Thursday, May 11, 2017

On Cormac McCarthy

Cormac McCarthey: He took the tortilla from the Gorgon and ate it.

Two days ago, I was harshly critical of the movie The Road (2009), based on the 2006 novel of the same name by Cormac McCarthy. I didn't mention McCarthy in the blog text, but he did come up in the blog comments. While good movies can be made from bad books, and bad movies can be made from good books, I think it's fair to say that McCarthy casts a long shadow over the movie, for better or worse. I think it's for worse.

Cormac McCarthy is not a very good writer.

It was the critic B.R. Myers who most famously called out McCarthy in "A Reader's Manifesto," a 2001 Atlantic Monthly article, which then became a book. Myers named McCarthy as one of five novelists including Annie Proulx, Don DeLillo, Paul Auster and David Guterson who represented the "growing pretentiousness in American literary prose." Or, as Myers would also put it, "some of the most acclaimed contemporary prose is the product of mediocre writers availing themselves of trendy stylistic gimmicks."

Myer's critical approach was not subtle or complicated. It was largely to simply take well-known passages from these authors and point out how bad or silly their writing was. The emperor had no clothes.

Here he is on a passage from McCarthy's The Crossing (1994):
He ate the last of the eggs and wiped the plate with the tortilla and ate the tortilla and drank the last of the coffee and wiped his mouth and looked up and thanked her. 
...In McCarthy's sentence the unpunctuated flow of words bears no relation to the slow, methodical nature of what is being described. And why repeat tortilla? When Hemingway wrote "small birds blew in the wind and the wind turned their feathers" ("In Another Country," 1927), he was, as David Lodge points out in The Art of Fiction (1992), creating two sharp images in the simplest way he could. The repetition of wind, in subtly different senses, heightens the immediacy of the referent while echoing other reminders of Milan's windiness in the fall. McCarthy's second tortilla, in contrast, is there, like the syntax, to draw attention to the writer himself. For all the sentence tells us, it might as well be this: "He ate the last of the eggs. He wiped the plate with the tortilla and ate it. He drank the last of the coffee and wiped his mouth. He looked up and thanked her." Had McCarthy written that, the critics would have taken him to task for his "workmanlike" prose. But the first version is no more informative or pleasing to the ear than the second, which can at least be read aloud in a natural fashion. (McCarthy is famously averse to public readings.) All the original does is say, "I express myself differently from you, therefore I am a Writer."
And here is Myers discussing a well-known passage from All the Pretty Horses (1992):
As a fan of movie westerns, I refuse to quibble with the myth that a wild landscape can bestow epic significance on the lives of its inhabitants. But novels tolerate epic language only in moderation. To record with the same somber majesty every aspect of a cowboy's life, from a knife fight to his lunchtime burrito, is to create what can only be described as kitsch. Here we learn that out west even a hangover is something special. 
[They] walked off in separate directions through the chaparral to stand spraddlelegged clutching their knees and vomiting. The browsing horses jerked their heads up. It was no sound they'd ever heard before. In the gray twilight those retchings seemed to echo like the calls of some rude provisional species loosed upon that waste. Something imperfect and malformed lodged in the heart of being. A thing smirking deep in the eyes of grace itself like a gorgon in an autumn pool. 
It is a rare passage that can make you look up, wherever you may be, and wonder if you are being subjected to a diabolically thorough Candid Camera prank. I can just go along with the idea that horses might mistake human retching for the call of wild animals. But "wild animals" isn't epic enough: McCarthy must blow smoke about some rude provisional species, as if your average quadruped had impeccable table manners and a pension plan. Then he switches from the horses' perspective to the narrator's, though just what something imperfect and malformed refers to is unclear. The last half sentence only deepens the confusion. Is the thing smirking deep in the eyes of grace the same thing that is lodged in the heart of being? And what is a gorgon doing in a pool? Or is it peering into it? And why an autumn pool? I doubt if McCarthy can explain any of this; he probably just likes the way it sounds. 
No novelist with a sense of the ridiculous would write such nonsense. Although his characters sometimes rib one another, McCarthy is among the most humorless writers in American history.
In fact, Myers's thought McCarthy's bizarre "hangover" passage was so emblematic of his theme that the working title for "A Reader's Manifesto" was The Gorgon in the Pool.

