Category Archives: cormac mccarthy

Inflamed Rhetoric

I'm in the process of reading everything by or about Cormac McCarthy that I can get my hands on, limited by time constraints.

The above includes this lengthy review of No Country for Old Men published by James Wood in The New Yorker. Wood's critique of No Country is fine enough (although I think he misunderstands how McCarthy is using the western form), but when he starts to get into McCarthy more generally speaking he gets quite incoherent.

Wood, as have many before him, assails McCarthy for amorality in his literature. This is something I disagree with, and I'll be writing on this at length later on, but for now I'd just like to point out that the substance of Wood's attack is really thin. You can make an solid argument for McCarthy as an amoral writer, but Wood's argument is surprising for its lack of teeth.

After mentioning how some scholars have praised McCarthy for revising the myth of Manifest Destiny (as if, if this was all McCarthy did, that would be an achievement), Wood then undercuts the praise by saying that the myth McCarthy replaces it with is equally shallow:

But there is often the disquieting sense that McCarthy’s fiction puts certain fond American myths under pressure merely to replace them with one vaster myth—eternal violence, or Bloom’s “universal tragedy of blood.” McCarthy’s fiction seems to say, repeatedly, that this is how it has been and how it always will be. In “Child of God,” we get this assurance: “As in olden times so now. As in other countries here.” The mercenaries in “Blood Meridian” are said to ride “like men invested with a purpose whose origins were antecedent to them, like blood legatees of an order both imperative and remote.” The inflamed rhetoric of “Blood Meridian” is problematic because it reduces the gap between the diction of the murderous judge and the diction of the narration itself: both speak with mythic afflatus. “Blood Meridian” comes to seem like a novel without internal borders.

Wood is playing fast and loose here, and you can see how when you read that quote from Child of God in its proper context:

As he neared the town the roosters were calling. Perhaps they sensed a relief in the obscurity of night that the traveler could not read, though he kept watch eastward. Perhaps some freshness in the air. Everywhere across the sleeping land they called and answered each to each. As in olden times so now. As in other countries here.

Roosters calling. Doesn't exactly sound like eternal violence. And even if you were to say that this quote is somehow referencing the concerns of Child of God writ large . . . well, the book is about a mentally deranged man scapegoated by the community. Again, far from eternal violence, and not really a stretch to say that this is a recurring story in human history.

So much for City of God. As to reducing the gap between the Judge and the narrative voice in Blood Meridian. Well, first of all, anyone familiar with McCarthy knows just how far is the gap between narrative voice and dialogue in McCarthy. He has an incredible ear for spoken English. So to say Blood Meridian lacks these borders is to misread it, because its very clear when the narration switches over to dialogue and vice versa.

As for the Judge in particular. Yes, it is true that the Judge does speak more mythically than your typical McCarthy character, but perhaps that's because, unlike most of the hillbillies and cowboys that McCarthy puts in his book, the Judge is the human incarnation of something approaching a demon, and maybe even the devil. Not exactly par for the course. In fact, pretty much singular. So, essentially, Wood is taking the least representative of McCarthy's characters as his example, without bothering to mention that.

I'd just like to take one more example from this piece because it's particularly egregious. In assailing McCarthy's often-praised prose for an imprecision and even internal incoherency, Wood quotes this from All the Pretty Horses and offers the following commentary:

Yet the captain inhabited another space and it was a space of his own election and outside the common world of men. A space privileged to men of the irreclaimable act which while it contained all lesser worlds within it contained no access to them. For the terms of election were of a piece with its office and once chosen that world could not be quit.

So hypnotic is McCarthy’s mythmaking that it takes a moment to recognize the essential absurdity of the grand diction: this a small-town policeman! One assumes that “the irreclaimable act” is death or murder, but the peculiar syntax plays havoc with the meaning; and it is hard to see how “a space of his own election” is necessarily also a space that “could not be quit.” What, never?

