart from that it's great to meet a fellow poetry obsessive & I will certainly check out your place. As to this play read it definitely, it doesn't even have to be for some completest agenda, as it's a fantastic story in it's own right & either has been or is going to become a film.

Christopher said...

I'm really not much of a fan of DFW or Pynchon. Just not my cuppa tea. That's the beauty of meeting and discussing books and literature, we can all have profoundly differing points of view, and still very much enjoy our reading. Have a great weekend! Cheers! Chris