Cormac McCarthy’s Way with Words
Since his first published story in 1959, American novelist Cormac McCarthy has slowly (and, in the last decade, more rapidly) established the kind of cult following usually reserved for the more experimental pop musicians, which involves knowing shared looks, occasional expectant nudges and bated breath when impending publication of a new novel is announced. In the 1990s, this community of McCarthy fans extended its territory into the world of the American academy with the establishment of something called, in this volume, ‘McCarthy studies’, practised by a weird enclave of literary critics and pop cultural historians who, judging by the essays here, are immersed in the intricacies of their intellectual obsession.
This companion to McCarthy’s Border Trilogy, three novels published between 1992 and 1998, extends a project begun with the publication by the same editors of the 1993 Perspectives on Cormac McCarthy. The Border Trilogy novels, comprised of All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, and Cities of the Plain, have established McCarthy as a contemporary classic, a novelist whose style and subject matter are inextricably welded together, thus being instantly recognizable, and whose works have found, in these essays, some of their appropriate critics.
The nine essays in this volume, aimed at scholars and students of McCarthy’s novels but largely accessible to the serious reader, are never less than fully engaged in their themes. They represent a range of current academic approaches to literary analysis, from late deconstruction to eco-criticism, demonstrating at the same time the burgeoning complexities of McCarthy’s writing when such approaches are employed. While there are inevitably moments of rather dry intellectualism here (Nell Sullivan’s essay manages to name-check just about every gender theorist I can think of, and is a strong enough piece to not really need this kind of buttressing), what remains after reading the whole book is a sense of vibrant intellectual excitement, expressed in styles which are varied but never inadequate to their tasks.
At its best, the writing here embodies itself as an implicit echo of McCarthy’s own style - “Does humanity possess the ability to control what it has wrought?” asks Jacqueline Scoones in her essay on ‘Ethics and Evolution.’ The whiff of archaism about that final “wrought” is appropriate, both to the immensity of the question itself and to the mood of McCarthy’s own style. Ultimately, the shared focus here on the language of the novels and its expressive powers is the driving force of these essays. Written by scholars from the USA, Germany and France, they demonstrate an abiding literary fascination with the subtleties of words and combinations of words, and the powerful effects that they can induce in readers.
George Guillemin expresses these effects in McCarthy’s writings as the force of “the ritual impetus of storytelling”, “the inherited legacy of stories”, and cites a passage from The Crossing to support this: “And all that was seen was told and all that was told remembered.” Among other critical reference points, Guillemin uses the work of German theoretician Walter Benjamin to structure his discussion of pastoralism in the Trilogy. Elsewhere Jacqueline Scoones and J. Douglas Canfield make reference to Martin Heidegger to emphasize the existential and angst-ridden dynamics of the lives of McCarthy’s characters. In each case, the philosophical complexities of McCarthy’s writing are both foregrounded and implicitly valorized, as his novels seem to sustain their impressiveness in such company.
McCarthy writes in a predominantly popular tradition, that of the Western, injected with polluted blood from the corpus of the Southern Gothic of William Faulkner (McCarthy’s major precursor in style and grandiosity of theme) but also from the more European Gothic horror traditions. As Bram Stoker’s Dracula owes debts to the Western, so McCarthy makes the Western into a Gothic genre, in much the same way as James Ellroy has re-Gothicised the detective and crime genres. Comparisons between McCarthy and Ellroy are illuminating. Both have a particular (i.e. rather disturbed and disturbing) vision of human morality, both express this vision in awesome language, both use the genres and forms they have selected to great effect. McCarthy’s writing, at its most sustained, as in 1985’s Blood Meridian, Or The Evening Redness in the West, is Old Testament Vatic in its portent, full of archaic syntax, esoteric diction and lexis, bizarre and unsettling metaphors check out the description of the Apache riders at the start of chapter IX, and you’ll get the idea.
The essays in this volume remain true to this prevailing ethos, offering concentrated engagements with McCarthy’s fictions and demonstrating the efficacy of close, informed reading (Edwin T. Arnold’s resume of the history of theories of dreaming, for example) as a method of untying the novels. Read these essays for their takes on the novels, and for moments of exemplary criticism. Above all read them because, as all good criticism should, they’ll send you to the novels themselves, which the editors describe as “stylistically breathtaking, structurally and philosophically complex, subtly nuanced” - epithets which, with a bit of tugging and poking, could apply broadly to A Cormac McCarthy Companion.