It's hard to know how to take a critique so obviously unsound. Does Wood really mean this in earnest, or is he just trying to be snide? Wood is probably right when he posits that "the irreclaimable act" is murder, so then why is he so confused about the "space of his own election" talk? If you murder someone, it's your choice, and you're putting yourself into a "privileged" space that you quite obviously can't quit. (You can't stop being a murderer, unless you can resurrect the dead.) It's hard to understand how Wood can, on the one hand, understand that "the irreclaimable act" is murder, but then, on the other hand, somehow misunderstand the balance of the paragraph. Does Wood really not get it, or is he just making a knowingly cheap shot against McCarthy's prose style?

CR Readers’ Picks

Based on Amazon purchases made through links on this website, the following are the "picks" of Conversational Reading’s readers for 2008:

#1

By a large margin, The Invention of Morel was the most popular purchase among readers of this blog. Obviously, my sincere praise of this book helped move it along, but I’m convinced that not nearly as many copies would have been purchased if this wasn’t a great book, and if Borges wasn’t Bioy’s literary collaborator. A great read, and if you haven’t had a chance to yet, definitely pick it up.

#2

Not really a surprise, but something of an unusual pick is experimental British writer B.S. Johnson’s novel-in-a-box, The Unfortunates. Clearly, readers were drawn to this one for the atypical presentation (loose signatures collected in a box), although Johnson’s status as one of Britain’s most notable experimental authors of the late 20th century certainly didn’t hurt. For all you Johnson fans looking for more, be sure to check out Jonathan Coe’s excellent biography, Like a Fiery Elephant.

#3

2666. For quite obvious reasons.

#4

There’s a bit of a tie for fourth place with Senselessness, Television, and The Siege of Krishnapur, all excellent books. It’s a little interesting to see Television so high up, as it was published a couple years back and I’ve been talking more about two of Toussaint’s other books this year: Monsieur (re-issued this year) and Camera (published in English this year). But I won’t argue with your choice: I like them all, but I would put Television on top.

#5

A number of books tied for fifth place:

#6

And here are the rest that made a notable impression, saleswise:

The Road Movie

The_road_bleak_scenery

Perhaps this isn’t news to you, but for me, yes. Somehow I didn’t mind the Coens making art out of lesser McCarthy, but I’m uncomfortable with this. I guess at this point it just feels like bandwagoning.

. . . updateing to clarify: No Country is the one I’m referring to as lesser McCarthy. I have quite the regard for The Road, and if you don’t believe me, then you should read this.

Friday Column: The End of the World

Earlier this week I commented on how much I enjoyed Chris Adrian’s The Children’s Hospital. Reading that book, a realist telling of the end of the world via a neo-biblical flood, got me thinking about other recent, notable novels that have dealt with the end of the world.

coverThe first one to cross my mind was Cormac McCarthy’s most recent novel, The Road. Critics have had mixed reactions to many of McCarthy’s previous novels, but there seems to be an overwhelmingly positive response to this one. This gushing first sentence from The Guardian’s review is typical: "Cormac McCarthy’s other nine novels could be cast as rungs, with The Road as a pinnacle."

Critics were also unified in naming this perhaps the most violent novel from an author who’s not exactly known for writing about pretty white bunny rabbits. The end of the world is just the beginning. After the apocalypse, a man and his son wander a world of earthquakes, firestorms, and malicious, senseless violence. So horrible is this world that the father–sick and coughing up blood–plans to shoot his son if it so much as appears that they’re going to be caught by any of the marauding gangs.

So why would anyone go on in this hell? The father tells the son "My job is to take care of you. I was appointed by God to do that." That’s a reason. There’s also intimations that the son is a Jesus-like prophet. Perhaps when they get where they’re going it will turn out the world has a chance. Or, given McCarthy’s reputation, maybe not.

I find premises like this hopelessly intriguing, but I usually stop myself before I start reading because–let’s face it–books like this tend to stink. However, I think I’m going to read this one. I’m partly convinced to read The Road because of the almost-universal positive reaction, but more because of what the critics have had to say about the prose. It’s been described as nothing short of divine.

