The Sisters Brothers are a pair of hired assassins in Oregon in 1851. The year and the Western setting have drawn inevitable comparisons with Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian but, apart from the casual (and neutrally related) violence the two novels have little in common. The narrator is Eli Sisters, a man who, initially, seems simple but is gradually revealed as the story progresses (to us, though not necessarily to himself) as increasingly complex. His brother Charlie, on the other hand, is initially shown to be a thug, easily the more violent and less moral of the pair and, until the denouement, that is how he remains. If Westerns are traditionally stories of travel and movement (usually westward), then The Sisters Brothers certainly fulfils that criterion, but the movement here is psychological rather than physical. So it isn’t quite a Western either, and in that the McCarthy comparison might be more usefully made with The Crossing or All the Pretty Horses. As with those novels, The Sisters Brothers is more than anything a novel about character.
The first thing to say about the novel is that it is very funny, in a decidedly black fashion. The second thing to say is that it is not, nor is it intended to be, realistic. Jane Smiley, in a surprisingly weak review of the novel for The Guardian, seems not to understand this. She suggests:
A reader looking for meticulous depiction of Oregon and California in 1851, however, will have to look elsewhere. Eli barely gives the landscape a glance, and people met along the way are simple figures in his moral drama.This really is a crassly reductive way of reading a novel, seemingly suggesting that a realist approach is the only true way. It’s as though the twentieth century, and modernism and post-modernism never existed. For a novelist, of all people, to make such an absurd comment is particularly regrettable. Smiley then goes on:
Nor does Eli have any larger philosophical or sociohistorical insights to offer. His narrative style is flat and literal, which is perhaps supposed to be the hilarious part.This statement isn’t just regrettable, it’s remarkable. It’s as though several generations of English literature, from Tristram Shandy onwards, have ceased to exist. The idea that the narrator must be the one to offer the philosophical or sociohistorical insights is simply naïve. Has Smiley never heard of the unreliable narrator? Has she never reckoned on what is revealed through not being spoken? Has she never heard the expression “Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings”?
Eli may not have any larger insights to make (although, actually, I would refute this, too) but the novel assuredly does. Consider the ending. The closure. The change. Both characters develop. In the case of Eli, the narrator, there is a finely drawn and gradually revealed revelation that, for him, the life of the assassin is worthless and immoral. Charlie, of course, is a tougher case, and his catalyst for revelation comes, appropriately enough, not through his own conviction but through an accident – which is, alongside murder, one of the occupational hazards of the assassin. But, make no mistake, he does change. The Sisters Brothers change. Their mindless life of violence and casual cruelty winds to an end.
And nowhere in this is there any crude “revelatory” moment when a character suddenly sees the light. Fiction is full of such moments, the notion of the epiphany. In reality such light-bulb flashes of realisation never happen. Life doesn’t conveniently stop to allow you to have a Condor moment of self-reflective consideration. What happens is that an individual’s feelings begin to shift imperceptibly, changing in increments so that the destination of each peristaltic pulse seems indistinguishible from the previous but finally one finds that the end-point, the revelation, is far removed from where they began. This is what happens with Eli. This is what happens in The Sisters Brothers. Anyone who reads Eli’s intentionally flat narrative in an equally flat way will not realise that. Anyone who recognises the flatness for what it is, and makes the effort to comprehend the hidden story, will find much to engage. This, after all, is what good fiction is meant to do.