A few years ago, I was chatting with a friend in a Lisbon esplanade. I wish I could say the esplanade belonged to a famous café with a long literary history, like A Brasileira, Martinho da Arcada or the Café Nicola, typical tourist haunts, but it was in fact a filthy tavern in a byway close to the National Theatre. The setting lacks class, but the following story does not deserve to take place in a café patronized by Fernando Pessoa and Eça de Queiroz. When a friend whom we had been expecting arrived, he carried with him a copy of No Country for Old Men, and excitedly informed us that this was going to be the Coen Brothers’ next movie. Of Cormac McCarthy, its author, I had never heard. But my friend raved about the novel and curiosity prompted me to buy it the next time I visited a bookstore. I found it to be rubbish. The movie, notwithstanding the usual technical excellence I expect from the Coens, wasn’t stellar either, for McCarthy’s ponderous voice managed to quell their characteristic absurdist worldview. Not deterred by this misstep, and this time influenced by the film adaptation of The Road, I went and bought that novel. It was rubbish too. For my part, I should have obeyed my instincts and given up Cormac McCarthy. But his fans surged in his defence. They explained it all to me, it had all just been a bit of rotten bad luck. Of all the novels I could have chosen, I had to read those two, his worst ones, they confided in me. It made sense to me, they were his most recent novels, and we all know writers deteriorate with age. That’s my experience with Philip Roth, José Saramago and Milan Kundera. The second law of thermodynamics is unmerciful. Entropy, inherent vice, and all that. Ah, how much sense it did make! It had all been a mistake, and I felt foolish for I had caused it, failing to remember my natural sciences. Furthermore, they told me great things about him, that he was a serious writer, a writer who only wrote about “life and death,” all contemporary fiction seemed trite compared to the augustness of his books. Humbled, I asked for recommendations, I wanted to read Cormac McCarthy’s greatest novel where he wrote about life and death. And here the experts, like scientists at the turn of the 20th century taking sides on the wave-particle duality controversy, held two opposing views. Some believed that McCarthy’s greatness was constituted by discrete wave packets of suttrees. Others argued that his genius was best explained as blood meridian particles. Well, since I had no clue what a suttree was, for I don’t have a degree in quantum literature, I read Blood Meridian.
It’s rubbish, of course it’s rubbish. To a smaller degree, if it’s any consolation, than the previous two. But instructive to show why I don’t care about this author. Cormac McCarthy is a writer of very limited talents, with a meagre repertoire of tricks. In fact he only has two: blood and eloquence. I suspect he applies one or another, or both, to all his novels. The plots, from what I can glean, always involve someone chasing someone to kill him. The author’s great virtue lies in subtly changing the number of people chasing and being chased. For instance, in No Country for Old Men there’s one Anton Chirguh chasing a guy to kill him. In Blood Meridian there are lots of Anton Chirguhs chasing lots of Injins and Mexicans and civilians to kill them. McCarthy depurates this formula in the apotheosis that is The Road, in which father and son are chased by everybody. If ambition means upping the ante, I guess McCarthy is a very, very ambitious writer. This is basically the plot of horror movies and The Terminator series. McCarthy tries to hide the blood with the eloquence, that is, there’s usually an erudite psychopath babbling, in that inimitable tone that philosophy de pacotille produces, about evil and chance and fate and power. When in a novel like The Road there’s no coin-flipping psychotic polymath, but only the blood, then you realize just how vacuous the author’s style is.
Eloquence requires command of an abundant vocabulary, a fault Cormac McCarthy can’t be accused of. Now I don’t sneer at a large vocabulary, being addicted to dictionaries myself, but I don’t think it’s anything impressive either, precisely because there are dictionaries and thesauruses that writers can consult. I expect a writer to have a large vocabulary, it’s the least I expect of him. But even his vocabulary leaves something to be desired. One of his tricks is sneaking in as many Latinate words as possible, which gives his sentences an aura of mysterious density to his English-language readers. Unfortunately this trick, I’m afraid, will not impress a Latin-based language speaker. Lave, discalced, carafe, accrescence, and abscission don’t give me particular agony since they’re all similar to words I daily use: lavar, descalço, garrafa, acrescência, abcisão. Blood Meridian has the added fact of employing Spanish words, and you can imagine why that doesn’t pose a particular challenge for me either. So I must scratch vast vocabulary from the list of things to praise McCarthy for.
