The Road was the first Cormac McCarthy book I ever read – quite soon after it won the Pulitzer prize and everyone from Oprah Winfrey to George Monbiot started proclaiming its unprecedented and potentially world-saving amazingness. I remember at the time thinking it was kind of like an Old English alliterative poem mixed with an ITV survivor documentary (man hacks off own leg with toothpick to survive avalanche, etc) – The Wanderer meets Touching The Void, with added cannibals.
Having re-read it, I can’t shake off the same ambivalence. Somehow the manly-yet-beautified language – the striking descriptive sequences, the sweeping vistas, the strange Anglo-Saxon syntax, the eulogistic tone, the near-metric, unpunctuated pulse of the prose – is mixed with the uneasy feeling that you’re getting a bit of a cheap thrill. Part of you says ‘this is proper bollox – end of the world? cannibals? really?’ – while the other says: ‘just shut up and enjoy it like everyone else, you pseudo-intellectual tosser. George Monbiot likes it, and he seems like a really good guy’.
To elaborate, it strikes me as kind of a strange combination of deliberate high-brow obscurity (alongside William Faulkner, McCarthy’s biggest influence is Roget’s thesaurus) and low-common-denominator (or as McCarthy would write, lowcommondenominator) appeal: ever-so-slightly nonsensical pseudo-Biblical bombast; a page-turning lack of clauses and generous spacing, but with the surface appearance of canonical gravitas (it just sounds like it should be important); absence of difficult-to-digest psychological complexity or nuance (the characters don’t have names or personalities, don’t really speak, don’t make decisions any more complicated than whether or not to eat each other); scare-factor (end of the world, small boy getting raped and eaten alive, that sort of thing); almost sublime, prelapsarian obliviousness to irony.
Quite a lot of the time it sounds a bit like a sci-fi thriller written using a set of St James Bible-vocabulary fridge magnets.
The effect may be striking, I scoffed, but it only really works if you read it quite quickly and don’t spend too much time thinking about it. That said, I won’t pretend that I didn’t then go out, lay hands upon and devour all of McCarthy’s (nine) other books in reasonably quick succession. I guess the Monbiot voice won.
Now, I think I can locate part of said unease in a fundamental, biologically encoded aversion to sci-fi. I won’t try and justify this to anyone who pipes up citing the universally acknowledged merits of Philip K. Dick or Russel Hoban or Neil Gaiman or whoever. You’re probably right – it’s just not my cup of lapsang souchong.
Unlike The Road, all of McCarthy’s other stuff – with the possible exception of Blood Meridian – is set in the Real World (prior to some inexplicable apocalypse in which every form of life is razed from the earth apart from quite a few people). Not that it’s a Real World most people who read McCarthy will have a great deal of familiarity with. The earlier stuff – The Orchard Keeper (or, Being William Faulkner), Outer Dark (a crazed, freakish, semi-mythical, sacrificial gore-fest – Flannery O’Connor meets the Brothers Grimm), Child of God (the profoundly delightful chronicle of the life, times and misadventures of a serial-killing necrophiliac), and the hefty Suttree (McCarthy’s autobiographical, modernist epic – Ulysses rewritten amidst the riverside detritus, moonshine-drenched camaraderie and grotesque comedy of the Jacksonville underworld) – is set in deep-South, God-fearing, isolated Appalachia: but it might as well be Faulkner’s Yukutawa County.
From then (1978) until The Road (2006), McCarthy focused his attention on the barren borderlands of New Mexico. Blood Meridian (1984) – surely McCarthy’s main claim to lasting significance, and anointed by arch-canoniser and professional Grey Eminence, Harold Bloom as ‘the greatest imaginative work by a living American author’ – is revisionist history meets picaresque meets slasher-epic: Paradise Lost, Moby Dick, Titus Andronicus, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, spaghetti western and action movie all rolled into one still-twitching, brutalized word-corpse.
Following the exploits of a precociously vicious and borderline-autistically taciturn protagonist known simply as The Kid – who drifts around on mangy steed from whorehouse to psychotically dodgy boozer before ending up in a bounty-hunting gang exchanging scalps of indigenous Indians for cash – Blood Meridian is both a carnival orgy of stylised horror, an explosion of the Little House on the Prairie, Cowboy-and-Indian American pastoral mythology, and a Girardian/Nietzschean exploration of the nature of evil – with the occasional shout-out to semiotic theory to keep the academy happy.
