Here We Go Again
So I might have went a bit crazy and ordered a whole bundle of lit-crit texts off Amazon and eBay, reasoning that since I've mostly been coming to work like Todorov's or Clute's as regards (strange) narrative through summary essays, second-hand overviews and other writer's responses, rather than the first-hand source texts where the ideas are laid out in detail, I may well be talking out of my arse at times as regards what they're actually proposing. This is, of course, my general method of inquiry. Like, at uni, in English Lit or Philosophy, I could never understand those students who, faced with an essay on Yeats or Sartre, read all the Cliff Notes and critical works, all the summary overviews and in-depth articles, so as to understand exactly what all the academic experts and critical authorities understood to be the scholarly consensus as to what precisely this or that text actually meant, what "The Second Coming" was about, or what existentialism essentially (oxymoron intended) was. Fuck that shit. Just read the damn poem and think about it. And if you think that even Sartre himself can give you a definition of existentialism, dude, that's bad faith and it just proves you don't fricking get it. Point is, philosophy and critique are active, not reactive; tradition is for the theologians.
This attitude of blithe disregard for authority could be construed as cocky and lazy. I prefer to think of it as... free-spirited, shall we say.
Anyhoo, usually I try to make this clear with weasel phrases -- "it seems that", "it reads as if", blah blah blah -- because I'm not here to tell you what I think we all think that someone else thinks, dig? That's what Wikipedia's for. Nah, bollocks to that; you should take it as read that I claim no great authority and may well be kicking off from an entirely glib reading, that my take may be somewhat idiosyncratic, to say the least. But those weasel phrases get tiresome after a while, and people do tend to gloss over them; and, hey, I'm always interested in finding more gnarly ideas to take apart and play with; so I thought that even if I am going to blather away with my own jazz riffs on what I understand Todorov or Clute to be saying -- to grab these basic themes wherever I find them, see if I can play them back by ear, and if they sound right run with that, rephrasing them and putting them through the conversions, inversions and reversions of my own twisty, turny logic -- well, more grist for the mill is always fun.
So the bad news or good news, depending on your perspective, may be even more of my critical gasbagging in the near future.
In the meantime, though, as a further demonstration of that blithe disregard... well...
Fantastic Marvelous and Fantastic Uncanny
I've been thinking about the whole notion of the fantastic marvellous and the fantastic uncanny, which is Todorov's big conceptual contribution to the study of the strange part of strange fiction (as I understand it, that is).
For a crude, brief summary, here's a snippet from the Wikipedia article on the man:
Todorov defines the fantastic as being any event that happens in our world that seems to be supernatural. Upon the occurrence of the event, we must decide if the event was an illusion or whether it is real and has actually taken place...
Upon choosing whether the event was real or imaginary, Todorov says that we enter into the genres of uncanny and marvelous. In the fantastic uncanny, the event that occurs is actually an illusion of some sort. The "laws of reality" remain intact and also provide a rational explanation for the fantastic event... In the fantastic marvelous, the supernatural event that occurs has actually taken place and therefore the "laws of reality" have to be changed to explain the event. Only if the implied reader cannot opt for one or the other possibility, the text is purely fantastic.
I think I've made it abundantly clear by now how deeply inapt I consider the terms "fantasy" and "fantastic", but, if anything, "marvelous" and "uncanny" are worse in the application Todorov gives them.
For something to be "marvelous" doesn't just imply but explicitly posits that it causes us to marvel, that it invokes an affect of wonder, of amazement, of awe in its more positively-tinged aspect; it is a sense of the sublime described best in Yeats's phrase, "terrible beauty", focused predominantly on the "beauty". Marvels can be magical or mechanical, impossible feats like turning water into wine or spectacular contraptions/illusions like the clockwork birds or chess-playing automatons of old; the "marvelous", therefore, has nothing at all to do with the "laws of reality". In the lit-crit terminology I've been working with in previous entries, "marvelous" means something generates a boulomaic modality of "should have happened" and a subjunctivity level of "could not have happened" which may or may not be collapsed back to a level of "could have happened" depending on whether or not we can discern a rational explanation that renders it consistent with our notion of nomological possibility.
