Friday, August 6, 2010

My (Un-asked-for) Opinions Regarding Cormac McCarthy

So the other night Robyn and I (and our roommates) watched the movie The Road, starring Viggo Mortensen, based upon the novel by Cormac McCarthy. I really, really disliked it, even though I also thought that Viggo was good, and the little boy was good, too, but the movie as a whole left me shaken and depressed, and not in that good way. (Like the feeling that I got after seeing Das wei├če Band. That movie was amazing.)

My morose fascination with McCarthy began after seeing No Country for Old Men, which immediately became one of my favorite movies of all time.* Soon after viewing the movie, I went out and bought the book, and was shocked by what happened next. I hated it. It was dry, bland, violent, humorless, and had much stronger racist and anti-immigrant tones than the movie. I disliked it so much that I'm pretty sure that I gave it away, which is something that I never do with my books. In other words, I discovered that everything that I liked about the movie No Country for Old Men - the wit, the absurdity, the beautiful landscapes - had been put there by the Coen brothers. It felt to me as if they took a book completely lacking in self awareness and made it realize what was actually important in it and then showed it to the rest of us.**

And then along comes The Road. I haven't read the book, although after seeing the movie I went online and read the first chapter. I still think I will try to check it out of the library sooner than later. But based on my literary experience with No Country for Old Men, this film seemed much more "faithful" to McCarthy's overall world view; a hopeless, colorless, dying world populated almost entirely by men without names who are all simply standing in for some part of the human soul. As Robyn pointed out while we were watching the movie, "It would be the worst thing ever to be stuck in a Cormac McCarthy novel."

On the other hand, maybe I'm just missing something here. After all, The Road did win the Pulitzer Prize in 2007, and I pretty much trust those guys to know their literature.*** I've also had a few conversations with people whose literary judgment I trust and admire, who have said that they love McCarthy. I went looking for reviews of The Road, and found the NY Times glowing review by William Kennedy. It really helped cement some of my thoughts and opinions regarding McCarthy's writing. I'm going to try to restrict my criticism here to what I take to be McCarthy's primary themes in the book No Country for Old Men and The Road, and assuming that the movie was faithful to the book, which everyone says it was.

Kennedy writes, "The overarching theme in McCarthy’s work has been the face-off of good and evil with evil invariably triumphant through the bloodiest possible slaughter." Bingo. That was one of my biggest problems with No Country for Old Men. Not the evil triumphant part; I like evil triumphant. There would be no Orwell or Kafka without it. But the means by which evil triumphs in McCarthy's world leaves so much to be desired; it triumphs through bloodshed, through relentless, meaningless slaughter and violence. Look, now let me be absolutely clear****:I'm not opposed to violence, either. Violence - horrific violence - is a very real part of our world. As we speak, people are boiling to death in Moscow. But the way that McCarthy mystifies violence, the way that he makes it into something that, by its very nature, cannot be understood or resisted, I find to be particularly annoying.

Evil or violence in a text without meaning adds nothing to that text. In No Country for Old Men, Chigurh is without ethnicity, age, face, class, motivation, etc. He is merely a force of evil - which is the point. But to that my response is: so what? If I am being presented with a picture of violence that I find to be useless and unrealistic, what interest do I have in reading more about it? In an excellent negative review of The Road on litkicks.com, Levi Asher observes:

The first thing the reader detects is that this will be a thoroughly humorless book, a book of punishing, guilt-ridden unpleasantness, a book that must be aiming to be "good for us", because it's sure not aiming to be fun. That's the moral outlook Cormac McCarthy always offers -- a stern "church lady" tone warning of stark choices between evil and redemption.
Right. In the way that McCarthy presents evil - what I call "apolitical evil," because it is an evil that transcends meaning and identity - the only expectable response from the reader is this kind of Opus Dei flagellation. We have always already sinned, and now it is too late, the Reaper cometh, and all we can do is bemoan our cruel fates. And I think this kind of conception of evil - the kind that warns us against action - is cowardly.

The second major problem that I have with McCarthy is with his prose. In his review, Kennedy says:

But on the basis of “No Country for Old Men” and “The Road” it does seem that he has put aside the linguistic excesses and the philosophizing for which he has been both venerated and mocked — those Faulknerian convolutions, the Melvillean sermonizing — and opted for terse dialogue and spartan narrative, a style he inherited from another of his ancestors, Hemingway, and long ago made his own.
I must tread carefully here because three of my favorite things in the world are linguistic excesses, philosophizing, and Melvillean sermonizing. And maybe this is something that does, in the end, just come down to taste. But what Kennedy calls "terse dialogue and spartan narrative" I call a lack of concern for his world that he has created. I keep thinking about Henry James, and how probably the most common criticism that I have heard of him regards his "artifice", his tendency to go on and on, describing every last minute detail in a scene, the slow pace with which is narrative proceeds as he rambles down shadowed hallways of thought and aside; his questionable use of semi-colons. But let me put it this way: The opposite of gilded is not authentic.

Finally, I call shenanigans on McCarthy being the inheritor of Hemingway. Yes, they both have "terse" prose and, yes, they have both become known as "tough guys." But Hemingway is a creator of worlds in a way that I have not seen from McCarthy. First, Hemingway's novels are populated by human beings. Not Men. Sure, maybe the most admirable quality in a woman is that of being like a man (Pilar from For Whom the Bell Tolls) and the worst quality in a man is being like a woman (Robert "The Jewish Guy" Cohn in The Sun Also Rises). But there is a certain sad empathy, a humanism, at work in Hemingway's work that I have found sadly lacking in McCarthy's.

Hemingway's novels are warm, real, oh-so-colorful, and most importantly, they have something at stake. There is nothing at stake in No Country for Old Men - in a way, everything has become predetermined, evil is ascendant, nothing to but sit and wait for the apocalypse. There is plenty of evil in Hemingway, an evil that is actually ascendant in the rise of European fascism, but it is a tangible and human evil, one that has roots within ourselves, it is the evil of banality. At the end of For Whom the Bell Tolls, Robert Jordan narrates: "The world is a fine place and worth the fighting for and I hate very much to leave it." I don't think Cormac McCarthy would agree with this statement. Even if The Man (Adam) carries within him The Fire in The Road, it is not the same idea of The Fate of The World being decided and decidable through human actions. All Man can do is tuck His burning Fire away from The World, the cruel, cruel world.


*One of my favorite things to do when I'm home alone is to get real drunk, stay up real late, and pop in No Country for Old Men while eating refried beans straight outta the can.

** Case in point: The movie would have been ten times worse if Javier Bardem were not sporting that ridiculous haircut. Seriously - the movie actually hinges on his pageboy do.

*** Although I realized that two of my favorite books, The Interpreter of Maladies and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, won the Pulitzer in 2000 and 2001, respectively. Maybe I'm just a pre-9/11 kind of guy? Also: Hooray, immigrant literature!

**** Said in his best Obama voice.

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