The Sunset Limited by Cormac McCarthy

I read Cormac McCarthy’s highly praised novel The Road last year, but I wasn’t at all convinced of McCarthy’s exceptional talent. However, I continued to read with interest the blog entries about his work, and I was intrigued by the fact that he manages to evoke highly different emotional responses in his readers, so I was planning to read at least one of his other books to be able to form a more informed opinion of him. As one of my friends kindly lent me his copy of The Sunset Limited, it wasn’t difficult to decide that this would be my next McCarthy read. The Sunset Limited also seemed a good choice as a forty-page play (or, according to the author, a novel in dramatic form) only takes about an hour to read, and if the book is good, I will find it out in forty pages, and if it’s not that good, then at least it doesn’t take up much of my time.

Before the onset of the play, one of the two characters, White, a well-educated, cynical and disillusioned university professor is planning to commit suicide by jumping in front of the train called Sunset Limited, but the other character, Black, the religious ex-convict with a chaotic life-style saves his life. After the incident, Black more or less forcefully takes White home, and engages him in a soul-searching conversation about the futility of his attempted suicide and the beauty of life. In their long talk, Black tries to understand White’s motivations and his situation in life, but above all, he wants the extremely irreligious White to discover the wonderful and benign force of God. For some readers, the outcome of their conversation may be easy to predict, and indeed, the outcome is not that original, but still, the play is quite a shocking and harrowing read.

The main strength of The Sunset Limited is its language. There is hardly any action in the play, and the background isn’t described in detail, either – as opposed to The Road, here there is no such thing as an endless journey through America, and there are no exaggerated descriptions of the end of the world either. Here we only have the astonishingly precise and expressive words, each with its multiple layers of meaning, and it’s enough to read a few lines of McCarthy’s wonderful dialogs to get to know the personality, social position, world-view, way of thinking, education level and humor of both his characters.

While reading The Road, I also loved McCarthy’s language usage the most (or rather, the beautiful language was the only feature I liked about that novel), so it’s no wonder that such a play as The Sunset Limited, with its focus on language and its complete lack of pathos made a strong impression on me.

The secret of its effect (apart from the language of course) may be that The Sunset Limited is a simple and forceful play, without any crap whatsoever, since McCarthy bases his work on only a few (sometimes a bit overused) oppositions. For instance, his characters come from two very different social backgrounds, and in normal circumstances they wouldn’t meet at all, but since they do meet, it’s inevitable that they each have an effect on the other and change each other’s life. Apart from the basic social differences, however, there are several other oppositions in the play: cynicism and naivity, belief in God and atheism, disillusionment and optimism, sophistication and simplicity are all contrasted in the conversation of Black and White, and for quite a long time, it’s not easy to guess which side will win in the argument.

By the way, The Sunset Limited reminds me of my all-time favorite play, Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story in several respects: both plays feature two male characters who have nothing in common; both plays contrast radically different ways of life and world-views; and both have a devastating outcome. Perhaps this similarity, which was obvious for me from the very first page, might have been one of the reasons why I read The Sunset Limited with great interest. But after I finished reading, I thought that it didn’t matter if the similarity existed or it was only me who saw it, as The Sunset Limited is in and by itself a strong and unsettling work of art. And now I definitely want to read more books by Cormac McCarthy.