When we describe something as "uncanny", on the other hand, we are only explicitly saying that it is seemingly inconsistent with our notion of nomological possibility (c.f. "canny" and its sense of worldly wisdom, its etymological connections to "know", "ken", "gnosis", etc.). But even if there is no explicit postulation of affect, the term deeply implies a negative reaction in its connotations, its associations with the other-worldly, the unnatural, the eery, the eldritch, the unheimlich. This is awe in its more negatively-tinged aspect, focused on the "terrible" part of the sublime's "terrible beauty", as a source of discomfort, unease, tension. In our lit-crit terminology, this unsettling aspect of the "uncanny" is the implicity of a boulomaic modality of "should not have happened". In fact, the very source of that disquiet, I would argue, may lie in the seemingness of the inconsistence, in our uncertainty, our inability to collapse the subjunctivity level from "could not have happened" back to "could have happened" by way of a rational explanation.
The denotatively and connotatively overloaded nomenclature of fantastic, fantastic marvellous and fantastic uncanny seem to me, therefore, deeply misapplied, with the latter two directly contradicting their consensus meanings. That said, however, in its focus on the "laws of reality" Todorov's model of genre -- nomenclature aside -- fits perfectly with a subjunctivity-oriented view of strange fiction. Let me use that rough overview from Wikipedia to articulate what I mean.
The Wondrous, the Awe-Inspiring and the Creepy
Todorov defines the fantastic as being any event that happens in our world that seems to be supernatural.
Forget the "fantastic"; this is a term too deeply associated with the concept of manifesting (c.f. the Greek root "phantos" and its sense of making visible) desire (c.f. "fantasy" in everyday useage with its sense of yearning). Forget the "supernatural"; this is a term explicitly hierarchising the relationship between the normal and the abnormal, interpreting the unnatural event as product of a metaphysically "higher order". The metaphor of "depth" may be used where the supernatural is a negative force (angels come from above, demons from below, generally speaking), but either way it privileges the unnatural with a sense of primacy, of greater potency than the natural.
So, if we replace these terms with the neutrally-valued "strange" and "unnatural", what we have is the strange defined as being any event that happens in our world that seems unnatural. Which is to say, any event that generates a subjunctivity level of "could not have happened" because of its apparent nomological impossibility.
Upon the occurrence of the event, we must decide if the event was an illusion or whether it is real and has actually taken place...
No. Upon the occurence of the event, we must and do react with an affective judgement. We must decide (or rather our emotional response must decide for us) whether the event was a good thing or a bad thing, whether it "should have happened" or "should not have happened" -- what boulomaic modality it has. This is where we could theoretically introduce the terms "marvelous" and "uncanny", the former applying to those events which invoke a positive awe reaction, the latter applying to those events which invoke a negative reaction. But instead, partly to avoid conflict with Todorov's terminology and partly for reasons that we'll come to shortly, I'm going to use terms I consider equally apt. So what we decide (or have decided for us) is whether the event was wondrous or creepy.
We should note that these qualities can be wholly independent of strangeness. An entirely mundane event that retains a subjunctivity level of "could have happened" can nevertheless carry a positive or negative boulomaic modality. We heve, therefore, the strange-and-wondrous and the strange-and-creepy, but we also have the simply wondrous and the simply creepy. However, we should also note that, in practice, there is often an effect of strangeness generated by the sheer intensity of boulomaic modality. The more wondrous or creepy the event strikes us as, the more it strikes us as abnormal. Events so good or so bad disrupt the status quo, seem deviations from the norm. We might call these the strangely-wondrous and strangely-creepy.
As an aside: the aptness of Yeat's "terrible beauty" as a descriptor of awe should serve as a reminder of the inadequacy of this crude duality with regards to the sublime. It is not, in fact, an either/or situation; there is no reason that the strange cannot be both wondrous and creepy, invoking both modalities in a state of tension, placing the reader in a state of affect that is somewhere between the two and drawn in both directions. The slipping of the original meaning of "awful" makes it now too negatively-tinged to use in this context, while "awesome" is dragged the other way by the spirits of Bill and Ted, but it seems fair enough to talk of the strange-and-awe-inspiring here.
So, OK, now we've established that, let's try that next step again.
Artifice and Anomaly
Upon the occurrence of the event, we must decide if the event was an illusion or whether it is real and has actually taken place...
This is the intellectual crisis of estrangement that follows on from the emotional judgement outlined above. It is the question of whether or not the subjunctivity level is collapsed back into "could have happened" through the application of a rational explanation. There is, of course, again, the third option of uncertainty, of a persisting tension between the "could have happened" and "could not have happened" levels of subjunctivity. But we'll come to that.
Upon choosing whether the event was real or imaginary, Todorov says that we enter into the genres of uncanny and marvelous.