But what propels The Road far beyond its progenitors are the diverted poetic heights of McCarthy’s late-English prose; the simple declamation and plainsong of his rendered dialect, as perfect as early Hemingway; and the adamantine surety and utter aptness of every chiselled description. As has been said before, McCarthy is worthy of his biblical themes, and with some deeply nuanced paragraphs retriggering verbs and nouns that are surprising and delightful to the ear, Shakespeare is evoked. The way McCarthy sails close to the prose of late Beckett is also remarkable; the novel proceeds in Beckett-like, varied paragraphs.

coverPerhaps the only thing that David Markson’s masterful Wittgenstein’s Mistress has in common with The Road is its austerity of language. The book is composed almost entirely of short declarative sentences separated into individual paragraphs. (There are a few instances of two sentences in a row). Sometimes these sentences read like koans, and sometimes they’re just the prosaic detritus of someone’s mind. All of them have been typed out by a woman who presumes herself to be the last person on earth.

Unlike McCarthy, Markson doesn’t waste even a moment on how or why the world ends. This book is entirely about the unnamed, titular woman typing out these sentences. On one level it’s a brilliant evocation of her isolation; brilliant because it’s next to impossible to express deep feeling in the narrative situation that Markson has set up–you try creating pathos with sentences like "I found a book about Beethoven." Michael Silverblatt, in conversation with David Foster Wallace summed it up:

What we like about it is its mixture of extraordinary intelligence and, at the same time, sadness. And the intelligence in it is really swallowed by a narrative situation that wants to compress it and make it nearly impossible to express. So that the book alternates between weeping, really, and extraordinary observation.

And later, DFW adds:

You’re talking about an effaced narrator where it’s not a literary choice, but it’s in fact a truth. And, except for very rare, transcendent pieces of fiction, I haven’t seen that done anywhere except spiritual and religious literature. Or, you know, at the end of Wittgenstein’s "Tractatus." I mean, you’re talking about the sort of thing that an absolute genius — I mean, a Mozart of living — comes up with after decades of effort.

I think Wallace is right to bring up the Tractatus, because in this book is pursuing a very Wittgensteinian subtext. Markson’s book captures the feel for how memory works (reading the sentences feels like someone running through her thoughts), and is also embodies the idea that language is all we have–the entire world of Wittgenstein’s Mistress consists of the sentences that run through the narrator’s mind. In one sense, these sentences are entirely real–someone is thinking them, after all–but in another sense, they’re very unbelievable: is the narrator really the only person left on earth? Doubtful. In pondering the truth of these sentences as thoughts versus the truth of them as descriptions of the world, Markson has written a book whose title, Wittgenstein’s Mistress, is very appropriate.

One of the things I like best about this book is how understated it is. Markson builds great depth without ever really pointing anything out. As I wrote previously in this blog

it would be difficult to read Markson’s sentences (especially the careful juxtapositions he has worked in) and not come away with a sense of the language games he is playing.

In a certain way, I think Wittgenstein’s Mistress is kind of a complimentary volume to Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico Philosophicus. Like Markson’s book, the Tractatus is a philosophical book about language that consists of a number of sentence-long paragraphs (Wittgenstein even numbers them for us). Also like Wittgenstein’s Mistress, a lot of the philosophy in the Tractatus is unsaid. This is because Wittgenstein was well aware of the limits of language–some concepts can’t be expounded upon, but only implied–and he wrote his book in that spirit.

coverAnother end of the world book that is very highly interpretable is Haruki Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. This book stands out as being one of the strangest novels from a writer who tends to be known for writing strange novels.

The book has intertwined narratives that are told in alternating chapters. The first one concerns a 35-year-old Japanese man who is a sort of freelance mathematician. He underwent an operation that changed the composition of his brain so that he could put himself into a trance-like state where performs complex calculations incredibly rapidly (presumably, these are of the type that a computer couldn’t handle). One day he’s called to an office. After a minutes-long elevator ride he is placed into a dark closet that opens onto a ladder. He climbs several stories down into a subterranean cave where he finds a kooky old professor working on a project called "The End of the World." He gives the mathematician a unicorn’s skull and an assignment, telling him that if he doesn’t receive the results by Monday the world will end. The world doesn’t end, but eventually it turns out that the mathematician’s consciousness is also at risk–if he doesn’t get help from the old professor, he’ll forever be trapped within a sub-community that’s formed within his own mind.

