May 26, 2009, 11:16AM

In Defense of Cormac McCarthy

One writer, ten novels, and a career-long obsession.

It is telling that critics frequently compare Cormac McCarthy’s novels to dreams. Two examples: in The New York Review of Books, Joyce Carol Oates stated that McCarthy’s work is reminiscent of one of Pascal Pensées: “Life is a dream a little less inconstant.” Earlier in the same journal, Denis Donoghue found recourse to Freud: “[a dream] does not think, calculate, or judge in any way at all; it restricts itself to giving things a new form.”Oates and Donoghue do not resort to the tired and superficial cliché, dreamlike; rather they use the language of dreams to describe fiction at once teasingly intimate yet also fundamentally alienated from us. They acknowledge the often surreal quality of McCarthy’s fiction but imply an underlying sensibility beneath the chaos. Indeed, both quotes cut down two of the most persistent critiques of McCarthy: moral ambiguity and a lack of interest in penetrating beneath surfaces. Pascal and Freud offer rejoinders: dreams, like McCarthy, may appear unbound, but they have a power over us that belies that claim.Still, as with many misstatements there is kernel of truth to the criticism of McCarthy: few other authors working over the last forty years have so thoroughly restricted themselves to the simple act of giving things a new form. That McCarthy does this with a singular ability is inarguable; even his detractors will grant the inherent beauty of McCarthy’s prose. In fact, more than any other postwar writer he is identified as the heir of that ultimate Southern stylist, William Faulkner; Madison Smartt Bell has even declared McCarthy one of very few authors to walk in Faulkner’s shadow and escape to tell the tale. The Faulkner comparison, of course, owes much to McCarthy’s Southern Gothic sensibilities and his obsessive mapping and re-mapping of the town of Knoxville, Tennessee; but, less superficially, the comparison is made because both Faulkner and McCarthy have discovered potent new ways to structure sentences, and because each could trammel up a deep, bassy vatic voice without estranging the surrounding prose.McCarthy has given new shades to the English language, and that should be enough. Were he a painter or a composer, or perhaps even a poet, it probably would be, but Cormac McCarthy is a fiction writer, and fiction is generally construed to carry burdens above and beyond anything so frivolous as mere style. Stories must mean something. They must appear to argue for or against moral systems—or at least interrogate them. They must be a little less inconstant than dreams.It is strange to charge McCarthy with not caring about anything more than surfaces, as his single most famous public utterance indicates otherwise. This is the author who declared “I don’t understand [Proust and Henry James]. To me, that’s not literature” because real literature “deals with issues of life and death.”Here McCarthy reveals his great interest in the choices his characters make. True, he may not realize that, to Proust and James, Swann’s choice to court Odette or Isabel Archer’s choice to marry Osmond are issues just as “life and death” as any murder or tryst found in McCarthy, but the quote still flatly contradicts the claim that McCarthy is a pure formalist. And does McCarthy’s work itself back up his claim? Yes. In fact, in each of his ten novels McCarthy has showed an obsession with the rare, crucial moments when people make the decisions that will define their lives forever.

  • I found it rather endearing that Esposito, who is clearly an excellent writer, got a little carried away and dropped the word "vatic" (in the same sentence as "trammel", even). I had to look it up and it means "prophetic," which I guess Mr. Esposito is using to reference the often Biblical tone of McCarthy's prose. the more you know! Great article.

    Responses to this comment
  • McCarthy's influence is spreading, as is his ability to describe reality in such a way that it teeters on a dream. This can be traced back to Faulkner, as Esposito hints in the article. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, when asked about magical realism, attributed the genre to Faulkner and McCarthy carries that torch to light the darkening caverns of American Letters. It should also be noted that McCarthy's influence is coloring a younger generation of writers. John Gist, for example, with the telling titles of his novels such as "Lizard Dreaming of Birds" and his latest, "A Clearing of the Way" owes much to McCarthy both in subject matter and setting. This is an author to keep an eye on. I wonder if McCarthy is aware of his influence on this up and comeing novelist? I sense a merging of cultures on the borderlands. Is this the new fertile ground of American Letters? The South moved Southwest? Great article!

    Responses to this comment

Register or Login to leave a comment