Obviously, given my contentiousness over these names, I'm going to require new terms for those genres. Given their nature as decribed, it would be better, I would argue, to refer to the artificial and the anomalous. In fact, because we are dealing with the event as an explicable or inexplicable act within the text, rather than an affect of the text, focusing on it as a thing which either fits or does not fit our notion of nomological possibility, I would prefer to move from the abstraction of qualities to the concreteness of objects -- to talk of the artifice and the anomaly rather than the artificial and the anomalous.
Moreover, where Todorov identifies only this branching of subjunctivities at the point where we decide if the strange is illusory artifice or irrational anomaly, we, in contrast, already have a branching generated by boulomaic modalities. So where Todorov offers two potential genres of strange fiction I would look at this as six potential features of strange fiction: the strange-and-wondrous-artifice; the strange-and-wondrous-anomaly; the strange-and-awe-inspiring-artifice; the strange-and-awe-inspiring-anomaly; the strange-and-creepy-artifice; the strange-and-creepy-anomaly.
In the fantastic uncanny, the event that occurs is actually an illusion of some sort. The "laws of reality" remain intact and also provide a rational explanation for the fantastic event.
Rephrasing this into our model: wondrous, awe-inspiring or creepy, the event that occurs is actually an artifice of some sort. It does not contradict the consensus nomology we think of as the "laws of reality" but is rather explicable by that nomology. We would be well to note here that the collapse of the subjunctivity level back to "could have happened" is going to have a knock-on effect on our sense of boulomaic modality. We might well expect to see any number of complex reactions. In positioning the strange as artifice do we remove wonder or transfer it the mechanics of the artifice? Do we remove the creepiness by revealing its mechanisms or make it all the more disturbing because it is more real? Does the strange cease to inspire awe when we think of it is an artifice or is the tension between "should" and "should not" heightened because we cannot deny the possibility and are therefore under more pressure to decide our attitude towards it?
In the fantastic marvelous, the supernatural event that occurs has actually taken place and therefore the "laws of reality" have to be changed to explain the event.
Rephrasing this into our model: wondrous, awe-inspiring or creepy, the event that occurs is actually an anomaly of some sort. It entirely contradicts the consensus nomology we think of as the "laws of reality" and forces us to revise our certainty in that nomology. We would be well to note here that the upholding of the subjunctivity level of "could not have happened" is going to have a knock-on effect on our sense of boulomaic modality. We might well expect to see any number of complex reactions. In positioning the strange as anomaly do we intensify wonder or dissipate it in a loss of suspension of disbelief? Do we remove the creepiness by revealing its spuriousness or make it all the more disturbing because it is entirely irrational? Does the strange inspire more awe when we think of it as an absolute anomaly or do we give up trying to decide between "should" and "should not" entirely in the face of our inability to ever make sense of it?
In fact, we have a further set of possible features, where -- wondrous, awe-inspiring or creepy -- the event that occurs is unresolved.
The Tension of Indecision
Only if the implied reader cannot opt for one or the other possibility, the text is purely fantastic.
Here we could rephrase this by simply putting "strange" in place of "fantastic" but the whole notion of "purity" is, I think, misleading. It makes it sound like indecision is an exceptional circumstance, when it may in fact be quite commonplace. In order to decide whether an event that occurs is consistent with or contradictory to the "laws of reality" we have to have a distinct and rigid view of what those laws are, a faith in our convictions, and the inclination to decide on that basis. Certainly many readers have these, but many more would seem, by the evidence of what is accepted as SF, to have a rather more flexible attitude, to be less than dogmatic in deciding what is artifice and what anomaly.
Actually, I think this indecision is part of the game of much strange fiction. If we're looking for the root of the cognitive estrangement in Suvin's novum, I'd argue that it might well be found in exactly this tension between accepting the rational hypothetical and maintaining an equally rational skepticism. In Hard SF that skepticism may ultimately minimise the strangeness of the artifice, a demand for rigour and foundation in known science (either due to scientistic dogmatism or scientific education) leading to more mundane hypotheticals that are virtually pre-decided as artifices, but even here the counter-intuitive head-fucks of high-level maths and physics (Hilbert Space, anyone?) can provide the initial frisson of strangeness sufficient to delay decision, to create a moment of hesitation in which we are estranged. And more often, I suspect, that hesitation is simply born of the fact that, well, we're dealing with hypotheticals here. Many an SF reader twitches irately every time they read a newspaper article equating SF fans and "UFO nuts". Skepticism, doubt, is an important part of the game.