It also features McCarthy’s best (in an admittedly weak-ish field) character: a colossally bad-assed, proto-existentialist anti-Christ called The Judge – a persona reprised in (slightly) more domesticated form under the guise of the No Country For Old Men hit-man, Anton Chigurh.
McCarthy’s commercial break, however, didn’t come until the 1990s Border Trilogy – All The Pretty Horses, The Crossing, and Cities of the Plain. Again, the format is picaresque, the mode of conveyance is equine, women are seldom seen and almost never heard, Mexicans are all pathologically violent liars, and a well-placed punch is worth a thousand words. Rather than the groundbreaking bad taste and histrionic excess of Blood Meridian, however, the violence is restrained to the upper limits of general acceptability. There’s even a love interest. All The Pretty Horses bagged McCarthy the National Book Award and made him really, really famous.
So, having read and largely enjoyed the back-catalogue – Suttree, though uneven and overlong, manages to add some psychology, characterisation and humour (!) to its lavish lyricism, Blood Meridian is a 350-page face-melting prose solo, No Country For Old Men is slick and deceptively sophisticated, and the Border Trilogy contains some genuinely stunning descriptive passages amidst its swashbuckling silliness – I found myself more, rather than less sceptical about the western-culture-climaxing success of The Road.
On reflection, it seemed like there was a lot of amazing stuff in McCarthy, but his work in general – and The Road in particular – uses, in a fairly cheap way, one identifiable mass-cultural inclination to mask its shortcomings: the reverence for antiquity. Make it sound old, as Ezra Pound didn’t say. Or: if you find you don’t have anything that interesting to say, just add a venerable sheen of epic diction – which, as Goethe did say, does your thinking and your poeticising for you.
And then there’s the whole end-of-the-world, ‘carrying the torch’ for humanity histrionics – it’s just somehow too crass, too easily emotive: pressing big, populist sentimental buttons in a way not altogether dissimilar to, say, Schindler’s List (the cinematic equivalent of a bog-wash: make people cry by shoving their face in the worst genocide in mankind’s history). Or Armageddon.
Wouldn’t it be terrible if there was some huge, inexplicable apocalypse and the only people left were you and your small boy, stranded in a desolate, godless wilderness populated only by marauding gangs of cannibals, with possible but unconfirmed rapist tendencies? Well yes, of course it would. So what?
Throw-you-hands-in-the-air descriptive sequences aside, the bits of The Road that work best are the bits that take place inside the man’s head. The way I read it, the main narrative basically consists of his interior thoughts. You’ve then got the objective narrative bits that move the characters around – deliberately drained of any sort of emotional content or commentary, and sometimes reading a bit like a self-parody (‘they did this and then they did this and it was cold and he was hungry’ etc etc – this is all ripped out of Hemingway, Carver and Bukowski, incidentally). And then you’ve got the dialogue with the boy, which is ridiculously pared down and minimal. The contrast sometimes works pretty well because a lot of the flashy, poeticised language takes place inside of the man’s head (often when the boy is asleep, like in the opening paragraph), and refers to a world that doesn’t exist anymore. The words still exist but the things that they refer to have all been destroyed.
So it’s kind of tragic because all of this language is dying with the man, and also the values that people have created using this language – like not eating each other – seem to be dying too. All of this is inaccessible to the boy, who has never known anything else. Which is why McCarthy makes it all take place inside the man’s head.
Basically McCarthy’s philosophy boiled down is that the world is a fundamentally meaningless, random and violent place – and things like morality and being nice to each other are flimsy constructs. Though that makes them all the more important. A bit like Lord of the Flies, the premise is that left to our own devices and without any of the restraints that society has placed upon us, the vast majority of use would rape, pillage and murder to get what we want, and we shouldn’t kid ourselves otherwise. But in a perverse kind of way that makes something simple and genuine like the bond between the man and the boy all the more sacred – because it’s fragile. Which, when you think about it, isn’t really all that profound.