That sounds like enough on its own, but we’re not even in the second narrative yet. This narrative takes place in a sort of medieval gated town called The End of the World. A man has just been let into the town, which is more like a grand prison controlled by The Gatekeeper than an actual city. The newest prisoner learns that residents of this town have had their memories stolen, and that soon his will be taken too if he doesn’t find some way to escape.

There are several links between these narratives–both protagonists are in danger of having their consciousness stolen, the unicorn’s skulls figure prominently into both narratives, and, of course, there’s that pregnant phrase "the end of the world" which we find at the heart of both narratives. The typical interpretation of this book is that the community called The End of the World is inside the narrator’s head, and that it explains what happens to him after he loses his consciousness. But, this is only the most basic interpretation–there are many other, much more nuanced ones. Murakami excels in creating fantastic stories that support an unusually large number of interpretations, and this novel is no slouch in that respect.

Another end of the world novel that I’ve enjoyed is Paul Auster’s In the Country of Last Things. It strikes me a very similar to McCarthy’s book, as it’s a sort of open-ended quest novel where humankind is plundering through the remaining products of capitalism (hence the "last things" in the title). Even though it’s a very dystopian novel about a world where death comes swiftly and mercilessly, I’d still say Auster’s world is far more merciful than McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic horror.

There are other books that have mined the end of the world: There’s Kate Atkinson’s collection of short stories, Not the End of the World, where people ignore things like biblical floods, catastrophic explosions, etc. There’s also Michel Houellebecq’s The Possibility of an Island the story of humans in a sort of post-sex post-apocalyptic dystopian.

I think that Wittgenstein’s Mistress, Hard-Boiled Wonderland, The Children’s Hospital, and In the Country of Last Things (the ones I’ve read) can all be considered successful examples of the "end of the world" genre because, paradoxically, they’re not overly concerned with the end of the world. The typical stuff of novels–plot and characters–take center stage here. The apocalypse is treated as nothing more than background.

By contrast, I think Nevil Shute’s On the Beach, about a group of Australians who are the only ones to survive a nuclear holocaust, doesn’t work as literature because it’s overly concerned with demonstrating the horrors of nuclear war. It’s a good read, but Shute is too concerned with wringing melodrama from his characters to show the world that it really shouldn’t push the button. It gives in to the temptation that I think ruins a lot of authors that try to write about the apocalypse: the temptation to tell us what the end of the world–such a weighty subject–means. Novels tend to be at their worst when they’re telling us what something means, and Shute’s attempt to pass along a moral ruins his story.

Authors of apocalypse novels succeed when they use the end of the world as a singular concept that they can build interesting plots and characters around. In doing this, I think these books are doing exactly what any good book does. The books I like best are not the ones that have the most sensational story, but the ones that manipulate their premise in the most interesting ways. The authors of my favorite books think about how their premises let them build unique characters and structures; they find the most creative ways to get the most out of whatever premise they choose. So even though the apocalypse in literature is a very tired concept by now, I think these books prove that what’s important isn’t how original the premise is, but rather what’s done with it.

As I was reflecting on The Children’s Hospital, where a children’s hospital is the only thing that survives the flood, I asked myself, Why a children’s hospital? In trying to answer that question, I thought about how the novel would have been different if other things were spared. What if, instead, Adrian spared Congress, with all 535 representatives? What if he spared a law school? A baseball stadium in the midst of a game? If Adrian has chosen anything besides a children’s hospital, his book would have been drastically different. With that much diversity available within a relatively constrained plot, I’m convinced that the whole of the apocalypse has many, many more novels left in it, not in the least since people are always finding new and better ways to destroy this world that we live in.

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