Conversely, there is a similar game that takes place across forms of strange fiction variously labelled SF and Fantasy where patent anomalies are accepted as maybe, potentially, just possibly artifices. It's tempting just to call this game "suspension of disbelief" because that is a large part of it, but there's more to it than that. There's the conventionality of the trope, as I've argued previously, where the anomaly is explicable by an alternative consensus nomology to the one we live our lives by, where it is recognised as an artifice of the form, for the sake of a good story. In this sort of generic Romance the indecision persists because the anomalous nature of the tropes is largely in direct proportion to their coolness; and the more cool they are the more willing we are to play the game. There's also the more self-conscious and deliberate indecision where the anomalous is explicable as an artifice of the nomology of narrative itself, a product of those "laws of reality" that cover the use of extended metaphor in fiction. We postpone decision on the anomalous here because we can (or think we might through the continued act of reading) make sense of it as a conceit, an artifice in that sense. As with the novum of SF this may well result in a distinct sense of tension, of cognitive dissonance.
Finally, just to round out the coverage of the three commercial genres of strange fiction, a similar indecision can be found in Horror. In fact, part of the reason I replaced Todorov's term uncanny with creepy in my own model, is that I think talk of the uncanny often carries a sense of angst felt in the face of the truly unknown -- i.e. when we are faced with a strange-and-creepy event so alien we are not even able to decide whether it fits our nomology or not, whether it is artifice or anomaly. I wouldn't define the uncanny solely in this sense, because I think we also apply the term to the strange-and-creepy when it is quite patently anomalous -- so we can't implicitly exclude that aspect by defining it as undecided -- but I think it's an important enough aspect of it that the term is far more useful here than in Todorov's schema where it means virtually the exact opposite, the illusion, the artifice (which is, to me, a bizarre use of the term). Again what we have is an exploitation of tension between subjunctivities in that (anxious) indecision as to whether an event is artifice or anomaly.
The Questions of Strange Fiction
All of this leads to a set of questions that are, I think, at the heart of the various types of works that can be described as strange fiction, questions as to how a work generates a sense of the strange, whether that is shaded with wonder, awe or creepiness, whether the events function as artifice or anomaly, or exploit the tension born of a refused or delayed decision. Any number of individual works of strange fiction might best be understood, I would argue, as, in part, constructed from those questions and their variant answers in a process of discourse. And there are more questions and answers that are part of that discourse:
If multiple artifices are introduced into a text, each potentially carrying its own distinct boulomaic modality or tension of modalities, how do the interactions of residual modalities affect the reader's reactions and the subsequent shifts as and when each new strangeness is first introduced and then resolved into an artifice? How do the "should happens" and "should not happens" play off against each other when each also "could happen".
If multiple anomalies are introduced into a text, each potentially carrying its own distinct boulomaic modality or tension of modalities, how do the interactions of residual modalities affect the reader's reactions and the subsequent shifts as and when each new strangeness is first introduced and then resolved into an anomaly? How do the "should happens" and "should not happens" play off against each other when none of these actually "could happen".
If a mixture of artifices and anomalies are introduced into a text, how is this interplay of modality shifts further complexified by the tensions between rationality and irrationality? Do we find alliances of "could happen" and "should happen" or "could not happen" and "should not happen"? Or do we find them at cross-purposes -- "could happen" but "should not happen", "should happen" but "could not happen"?
To what extent would a predominance of one type of strangeness -- artifice or anomaly -- shape the readers expectations of the text, and what effect would result if an instance of the other type of strangeness was subsequently introduced? Could sleight of hand gloss over the difference, make the reader take artifice as anomaly, or anomaly as artifice? What if the writer makes a point of the difference, highlights it?
If the reader cannot decide whether the strangeness in a work is artifice or anomaly, must they then consider both possibilities and everything in between, forced into the cognitive dissonance where, even within a single strange event, the decision can't be made as to whether it "could happen" or "could not happen"? Might they not then be faced with all of the above potential questions and answers?