Since the publication of Manifesto, the stars of the other four writers have arguably dimmed, as Myers predicted they would, but McCarthy's star has only grown brighter. These days, McCarthy dislike appears to be a minority opinion. But that opinion is nevertheless held strongly. If you want a few laughs, check out the Selections from One-Star Amazon Reviews of Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian. Clips from the reviews for that violent book are arranged in poetic wave form:
The characters are not really sympathetic 
He is obviously a sick man psychologically. 
all about violence and no plot what so ever. 
if I was a trained geologist I might like it better. 
too many words that are not in standard dictionary 
I guess people think he is cool because he writes so violent. 
This one guy peed on some clay stuff to create a bomb like thing 
murder, slaughter, killing, massacre, beating, stabbing, shooting, scalping 
It consists of a series of almost unconnected scenes of unspeakable violence. 
Esoteric words, eccentric expressions, pedantic philosophizing, arcane symbolism 
I have to believe that he must be embarrassed to have this book back on the market. 
A bunch of guys ride around Mexico killing everyone they come across for no particular reason 
If you’re a fan of babies, quotation marks, and native americans, then avoid this book like the plague.
Now, I know all popular books have their share of one-star reviews. But still. In this case I think they are appropriate. One pro-McCarthy partisan actually had the chutzpa to write, "McCarthy’s use of language is razor-sharp and spare." Actually, I think that's true of those review clips.

I said, "McCarthy dislike," but what about McCarthy hate? In a piece written in 2007, "Cormac McCarthy: Owning My Hate," Levi Asher explains why he feels the way he does about the author's prose. And feels is the operative word here. Many anti-McCarthy people are so insecure about their unpopular view that they've stopped trying to argue for the objective truth of the matter - that McCarthy is a bad writer - but rather are content merely to try to explain their own subjective opinion.

Asher doesn't cherry-pick his bad McCarthy passages but rather chooses the opening sequence of The Road (2006):
When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he'd reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him. Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world. His hand rose and fell softly with each precious breath. He pushed away the plastic tarpaulin and raised himself in the stinking robes and blankets and looked toward the east for any light but there was none. In the dream from which he'd wakened he had wandered in a cave where the child led him by the hand. Their light playing over the wet flowstone walls. Like pilgrims in a fable swallowed up and lost among the inward parts of some granitic beast. Deep stone flues where the water dripped and sang. Tolling in the silence the minutes of the earth and the hours and the days of it and the years without cease. Until they stood in a great stone room where lay a black and ancient lake. And on the far shore a creature that raised its dripping mouth from the rimstone pool and stared into the light with eyes dead white and sightless as the eggs of spiders. It swung its head low over the water as if to take the scent of what it could not see. Crouching there pale and naked and translucent, its alabaster bones cast up in shadow on the rocks behind it. Its bowels, its beating heart. The brain that pulsed in a dull glass bell. It swung its head from side to side and then gave out a low moan and turned and lurched away and loped soundlessly into the dark 
...He watched the boy and he looked out through the tress toward the road. This was not a safe place. They could be seen from the road now it was day. The boy turned in his blankets. Then he opened his eyes. Hi, Papa, he said. 
I'm right here. 
I know.
There's another monster and his pool, again (this is me talking now, not Asher). I'd almost peg McCarthy as an OD&D fan.

I think the above passage is horrid, but to save words I won't explain why. I think the pretentiousness and silliness of it, complete with its humorlessness, faux ponderous tone and grammatical foibles practically croaks out its mediocrity, like a rude beast emoting in a cave. Anyway, Asher nailed it in his piece, which I highly recommend.

But I will quote one passage. Asher claims that he tried to read The Road and, thus, give McCarthy a fresh start. But
[t]he fresh start didn't pan out. The crimes against the English language committed in the first eight pages of this book are so deplorable that I could not reach the double digit page numbers at all. I also feel offended -- yes, offended -- by the mean, miserable view of humanity this book shoves in my face. But my dislike for this book seems to transcend any mental or aesthetic considerations, because as I suffered through these first few pages I felt my body physically rejecting this book like a badly transplanted organ. I would look down at my hands and discover that the book was closed. I'd open it, struggle through a few sentences more, and then look down and discover it closed again. Reading The Road felt like swimming in a pool of thick hard mud, and I tried and I tried but I could not get past page eight.
For the fun of it, I decided to rewrite the above passage in full Cormac McCarthy style:
The man wanted to begin anew but time flowed along as it does and there was no new beginning nor was there an end. The man was reading a book and he imagined that some criminal had bent over the first eight pages and vomited. I am offended and it is mean and it is a miserable view of humanity the man thought in the endarkening light though he could not look away. Above the grey smoke the hatred of the man hung like a grisping cloud while beneath it there were considerations that the man framed with words like mental or aesthetic and he suffered still and his body rejected the book like a badly transplanted organ. He would look down dimly at his coarsish hands and see that the book was closed. Then he would open the book again and close it again and open the book again and close it again until there was no light left to open and close it and he couldn't look down any more. He dreamed that he was swimming in a dark pool of thick hard mud and the pendulum at the heart of the world had stopped over page eight of that accoladed tome. But the mans hatred continued to burn like a glowing ember soundlessly imperched upon his ever beating heart.    
The boy came into the room and turned on the light. Hi, Papa, he said. 
What happened. 
I think you fell asleep on the couch while smoking do you know where the remote control is.
Now, I know you might be thinking how clever I must think I am. But the point is that I am not particularly clever. It's actually remarkably easy to write a McCarthy parody (even I can do it). But the thing is, unlike, say, a Hemingway parody, where the author's stylistics quirks are exaggerated or used to describe a non-Hemingwayish activity like decorating a Christmas tree or whatever, there is really very little difference between a Cormac McCarthy parody and, well, the real McCarthy.

