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:
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:
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:
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?