This all sounds incredibly abstract, I'm sure, but I think these are actually just generalised versions of specific and practical questions through which we can approach genre texts. How does this narrative establish its environment: mundane or strange; wondrous, awe-inspiring or creepy; as a construct of many little artifices or anomalies, or as a distortion around one large core artifice or anomaly? How much is the wonder, awe or creepiness an end in itself and how far does the demand-and-supply cycle round this drive commercial genres and their particular works? Or how much is that initial affective aspect of the narrative simply a means to an end? What exactly might that end be for this book or that? How does that factor up into subsidiary demand-and-supply cycles within the commercial genres? In previous posts I've broken down SF into various facets according to its multiple contradictory definitions -- half-jokingly, half-seriously inventing labels like Scientific Fancy, Scientistic Fiction, Soul Fiction, Symbolic Formulation, and so on -- and these facets are ultimately, I'd argue, largely a matter of discernable, albeit overlapping, demand-and-supply cycles for strange fiction with variant aesthetic purposes.
And these purposes can, I think, be better articulated for general forms and specific works through an understanding of the narrative dynamics born of those purposes. Does this or that SF novel "get away" with an anomaly as its "one impossible thing" because of a richly artificed context, or is that anomaly highlighted by that context? To a thematic purpose, or to force us to revise our nomology, alter our preconcieved notion of the "laws of reality" in order to reconsider whether the anomaly should actually be seen as an artifice? It might well be better to have some idea of what a work is doing (or trying to do) in this sense before blathering lazily and giving ratings based largely on how well it fits our personal taste. I don't really care whether a book works for this person or that; I want to know how it works.
This would be where, I think, the last few posts on narrative potentially tie together into a theory of narrative dynamics, because the artifices and anomalies of strange fiction are the stuff from which the balances, discords, conflicts and harmonies are made and the boulomaic modalities and epistemic necessities are good start points, I think, for looking at the precise dynamics of that transformative process.
No Country For Old Men
As an example which might be interesting to explore (in a really brief and cursory way -- because I'd really want to see it a second time before doing any sort of real critique, and because it's good enough that I wouldn't want to blow it for anyone with spoilers), let's look at the opening of the movie version of NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, which I caught at the cinema last week. I have to say from the start that it's a fucking superb movie, as far as I'm concerned, quite possibly my new favourite of the Coen Bros ouevre. I also have to say, I haven't read the book, so I have no idea how my reading of the movie would match my reading of the book. Actually, I also have to say, my memory is appalling at the best of times, so if I fuck up any details, please let me know. Anyway...
So the movie opens with wide shots of the desert and Tommy Lee Jones as Sheriff Bell giving a voice-over monologue. He's talking about the tradition of being a sheriff, how a lot of the "old-timers" didn't carry guns, wondering how they'd react to the present-day. It's a low-key, philosophical musing reminiscent of the voice-over that opens THE BIG LEBOWSKI but played for real rather than as a caricature of the cracker-barrel cowboy spirit-guide vibe you get in the earlier movie. There's none of that "Sometimes you git th' b'ar. Other times th' b'ar gits you." hokum. But just as deliberately and just as clearly it sets up a genre vibe (which TBL subsequently ignores as far as I can see for pretty much the rest of the film). It lets you know without a doubt that this is a Western.
It's not simply a matter of visual and verbal content though, or at least not just in terms of tropes. A core aspect of what's going on here is the establishment of a boulomaic modality, an investing of the whole environment with a nostalgic yearning. Bell's voiceover is an elegy for the old West as lost idyll. We could describe this as a modality of "should have happened" applied to the continuation of the idyll or a modality of "should not have happened" applied to the loss of that idyll. Either way it's the same thing. This is a duality inherent in the lyric mode of pastoral, each idyll shaded with an elegiac sorrow for what's lost, for what will never be again, and every elegy lit up with the idyllic joy of what was found, of what will ever be, again and again and again, each time the song is sung. So, Bell conjures up, in his talk of unarmed sheriffs, the nobility of Jimmy Stewart in DESTRY RIDES AGAIN. In his wonderings over how that mythic figure would deal with present reality he evokes the sensibility of those who reminisce over the good old days when you could leave your door unlocked, those simpler and more peaceful days before the world got cruel and complicated.
