On Cormac McCarthy
In 2005 James Wood in The New Yorker wrote, “To read Cormac McCarthy is to enter a climate of frustration: a good day is so mysteriously followed by a bad one. McCarthy is a colossally gifted writer, certainly one of the greatest observers of landscape. He is also one of the great hams of American prose.” Now eighty-nine, McCarthy’s two new novels—at least on the surface—focus on the tragic relationship between a brother and sister, Bobby and Alicia (Alice) Western. The first, The Passenger, is novel-length and the second (much shorter text), Stella Maris, is structured as a series of therapy sessions between Alicia and her psychiatrist at the psychiatric facility where she has committed herself for the third and tragically final time. As Wood states, “McCarthy has a tendency to omit half the human race from serious scrutiny.” With the doomed Alicia, McCarthy seems to be making an attempt to rectify that situation although only through past tense and the lens of a psychiatrist and her brother. I’m not sure I agree but Laura Miller in Slate suggests “the events in The Passenger might be nothing more than the hallucinations or dreams of a comatose Bobby.” And while Alicia has the potential to be a compelling character, instead she serves mainly to provide a conduit for extended passages on higher math, physics, the nature of reality, and madness. She also serves as an object of impossible (albeit mutual) love for her brother, Bobby, the protagonist of The Passenger.
In 1999, Gail Simone coined the phrase “Women in Refrigerators” (or WiR) to address the trope in comics where female characters are raped, tortured, assaulted, murdered, etc. in order to stimulate vengeance or heroic response from a male character. In other words, the female characters existed only to serve as devices to move the male character’s arc forward. For example, Kyle Rayner’s girlfriend Alexandra DeWitt is murdered and stuffed into a fridge in Green Lantern (1994) and in Amazon’s series The Boys Hughie’s (Jack Quaid) girlfriend Robin is killed in the first episode thereby setting him on a path of (self)destructive vengeance. In the opening scene of McCarthy’s The Passenger, a hunter comes upon Alicia’s body hanging from a tree in the forest. Although the passage is crafted in the resonant prose we’ve come to expect from McCarthy, Alicia’s “eyes were frozen cold and hard as stones.” For the entirety of both books, Alicia is always already dead.
McCarthy was born in Providence, Rhode Island in 1933 but grew up in East Tennessee where his father worked for the TVA providing power for the Manhattan Project. As John Jeremiah Sullivan points out in his recent review in the New York Times, McCarthy borrows details from his own life for his new novels. This is a marked remove from his general practice of not writing any “autobiographical or memoirist fiction or essays.” His protagonists are male (unless we count Alicia—can we? I’m not sure.), most are damaged, violent, and/or homicidal. Even the vaguely appealing John Grady Cole (All the Pretty Horses and Cities of the Plain) can be seen—however reductively—as a trope of American masculinity.
While many of McCarthy’s readers and fans cite All the Pretty Horses or The Road as favorites, I align myself with those who prefer the earlier and more easily-classified Southern Gothic novels, The Orchard Keeper (1965) and Outer Dark (1968). Reviews of these earlier novels often cite Faulkner as a touchpoint but I have a distinct memory of listening to Nick Cave’s Murder Ballads while reading and re-reading Outer Dark. It’s been years since I read either novel and I remember the images, the description, and the tone, far more than any of the characters or even the plot(s). It’s here I first experienced dialogue without quotation marks that actually worked. Joyce Carol Oates describes this aspect of McCarthy’s writing as “suggesting the curious texture of our dreams, in which spoken language isn’t heard so much as felt and dialogue is swallowed up in its surroundings.” Note: for Oates, Child of God (1973) is McCarthy’s “most perfectly realized work for its dramatic compression and sustained stylistic bravura, without the excesses of his later, more ambitious novels.” I’ll be interested to see what Oates—another towering figure of American writing—will make of McCarthy’s newest offerings.
In her extended review of No Country for Old Men (2005), Oates states that McCarthy’s novels “unfold with the exhausting intensity of fever dreams,” the early novels are “dense Faulknerian landscapes,” Blood Meridian is “Grand Guignol,” and the Border Trilogy “prose ballads.” I’ve never made it through Blood Meridian, or, The Evening Redness in the West (1985). Like Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon, it was on my “to be read/in the process of reading” shelf for years until I gave both to a friend who likes that sort of thing. 1985 was the year Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale was published (along with Love in the Time of Cholera) and someone had given me a copy of Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber so I was a bit busy reading other books and shifting away from male-centered American novels. Oates does an excellent job of critiquing the “numbing nihilism” and extended violence of Blood Meridian, should you be interested.
By the time No Country for Old Men came out, I was deep into Atwood, Shirley Jackson, Angela Carter, and Jeanette Winterson among others. I read No Country for Old Men in lunch breaks at my film and TV production job shortly before I started an MFA program and shifted from reading novels for entertainment alone to reading them on deeper levels: language, structure, characterizations, description, etc. Oates’s review of No Country for Old Men is brilliant—highlighting the “malevolent Eros of male violence” at the core of the novel. In his review for The New Yorker, James Wood calls the novel “morally empty” and Oates implies the same, likening it to a Quentin Tarantino film. Wood quotes McCarthy as claiming that there is “no such thing as life without bloodshed,” and that “the novelist’s proper occupation is with death.” Perhaps this is what makes McCarthy so popular among critics—he writes the malevolent patriarchal violence at the core of the American experience into the foundation of his novels. As Wood writes, “McCarthy’s novels are deeply engaged with founding American myths, in particular those of regeneration through violence, Southern pastoral, the figure of the sacred hunter, and the frontiersman’s conquest of the endless Western spaces.” It should follow then that at the core of The Passenger and Stella Maris lies not simply extended discourses on mathematics, physics, madness, and/or incest, but the American myths and horrors of the twentieth century: peace through warfare and the bomb, the Kennedys, the Mafia, the Vietnam War, and the destructive force of patriarchy. Against all of this, Alicia Western never stood a chance. She was always already a stand-in for the horrific pseudo-religious sacrifice of American women in the service of the American myth:
She hung among the bare gray poles of the winter trees with her head bowed and her hands turned slightly outward like those of certain ecumenical statues whose attitude asks that their history be considered. That the deep foundation of the world be considered where it has its being in the sorrow of her creatures.
As Wood says, McCarthy is “never very far from theodicy” and as someone who is currently in seminary, I can also self-describe as “never far from theodicy” but herein lies a fundamental difference, as an Atheist Humanist optimist, I want more for Alicia, and by extension, for Bobby and for all of us. When John Jeremiah Sullivan refers to McCarthy’s work as “portentous,” he is using varied meanings of the word—“eliciting amazement” and “ponderously excessive” among them. As Sullivan points out, portentous prose can mean “prophetic, doom-laden gravitas” but also simply “pretentious.” McCarthy’s novels are always both/and. That I choose hope instead, perhaps says more about my own naïve optimism than McCarthy’s lack of portentousness. By presenting the image of the already dead Alicia at the opening of his two novels, perhaps McCarthy wants us to hold that image in our minds as we read, to acknowledge that Alicia is already silenced, frozen (“fridged” if you will) because, as Rebecca Solnit says, “In patriarchy no one can hear you scream.”