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?

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I think that Wood doesn’t understand what McCarthy is doing. Wood states that McCarthy’s diction is absurd considering that he’s writing about a “small-town policeman,” but in the context of that novel (if I’m remembering the plot correctly) the captain has tremendous power over the lives of everyone who lives in or passes through that town. If there is absurdity, it is in that particular state of affairs, and not in the recursive prose that draws us closer to the place of the captain in the world than a usual thriller or western or an otherwise shallowly-psychologized novel.
But the biggest problem with Wood’s review is that Wood thinks No Country is a thriller. It’s not, and the explanation for this claim is simple. By turning aside from the cathartic shoot-out that modern thrillers have trained us to expect, McCarthy draws our attention to everything else he’s done in the book, from incarnating evil to puncturing the myths of hero and anti-hero alike, to providing excellent dramas about getting older and about work.
(Speaking of work, I think McCarthy’s play The Stonemason is worth reading if you haven’t already, and if you can find a copy.)

I like the idea of going from Buddenbrooks to McCarthy – it’s got to be the nearest literary equivalent to taking a hit of salvia divinorum. I’m just glad that Scott’s head didn’t explode.

I’m noting some minor stylistic differences.

I envy you the task of reading all of McCarthy. I wish I had the time to go back through all his books again.
If you read Wood’s HFW (as I’m sure you have), paying close attention to what he emphasizes (and what he elides), you realize he’s a bit of a ‘one trick pony’: Fiction works, for him, if and only if (and only to the extent that) the writer effaces his/her own voice from the narrative and from that of the characters. His strict insistence on ‘free indirect style’ is the tell, here.
Bearing this in mind, go back and read any of his reviews; it becomes obvious. To this extent—i.e., to the extent HFW makes this point—his book is a helpful roadmap to his individual reviews.
Jim H.

It’s been a great trip so far. I’m finding the early work excellent, although also very different from the later work. Not in a stylistic sense (it’s amazing how consistent McCarthy’s style has been over 40 years), but in thematic, moral, and structural ones.

Yes, Wood gets McCarthy wrong, but McCarthy’s excesses are, you have to admit, legion. I kept a notebook of outlandish patches of prose when I read Suttree years ago. I’ve lost my copy of the book as well as the notebook I wrote the stuff in, but the following description of toadstools still occasionally rattles through my head: “umbrellas whereunder toads are reckoned to siesta.”

It’s true, if you’re going to cast your net wide as McCarthy does in Suttree you’re going to come up with some things you probably wish you didn’t. I still found the book amazing, just like I found much of Pynchon amazing even though some parts of his best novels definitely didn’t work for me.

LML, McCarthy’s excesses, even if they don’t always contribute to…hmmm…the unity of his books, are part of what makes him distinct and so enjoyable. He reaches for everything, from vocabulary and diction that are at odds with what someone might suppose his purpose is at a given moment, to the way he brings genres into his novels.
Unrelated to style, the part with the watermelons at the beginning of Suttree is still hilarious, and I’ve been known to cry when thinking of the moment when Suttree gets hit over the head with a floor buffer.
Scott, I would really enjoy reading about what you think of the way his structure has changed over time. Most of the early books (save Outer Dark) have structures that I don’t get, but it seems to me that every element of the westerns are controlled by their structures (most especially The Crossing, as noted by Robert Hass in his long review for the NYT).

The structures of McCarthy’s pre-Blood Meridian work verses those after BM pose some very interesting questions. The two sets of books very much seem to come out of distinct concepts of narrative and morality.
I’ve already read some interesting thoughts on the differences between the two, and, indeed, this is a topic I’m hoping to add my own original contribution to.

I mostly agree with you, Joseph, about McCarthy’s excesses. He’s like Faulkner in many ways, one of which is that both generally fail by asking too much of their rhetoric, rather than too little. So when they fail, they fail big. When I was first reading McCarthy, I think I was caught up in the sweep of his style and didn’t care so much about these failures, but it’s my feeling that the early-to-mid career books don’t hold up very well to rereading. My taste has changed, but also, I think, many of the failures are failures on the terms McCarthy’s books themselves set.
I prefer the chastened style of No Country for Old Men, slight as it is compared to Suttree or Blood Meridian, and I think his surest shot at canonical status is The Road, which is essentially Blood Meridian entirely stripped of cant. The recognizable voice is still there, but it feels purified, steelier. I find myself wishing that he’d evolved in this direction a little earlier, so that I could like Suttree and Blood Meridian as much as I used to.
I’m with you on the melonfancier and the floor buffer in Suttree. Those have remained remarkably vivid in the mental vault. Also the Judge with the puppies, the mules with mercury globules falling off the cliff, and the Apaches arriving clad in mirrors and wedding dresses in BM. No one alive has written as many individual memorable scenes as he has.

The mercury globules . . . that was astonishing.
Compared to the earlier works (Orchard Keeper, Suttree), BM feels very stripped to me . . . it’s still very extravagant, but somehow it all feels necessary. The Orchard Keeper is a mess. Suttree feels very structured. Not so much a mess as a very maximalist McCarthy.
I admired The Road a great, great deal when I first read it, although it feels almost too minimal to me now. Still admire it a lot, though.

Wood is a salaried misreader. I learned this when I compared what he said about Geoffrey Hill in his review of Canaan and The Triumph of Love with what Hill wrote.

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