But there's a neat trick going on here in the blurring of temporal boundaries -- the establishment of a continuity. The sense of familiarity in his talk of those old-timers leaves us questioning how far back the "old time" was. We get a sense that Bell might just as easily be talking of his father as of his grandfather or his great-grandfather, a sense of an unbroken line of tradition beginning sometime in the Old West of the Western but continuing up to the present day. It's a counterpoint to the notion of loss in so far as it presents Bell as keeping that tradition alive It intensifies that loss because the tradition is fundamentally being "kept alive" in memory, in eulogy -- Bell standing, perhaps, as the end of that line, perhaps even, in the disembodiment of his voice, the mere ghost of what has already been lost, what, of course, should not have been lost -- but a sense of what is yearned for being tenuously present nevertheless persists. The West is still there in America, we are being told, if only as a palimpsested myth
Then we get the turn, a revelation of what exactly it is that has palimpsested the Western -- Crime, not just as a reality but as a genre. At the end of Bell's monologue, as the camera pans to reveal a police car parked at the side of a dusty highway, a young (deputy?) sheriff motioning a handcuffed man towards it, Bell reveals (I can't remember the exact phraseology) that he is telling the story of a crime about to happen. Immediately we enter the idiom of DRAGNET, the voice-over that announces the oncoming of story in the oncoming of a criminal event. The scene you are about to see, it is saying, the story you are about to hear, the crime you are about to witness, is... is what? A terrible tale of murder and greed, man's inhumanity to man? But one of many? ("There are a million stories in the city and this is just one.")
The answer is: something that "should not happen".
All the sense of loss born of the elegaic tone is suddenly bound to a deeper negativity, the nostalgic wistfulness of the Western fused with the weary and cynical hopelessness of Crime. There is a reason you cannot leave the door unlocked these days. There is a reason the once-peaceful world now seems cruel and complicated. There is a reason those old-timers who didn't carry guns would be out of place in this world. There is a reason that tradition is dying, dissipating. It is the same "wrongness" we find in Clute's narrative grammar of Fantasy, the same weakening of the world in the emergence of dark forces. The frontier idyll has become the Wounded Land, the Badlands of yore have become the Wasteland of Modernity.
This is made clearer still as we see the sheriff ushering his captive into the back of the car and placing a strange contraption into the front -- a shining steel canister with a long steel hose and a thick rounded nozzle. A few viewers who've read the book or reviews, or who've worked in... well... a certain field of employment will know what this, but even with foreknowledge the introduction that object is an event of strangeness. It's not an apparent breach of our nomology in the sense of the "laws of reality", not "fantastic" in the Todorovian sense, but it breaches the nomology of the Western. In this Western-based pseduo-reality it is (or is at least comparable to) a novum, and the futureshock (or presentshock, perhaps?) that it generates indubitably makes it a thing that does not belong. In the nomology of the Western it has no place, it doesn't make sense, it "could not be". It is sleekly, shinily wondrous, an object of polished chrome there to be fetishistically fascinating (not unlike the silver-plated, ivory-handled Colt .45s and suchlike of the Western), but because of the sheer strangeness it is equally as unsettling, equally as creepy.
As the sheriff glances back at his captive, this sense of strangeness is reinforced in the otherness of the man in the back, Sigurh with his pudding-bowl haircut and clothes that belong in the Seventies city, in the civilisation of a night-club, a strip-joint. We don't yet know that the setting is 1980 and against the trans-historical conjurings of the voice-over, Sigurh seems as out-of-place as the strange artifact we have just glimpsed. Sitting in a silence that speaks of quiet confidence (and therefore menace), his reason for being there unrevealed (though we can infer from his captivity that he is Bad), he himself invokes that same sense of unease as that... thing, the same sense of creepiness.
But at the same time, the content of this scene makes as much sense in the Western idiom as in the idiom of Crime. This is the arrest of the black-hatted, black-garbed and black-hearted villain -- not the Cattle baron behind the scenes purportedly running the show, but the Jack Palance hired-gun who is the real villain of the psychodrama in his Otherness, in his representation of the Jungian Shadow. It is also the entry of the psychopathic hitman, the Crime Bosses murderous right-hand, as played by Christopher Walken, Dennis Hopper -- you know the score. When we see, in the next scene, the sheriff complacently relating the capture over the phone, as Sigurh slowly and methodically, in the background, rises from his seat, we know that our fear is not unfounded. We know that what "should not happen" is about to. We know, because we recognise the demonic nature of the creature from his bearing, that the murder of the sheriff we are about to witness is an epistemic necessity, that it "will happen".
These human monsters of Crime (and the Western) are kith and kin of the monsters of Horror precisely because of this sense of epistemic necessity. No matter how fast we run, they will catch up with us at a steady stroll. No matter how we might plead, they will despatch us without compunction. They will play games with us like a cat with a mouse, because they are beyond the mores of human society. (Think of Jack Palance in SHANE, saying "Pick up the gun.") This last is a key point; this is where they metaphorically breach the "laws of reality" in breaching the "natural order" of morality, why they may well literally breach those laws, as creatures of the borderland between Crime and Horror. Sigurh's crazed grin as he strangles the sheriff with the handcuffs around his wrists makes it abundantly clear that he is beyond morality, beyond empathy, beyond humanity, a monster working by a logic inexplicable to us. They are manifestations of murder, Death walking loose in the world. In and of themselves they are things which "should not be".
