Tuesday, January 22, 2008

McCarthyism Comes to the UK

I enjoyed reading January Magazine’s take on the popularity of Cormac McCarthy’s work. As the Coen brother’s adaptation of No Country for Old Men opens in cinemas throughout the United Kingdom, all things McCarthy are taking root in Britain as well.

I’ve enjoyed McCarthy’s writing for what it is: spare, brutal and pessimistic existential musings on the darker side of mankind. But do the literary critics here in Britain agree with my spare and brutal distillation of McCarthy’s work?

Last week, The Guardian took a run at McCarthy’s work:
The style of late-period McCarthy -- he was born in 1933 -- is characterised by its philosophical pessimism, pared-down sentences and restrained vocabulary. In contrast, there is nothing stylistically restrained about his earlier work, especially the mid-period novels Suttree (1979) and Blood Meridian (1985). Set in the mid-19th century, Blood Meridian ostensibly concerns the wanderings of a band of scalp-hunters in south-west Texas and Mexico. But most important is McCarthy’s grand style, his astounding gift for language. Take his description of a raid by horse-riding Native Americans on a group of white settlers making their way across an isolated plain: “A legion of horribles, hundreds in number, half naked or clad in costumes attic or biblical or wardrobed out of a fevered dream with the skins of animals and silk finery and pieces of uniform still tracked with the blood of prior owners, coats of slain dragoons, frogged and braided cavalry jackets, one in a stovepipe hat and one with an umbrella and one in white stockings and a bloodstained weddingveil and some in headgear of cranefeathers or rawhide helmets that bore the horns of bull or buffalo ... ”

And so the sentence goes on, unbroken, for at least another half-page, the spillage of hundreds of words, with clauses linked only by the most important word in McCarthy's lexicon, the connective “and”. (You read his novels and search in vain for a colon or semi-colon or long dash.) It's a virtuoso performance, as is the entire novel, a gothic extravaganza and one of the oddest books I've ever read.
You can read the entire piece here.

The Times recently picked The Road as one of their bookclub reads with “star-reader” Monnie Black describing it thusly:
I had no idea that The Road would be quite so moving. I settled down to read the last 30 pages wearing a face mask. What a mistake! I was supposed to keep my features still, but I twitched in sorrow. I have been recommending the book to my friends who are concerned that it sounds too sad. But I have reassured them that at the very end you feel uplifted. It is hardly a happy ending in the traditional sense but is as happy as it could be, given that the Earth has practically been burnt to a crisp. In a strange way the ending felt realistic.

The only way for mankind to struggle on would be to believe in God or to believe in the goodness of those who have died while protecting the ones they loved. The boy does not have to be religious but he does need to believe in goodness while, all around him, some choose an evil path for survival
The Times’ Book Club report is here.

The Sunday Times dissects and delineates McCarthy and his work staring with this introduction:
Until the publication of All the Pretty Horses in 1992, Cormac McCarthy was considered the best unknown novelist in America. None of his previous novels, which included Suttree (1979) and Blood Meridian (1985), had sold more than 2,500 copies in hard cover. There was good reason for his obscurity: McCarthy’s books were, and are, implacably grim and violent. They are also stylistically challenging, often plotless, lacking traditional punctuation and arcane in their vocabulary. And McCarthy did nothing to publicise them or himself. As “the most celebrated recluse in American literature since JD Salinger”, he refuses to go on book tours, won’t teach or lecture, and (reluctantly) gave his first substantive interview only in 1992, to The New York Times.
Then The Times brings up these interesting facts about this enigmatic and reclusive writer:
CORMAC McCARTHY IS NOT HIS REAL NAME McCarthy was born in 1933, the third of six children, and named Charles after his father, a well-to-do lawyer. In 1937, the family moved from Rhode Island to Knoxville, Tennessee. McCarthy dropped out of the University of Tennessee and in 1953 joined the air force. At some point, he changed his name to Cormac, apparently after the Irish king. For a while, he lived on Ibiza with his second wife, the singer Anne DeLisle. From the mid1970s until the mid1980s, he lived in El Paso, Texas. He is now married to Jennifer Winkley, an academic, with whom he has a son. He lives just outside Santa Fe, New Mexico.

For most of his life, McCarthy was extremely poor, living in barns and shacks and writing in motel rooms. He carried a high-wattage light bulb around in a lens case, and would screw it in so he could see better in motels. Somehow, partly through grants, partly through some kind of inexplicable providence, he survived. “I had no money – I mean none,” he said recently. “I had run out of toothpaste, and I was wondering what to do when I went to the mailbox and there was a free sample.” CORMAC McCARTHY IS OLD-FASHIONED He likes people to be punctual. “If you can’t know where a man is going to be when he says he’s going to be there, how can you trust him about anything else?” he says.
The Times piece is here.

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