So what else? The characters? But there aren’t characters to speak of. They’re mostly intangible ciphers. McCarthy doesn’t like interiority, or common psychology, anything that gets inside his characters, or even things like back-story. He’s never interested in the past, only the future, his writing is pure movement, always going forward. Basically he writes as if his novels were screenplays (and No Country for Old Men is a novel converted from a film script), describing only things that can be captured by a lens: a sunset, a cavalcade, a thumb on a trigger, a wound, etc. As a principle, there’s nothing wrong with this. Lots of writers I admire don’t focus on the interior either, José Saramago and Leonardo Sciascia just to name two examples. And yet their characters do come across as far more tangible, more complete I guess. I agree with William H. Gass that you can keep adding more traits to a character and he’ll never become more real for that. I can even do without characters, or I wouldn’t be a Borges lover. But if characters must exist, I prefer Anna Karenina, baroque in her motives and psychology, to the aridness of the kid.
For reasons that aren’t incomprehensible to me, McCarthy is often compared to Herman Melville, and his judge Holden to Captain Ahab. It could not be otherwise. They’re both translucent phantoms with no substance save a few discursive moments – the eloquence – where they shine by the grace of a language full of thunder. Moby Dick, to my mind, is an inconstant novel with moments of genius; once I claimed that Ahab’s final speech was the best speech not written by Shakespeare, and I stand by that. In fact I’ll transcribe it verbatim because this post is in want of actual good prose, if we wait for McCarthy to provide it we’ll be he all eternity:
"Starbuck, of late I've felt strangely moved to thee; ever since that hour we both saw—thou know'st what, in one another's eyes. But in this matter of the whale, be the front of thy face to me as the palm of this hand—a lipless, unfeatured blank. Ahab is for ever Ahab, man. This whole act's immutably decreed. 'Twas rehearsed by thee and me a billion years before this ocean rolled. Fool! I am the Fates' lieutenant; I act under orders. Look thou, underling! that thou obeyest mine.—Stand round me, men. Ye see an old man cut down to the stump; leaning on a shivered lance; propped up on a lonely foot. 'Tis Ahab—his body's part; but Ahab's soul's a centipede, that moves upon a hundred legs. I feel strained, half stranded, as ropes that tow dismasted frigates in a gale; and I may look so. But ere I break, yell hear me crack; and till ye hear that, know that Ahab's hawser tows his purpose yet. Believe ye, men, in the things called omens? Then laugh aloud, and cry encore! For ere they drown, drowning things will twice rise to the surface; then rise again, to sink for evermore. So with Moby Dick—two days he's floated—tomorrow will be the third. Aye, men, he'll rise once more,—but only to spout his last! D'ye feel brave men, brave?"
Judge Holden also commands a silvery tongue. He speaks in parables and symbols, insinuating more than signifying, in that opaque style that will have literary critics eating from his hand for decades to come. The climax of all his yapping is the discourse on War, with a capital W because that’s the kind of writer McCarthy is:
This is the nature of war, whose stake is at once the game and the authority and the justification. Seen so, war is the truest form of divination. It is the testing of one’s will and the will of another within that larger will which because it binds them is therefore forced to select. War is ultimate game because war is at last a forcing of the unity of existence. War is god.
To go back to the plot, since we’re comparing both novels, it’s fair to say that they’re also similar in that nothing happens of importance for most of their pages, until suddenly in the last fifty pages everything rushes towards a fizzling conclusion. The pursuit of Moby Dick quickly takes a backseat to Ishmael’s cetacean trivia, whereas the Glanton gang promenades harmlessly through a lovely landscape where they commit amazing acts of cartoonish violence without law opposing them, even though the area is crawling with soldiers, until something is conjured out of nowhere to put an end to their picnic by the mesas. And then a few pages later the kid and judge Holden meet again. Incidentally, the gang has the habit of ruining the populations they work for; the idea of heroes becoming an unwanted occupational force was explored much better by J.M. Coetzee in Waiting for the Barbarians. I wouldn’t want my readers to go away empty-handed without a sound recommendation. Moby Dick had something that Blood Meridian lacked, an interesting character like Ishmael. Anyone who’s read the great whale novel knows Ahab is not the protagonist, it’s Ishmael, that wonderful, garrulous, obsessive narrator. Ahab and his grudge are just the price we have to pay for Ishmael’s company. Unfortunately McCarthy wants me to pay thrice, once for the bland kid, once for the amorphous gang he wanders into, and finally for judge Holden, an apparition whose symbolism as a supernatural being, possibly the Devil or the personification of War, is so obvious it was fated to be considered profound by academe, for whom it was tailor-made.