He takes the worst parts of Hemingway, Faulkner and Brett Easton Ellis and combines them. The very worst parts. And he combines them in an unpleasant way.

Cormac McCarthy is not a very good writer.

And I mean that as an objective statement, not merely a description of my own subjective opinion.

You are, of course, free to have another opinion. As I said once on a different subject, though in a similar context, if you disagree with me on this, that doesn't make you a bad person. I hope we can laugh together over a beer how wrong you were on the issue.

Crossposted at Save Versus All Wands.


  1. Finally, someone with the Bear can agree 100% on this historical curio. Stylists don't have a long shelf life. I tried to read the one about A Lapsed Catholic at the End of the World. Other than every other sentence containing the word "gin fizz" ( he clearly liked the way that sounded) I remember very little of what I did read. Awful. what if I decided I wield only use the one punctuation mark Bears use for my writing! (!) Thank you brother. The Bear will stand with you in the Cormacopalypse to come. We will mow down our enemies with punctuation and barrage them with grammar. Cormac is a cutie, beloved by those who - Bear thinks but does not want to say. His kids like the Road! They were raised better!

  2. Gee Mahound, that's a lot of work just to say he sucks. You should be more succinct like, "as a writer, Cormac McCarthy sucks" cuz he duz.

  3. Sometimes you have earned your polemic.

  4. I tried to read "All The Pretty Horses" years ago, but never got through it. I thought it was bec. I wasn't intellectual enough or something. Well, that finally explains it.

  5. When are you going to take down James Joyce?

  6. About 40 years ago, on a whim I bought a book from then unknown writer, Stephen King. For years I thought stylistically 'Salem's Lot was one of Kings best written books. By the early 80s I grew bored with that genre. A few years back, I reread 'Salem's Lot and thought it was awful. I read a few reviews and I agreed that King's prose was pretentious. One reviewer went as far and accused King of essentially stealing the style from King's literary hero, Shirley Jackson and he House on Hill St.

    There is only one modern novel written in prose style that I thought was very good - Ironweed. Author William Kennedy won the Pulitzer for that novel.

    There's always a rule of thumb in writing that applies to all genres. The author should never allow his writing to get in the way of the story. Most novelist who write "stylishly" do just that. McCarthy included. I never finished the Road.

    1. Yes. Write your beautiful style. The chuck it and get a novel to submit for human beings.

  7. I have a friend who was good friends with Mr. King as they matriculated (Hello, Hank Stram) at Maine.

    Several of them (all friends) would go out drinking together but Mr.King would retire from the bar early to go back to his dorm and write.

    It seems his writing was as much a compulsion as a habit.

    ABS has never read one of his books because ABS reads very little fiction but he did like Raymond Chandler.

    1. Chandler was another stylist, but both he and the reader knew you were both half into a bottle Jack Daniels and having a blast with his language. He wasn't nodding somberly at the critical acclaim. Not that Chandler was anybody's dummy, either. I always recommend his essay on the detective story. He cuts apart the English icons of mystery writing with the unholy glee of Baby Faced Nelson stalking the Orient Express with a Tommy Gun.

    2. I think that's right. There's nothing wrong with style per se. Even when it's always noticeable or obvious, that's not necessarily a bad thing if it either advanced the story or even if it is just pleasant or enjoyable or interesting in itself.

      But McCarthy's "style" just seems pretentious, awkward and so often just downright unpleasant.

  8. Of the few fiction books ABS has read, "Sometimes a great notion" (Ken Kesey) is near the top of his favorites.

    There was one paragraph in the book that, after reading it, ABS literally was unable to sleep the entire night.

    The Merry Prankster, Ken Kesey, was once a great writer before LSD and ECT took their tool.