This point is driven home in the gruesome revelation of what the strange Sigurh's strange contraption actually does. After Sigurh's casual/methodical washing of his blooded wrists, the next scene (at least, I think we directly cut to this) is once again out in the Texan wilderness, where Sigurh in the sheriff's car has pulled another driver over to the side of the road. Although he doesn't remotely resemble a lawman in his out-of-place clothes, and is indeed even more creepy now that he's also carrying his creepy contraption, canister in one hand, nozzle in the other (and we still don't know what it is, what it does, but now we know and we dread -- we have the sense of epistemic necessity -- that we are going to find out and it is not going to be nice), when he orders the driver out of the car, the man complies, a docile animal led to the slaughter -- the movie's metaphor, not mine. Sigurh raises the nozzle to the man's forehead, tells him to "hold still" and then... THUD. This pneumatic pressure pump thing, used in an abbatoir to kill cattle, blasts a bolt of air with such force that it blows what looks like a bullethole dead in the centre of the man's forehead.
Reeling from the shock and horror of this act (which really, truly "should not have happened"), we're suddenly elsewhere, looking through the scope of a rifle, an antelope in the cross-hairs. The erstwhile protagonist, a modern-day cowboy of sorts called Moss, lying up on a ridge, about to take a pot-shot at the animal, echoes Sigurh's words, "hold still", then fires, the rifle kicking back, the antelope scattering. Are we back in the Western here, still in it with Sigurh as Palance, Moss as the hero who's going to have to take him on, or some innocent homesteader doomed to be just another victim... or are we now somewhere else entirely, shifted by the subjunctivities and modalities of Crime and Horror to an uncertain interstice between the genres?
In the parallel of those words "hold still", the movie shatters one aspect of the Western myth in an instant; it denies us the Romantic heroism of the hunt, strips it of all wonder. Moss is no rugged individualist frontiersman bringing back meat for the table after a noble struggle with Nature, just another callous executioner like Sigurh, or at least a would-be executioner. Moss is a mediocre marksman, only wounding the antelope, his mundane level of skill inflicting suffering and immediately tagging him as "flawed". Again the Western myth is being rearticulated in the idiom of Crime if not of realism. (That little touch of the rifle kicking back speaks volumes about the disjunct between generic and naturalistic representations of weapons and power, and of the reactions and consequences involved in wielding them.) Would-be, wannabe, might-have-been, Moss is an incarnation of that combination of boulomaic modality and subjunctivity level so common in Crime and Realism, that of failure, of events that "should have happened, but did not". He is the denial of the extraordinary, the reification of the mundane.
So, Moss, having failed to kill his quarry, wanders down to the spot, finds a trail of blood and follows it. What he finds is not the wounded animal, however, but another strangeness. A black dog stands staring at him (and at us, viewing the beast from Moss's perspective), a squat and ugly pit-bull type of a thing. It's a moment of Lynchian creepiness, a touch of dissonance in this domestic dog so out-of-place in the wilderness, a suggestion of the grotesque in its gargoyle features, and more thant a hint of symbolism in its perfect blackness and isolation; it is a figure standing out so boldly from its ground that we feel a sense of meaning in its gaze, a silent communication. And it's hardly a subtle communication given the folkloric tradition of the black dog as spectral portent of death. At this moment we should realise for certain, if we did not already realise this with Sigurh, that we may be dealing with Horror here as much as with either Crime or Western. The black dog here is uncanny in exactly that way described above, in our inability to decide if it is artifice or anomaly, natural or supernatural.
The death it portends is quickly realised as Moss, moving on (following the dog, or the trail of antelope blood, or both?), finds himself on another ridge first looking down on then descending into carnage -- pick-up trucks riddled with bullet-holes, a dozen or so dead bodies scattered, including that of a dog identical to the one we've just seen except that it's brown instead of black. Do we explain the black dog here as the sole survivor of this bloodbath? Or do we see, in the dead dog, a potential corpse for the black dog as ghost? Or do we hesitate to decide, feel (and appreciate) the tension of uncertainty?