Plot, vocabulary, characters. What next? Ah yes, the prose is awful. Readers claim that McCarthy writes biblical prose. I personally don’t know what they think that means, but I have a very strong belief that it means syntactically plain prose, because that is the nature of ancient languages. His biblical prose is this:
By full dark the blackened ribracks leaned steaming at the fires and there was a jousting over the coals with shaven sticks whereon were skewered gobs of meat and a clank of canteens and endless raillery. And sleep that night on the cold plains of a foreign land, forty-six men wrapped in their blankets under the selfsame stars, the prairie wolves so like in their yammering, yet all about so change and strange.
The author’s secret is that he uses the conjunction and all the time, which as Guy Deutscher explains in Through the Language Glass, is how texts in ancient languages used to be written, without recourse to subordinate clauses. It’s also why “the narrative style of ancient languages such as Hittite, Akkadian, or biblical Hebrew often seems soporifically repetitive.” That’s because they lacked the “syntactic technology” to create subordinate clauses that added complexity to their sentences. As Deutscher argues, ancient languages developed this capacity when their societies started “growing in complexity” and had to expand the uses of language for administrative, legal and judicial purposes. I’m sure there is a lot to admire about the way illiterate shepherds wrote in the Levant region eons ago, but I do like my syntax a bit more intricate. Reading McCarthy’s sentences is like reading an English textbook for foreign students, full of simple telegraphic, declarative sentences that use the SVO structure, before you’re experienced enough to graduate to, I don’t know, Philip Roth. It’s a style, of course, even a popular one. If mediocrities like Hemingway and Raymond Carver got away with it, why shouldn’t McCarthy do so? But I prefer writers who’ve updated their syntactic software, like Vladimir Nabokov and Saramago.
I guess I’m obliged to speak about the violence now. I’m a very insensitive person so children hanging from trees and spilled brains on the prairie don’t leave me shrivelled in a corner, catatonic. I remember laughing at the baby on the spit in The Road, it was such a ludicrous, telling moment, McCarthy admitting he knew no other means to hold a reader’s attention than by throwing snuff movie images at him. If only they arrived to the sound of Riz Ortolani’s score…
What does this novel intend to tell me? That the world is vile and dark and ugly and unredeemable? But I already know that, I’ve read Kaputt and The Skin, I’ve read Joseph Conrad, I’ve read Blidness. Ten novels to say what Jorge de Sena condensed in a single sentence? “I’ve convinced myself that mankind is incurably vile, with a few pretty hours once in a while, and we can’t demand from it more than it can give us.” That’s the power of concision. I guess that’s why he’s a poet and McCarthy a mere novelist. Cormac McCarthy published Blood Meridian in 1985. From what I hear, it was a bad time: Reaganism, Thatcherism, the Cold War, impending nuclear extermination. Perhaps he wrote this novel to teach his fellow countrymen something about the Real World®. Although I’ve never met an American, I’m told they’re these affable but gullible and innocent little creatures who think the world is a bubbly place, like the Hobbits, unaware of all the evil orcs at Mount Doom. As didactic fiction, I have no doubts Blood Meridian is an invaluable instrument. Still, thank God for mature writers like Gabriel García Márquez, who published Love in the Time of Cholera around the same time. With its optimistic sentimentality and promising happy ending in the face of a world going to hell, I dare say he was far braver and more radical, for going against the grain, than this predictable pamphleteer of formless doom.
I could go on, but why bother? More than his one-dimensional characters, his repetitive plots, his simplistic prose, flaws I can tolerate in many writers I admire, what repels me is the authoritarian demeamour his writing conveys. I think a long time ago the world created two types of readers. There were those conceived high in Aristophanes’ clouds. And down below, by the ground, next to dirt and the blood, there were those conceived during the long siege of Troy. From time to time I can admire the blood-splattered walls and the looting, but ultimately my view of the world and existence is just too absurdist to take seriously the gloomy solemnity of an agelaste like McCarthy. If the Catholic Church ever needs a third part for the Bible, McCarthy could ghost-write it. He has the appropriate tone, that thundering tone of someone hurling down timeless truths at the poor mortals, so full of bilious certainty, incapable of ever considering that he masters only a provincial truth. But what else to expect from a man who doesn’t understand Henry James and writers who don’t write about “life and death?” I bet it’s never even occurred to him that there’s nothing vaguer than talking about these extremities. Life is everything that composes it so I fail to see how any writer can not write about something he’s inextricably part of. As for death, it’s sad that the man who’s so fond of it, who one would presume has spent considerable time meditating about it, really thinks he writes about it. No one can know death, only an approximation of it. At best a writer can write about dying, the fear of death or the mourning of a dead person, but actual death, or Death, as I’m sure he’d prefer it, what is that thing other than a fugitive abstraction? This subtle difference is why he can only write about Anton Chirguhs killing people; it’s a subtle but immense difference, it’s the difference between The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis and this silly little novel.