Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Extolling McCarthy

NOVELIST CORMAC MCCARTHY IS at the center of a most unusual concomittance. In 2007, his bleak apocalyptic novel, The Road, captured the Pulitzer Prize for fiction while just a few months later the film version of his novel, No Country for Old Man, snatched the most Academy of Award nominations-- including, of course, "Best Picture." Thus, for the first time, a living writer has a corner on both the literary and the film market, making McCarthy's vision one of the most prevalent around.

So, what does it say about the literary and film cultures at this moment in history when one of the most violent, most seemingly nihilistic writers has seized the imagination of America's creative class? More interestingly, what is it about McCarthy that appeals to the likes of the Pulitzer board, The Coen Brothers, and Oprah?

The first question is easier to answer. Since 9/11, American cultural production has trended toward the violent, the bleak, and the expansive, and McCarthy's work plays into this weltanschauung like no other American writer. In McCarthy's world, evil is a living, moving force that is both tangible and stubborn. What we might think of as "good," never actually wins, but it also never suffers overt defeat. Rather, men enact these forces across the battlefield that is the Old West, the deep racialized and class-segregated South, and, in the case of The Road, an atavistic post-apocalyptic landscape.

In No Country for Old Men, a man's life depends on the toss of a coin. Literally. The protagonist is killed half-way through the book (and the movie), and his young wife suffers the same fate. In McCarthys' texts, violence looses itself upon the world. Good people die; bad people die. There are never easy answers. Such is the case in America right now. The country is at war. Our enemies are hard to pin down, and morality seems to have no bearing on actions or policies. Good and bad are unpredictable; they seem to flow in and out of each other. Not surprisingly, Hollywood has experienced difficulty developing narratives with the same complexity and contradictions as our current social and political climate, so McCarthy's vision resonates with unusual clarity. His otherness feels familiar.

For example, the issues that are the engines of No Country and The Road differ from those driving Titanic or The Lord of the Rings. However, they are themes that have framed American discourse, ranging from Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage to The Searchers to the novels of William Faulkner and Toni Morrison: What is duty? Why do men kill each other? Is there justice when there seems to be no justice? What is heroism? For what will a man risk his life and betray his moral code? McCarthy loves probing large issues that never get resolved, though they do get injected with a philosophical emotion that is nearly religious.

What we see, ultimately, in McCarthy's McCarthyness is a metonym for America. Whether we like it or not, the ontology of the United States is violent. Part of our national psyche understand the degree to which the fiber of America's vast blanket is dyed with crimson. Though No Country is not an allegory of Iraq, The Cold War, Vietnam or the colonization of Native lands, aspects of the movie and book get at each. In No Country and The Road, a lone man (a McCarthy favorite, perhaps a symbol of American self-reliance) must survive a hostile landscape in order to live and protect his family. In one case, the anti-hero fails at both; in another, one dies and one may or may not live on. There is no resolution; only indeterminacy.

To me, it is fascinating that as Barack Obama hypnotizes America on a platform of hope, America's most vaulted institutions of creative expression are honoring what some would call America's least hopeful living author. But, to read McCarthy as devoid of hope, as nihilistic, is to misread him. As the tag line for the film suggests, you can't stop what's coming, but as McCarthy's novels say over and over, we have never been able to stop what's coming. All we can do is adjust to the arrival. In my mind, writing novels and making films about these issues are themselves projects of optimism.

Contrary to what many believe, such works do not depress; they don't make us more pessimistic. They give us faith in our storytellers because they show us a world we already know but don't acknowledge. Most important of all, McCarthy's novels and the Coen Brothers film remind us that endurance, attention, and reflection are the ultimate goods. They remind us that in a world of unpredictability and terror, communication is more important than ever.


  1. Great stuff Dean.
    I think I am in agreement with everything you said here.
    Have you considered drawing a correlation to McCarthy's popularity and it being an election year? (Hmmm, Make you think?)
    Do we as American's feel a lack of hope? Do we identify with a Man that is being chased by "Death"? (Just some thoughts)

    Being a big fan of McCarthy myself, I have begun to examine my own interests in the Film and the Novel.
    Am I that guy?(Maybe today and not tomorrow)

    I think there is a season for everything. This is McCarthy's season I presume. Next year......Who knows Judy Blume?

  2. Haha, thissalesmanslife, I would love to see SuperFudge get an Oscar.

    Very well written, Dean. I enjoyed your blog and like that the name is a throwback to the old Weekly Reader.

  3. mmmm . . SuperFudge . . .

    Your observation about McCarthy and an election year *is* very interesting. Do you think both fill Americans with despair? Hope?

  4. Thanks, Most Prepossessing. Glad you got the WR reference!

  5. Serious, deep analyzis, I luvd it!

  6. Ah. this one sort of sent me on a nostalgic trip to your pop culture class circa 2003 (or perhaps it was 2002). And it's quite apropos of the rag tag book club Im currently a part of - we're mustering our way through The Road right now...I too always found a bit of hope, reflected in McCarthy's darkness. Polar sides of the same coin.

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