Of course, there's a rational explanation for the slaughter that quickly becomes apparent. A satchel full of money and a pick-up loaded with heroin tells us that this is a drug deal gone wrong, a staple trope of crime fiction which would ground us firmly in the genre were it not for everything that's led up this point. We recognise it instantly as a narrative trigger, know immediately that Moss will take the money and, in that single act of weakness, initiate the plot. Murder and money. Guns and greed. A drug deal that implies an underworld that implies a crime boss who will want his money back... and a hired-gun who'll be sent to recover it. We may not know how that will play out (and the Coen Bros will go on to make us more uncertain the further into the movie we get), but we know the genre framework at play here. Except... we don't. Instead we are caught between genre frameworks, glimpsing other massacres in the carnage of the drug deal gone sour, glimpsing beneath this the ruins of a stage-coach or a wagon train attacked by Indians, shoot-outs between rival gangs of bandits and cowboys, chests of Confederate gold or Union bonds or money from bank jobs. Bell's monologue has primed us to see the old myth underneath the new. And on another level still (more "primal" like the black dog or more "modern" like Sigurh's cattle-gun?), the strangeness of Horror is there too, to keep us unsettled as to whether even the "reality" suggested in the overlap between the myths is truly to be trusted.
This palimpsesting of genres is something that will play out through the movie and is, I'd argue, a core theme. I'll say no more about the plot that follows on from here because I don't think it's necessary to reveal those twists and turns in order to tease out a purpose established so succinctly in these few opening scenes: framing American culture as a generational transition from Western to Crime; flip-flopping between those two mythical nomologies to challenge that linearity, reveal the Western within the Crime, the Crime within the Western; using the strange-and-creepy artifices and/or anomalies of Horror to deepen the sense of moral crisis emergent from that theme; setting up this meta-narrative, then, as a starting-point for discourse -- the point where the questions begin rather than where the answers finish. Where we end up, with this theme, is a far more complex place than the simple linearity suggested by Bell's initial voice-over.
I've seen quite a few reviews of the movie which read it as a work which sets up genre expectations in order to subvert them. This is, I think, a gloss on the film that doesn't quite get to grips with the importance of the interplay of genre expectations, the extent to which our interpretations of the text as this genre here, that genre there, isn't simply about subverting expectations as regards plot-structure but ultimately about using the conflict of expectations to craft a set of intricate dramatic and thematic effects through which the film critiques the whole myth and history of America's morality. It is, I think, a film of both richness and scope, created from the very techniques than create our sense of genre, rather in the subversion (which is to say, rejection) of genre expectations (which is to say, formulaic plot structures we associate with genre).
No Country for Old Critique
It is no surprise to me that the Coen Brothers place so much importance on the underlying features from which we construct genre -- the conflicting subjunctivity levels, boulomaic modalities and epistemic necessities; or that one major construct of those features, strangeness, is to be found in NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN just as it is in most other Coen Brothers movie. These are, after all, the same features from which we construct interest -- at a level deeper than the uninvested intellectualism of the middle-class, middle-brow, contemporary realism midlist, that is.
These are also, I'd argue, the same features that draw "genre" readers to those "mainstream" works which employ them, no matter where the writer stands in relation to "genre" -- as a fully paid-up member of SFWA like Chabon, a self-confessed fan and genre writer now "crossed-over" like Lethem, an obssessive devotee and pulp homagist like Tarantino, a "cult fiction" individidualist like Palahnuik, or the sort of mercurial magpies we find in the Coen Brothers, exploring a new nook or cranny of narrative form with almost every work (almost as if they want their ouvre, at the end of the day, to include at least one example of every possible genre). And, it amuses me no end to think, these are probably the same features that "non-genre" readers are increasingly looking for in the "mainstream", and that "non-genre" writers are increasingly seeking to provide.
At the end of the day, then, I reckon a focus on these low-level techniques offers us a set of tools for better understanding genre (as constructed from these techniques) in terms of "how it works" rather than "what it is". And further, I think, this shift in level also widens the applicability of the tools, affording a better understanding of works whose genre identity is arguable. Rather than trying to understand these as aberrations -- as the half-and-half and not-quite-either of "cross-genre" and "interstitial" -- or as subversions of the form, we might better approach each text as an individual permutation of possible approaches. From the critical brainstorming of genres as isolated forms, we've begun to develop tools that are just as pertinent to narrative as a thing in and of itself; and in many respects, the current trends in mainstream fiction are crying out for the theories of genre critique to be applied to them. To do so may require the overhaul of those theories, but I think we stand to gain more than we lose in those reformulations.