Speaking of the author of No Country For Old Men, the Atlantic just took B.R. Myers' classic "Reader's Manifesto" - in which Myers goes after McCarthy with hammer and tongs - out from behind the firewall. And by coincidence, I'm just now reading All The Pretty Horses for the first time, and recently came upon this passage:
[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.
I thought I remembered encountering these images before, and sure enough, Myers uses this particular paragraph as an example of McCarthy's literary sins, writing:
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 ...
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.
My (limited) experience with McCarthy bears out this critique, but it seems an insufficient reason to dismiss him. McCarthy's novels cry out for a line editor with a strong sense of the ridiculous (the above paragraph, for instance, could have turned out fine with the final two sentences sliced off), but there's much more to his writing than its excesses. Which is why I prefer James Wood's more nuanced take, from a TNR review of The Road, which is reproduced at length below:
McCarthy's prose combines three registers, two of which are powerful enough to carry his horrors. He has his painstaking minimalism, which works splendidly here. Again and again he alerts us, in this simpler mode, to elements of hypothetical existence we had not thought about: how angry we might be, for instance, at the world before our catastrophe. The man comes across some old newspapers and reads them: "The curious news. The quaint concerns." He remembers standing in the charred ruins of a library, where books lay in pools of water: "Some rage at the lies arranged in their thousands row on row." In this mode the novel succeeds very well at conjuring into life the essential paradox of post-apocalyptic struggle, which is that survival is the only thing that matters, but why bother surviving?
The second register is the one familiar to readers of Blood Meridian or Suttree, and again seems somewhat Conradian. Hard detail and a fine eye is combined with exquisite, gnarled, slightly antique (and even slightly clumsy or heavy) lyricism. It ought not to work, and sometimes it does not. But many of its effects are beautiful--and not only beautiful, but powerfully efficient as poetry. The shape of a city seen from far away, standing "in the grayness like a charcoal drawing sketched across the waste." The father and son stand inside a once-grand house, "the peeling paint hanging in long dry sleavings down the columns and from the bucked soffits." The little boy has "candlecolored skin," which perfectly evokes his gray, undernourished whiteness, in a gray light that is itself undernourished and entirely reliant on candle power. The black ash that blows everywhere resembles a "soft black talc," which "blew through the streets like squid ink uncoiling along a sea floor."
When McCarthy is writing at his best, he does indeed belong in the company of the American masters. In his best pages one can hear Melville and Lawrence, Conrad and Hardy ...
Yet McCarthy's third register is more problematic. He is also an American ham. When critics laud him for being biblical, they are hearing sounds that are more often than not merely antiquarian, a kind of vatic histrionic groping, in which the prose plumes itself up and flourishes an ostentatiously obsolete lexicon. (Blood fustian, this style might be called.) The father and son are here described as "slumped and cowled and shivering in their rags like mendicant friars," that word "mendicant" being one of McCarthy's regular favorites. He is almost always prompted to write like this by metaphor or simile, which he often renders as hypothesis or analogy, using the formulation "like some": so the man, his face streaked with black from the rain, looks "like some old world thespian." (An especially flagrant example here, since the son is looking at his father at this moment, and the fancy language stubbornly violates a child's point of view.) In the following sentence, the word "autistic," while comprehensible, seems simply incorrect and somehow a little adolescent, and shakes one's confidence in the writer: "He rose and stood tottering in that cold autistic dark with his arms outheld for balance while the vestibular calculations in his skull cranked out their reckonings." It begins to snow at one point, and "he caught it in his hand and watched it expire there like the last host of christendom."
Still, as in Hardy and Conrad, who were both sometimes terrible writers, there is a kind of sincerity, an earnestness, in McCarthy's vaudevillian mode that softens the clumsiness, and turns the prose into a kind of awkward secret message from the writer. Conrad, after all, was capable of this description of money, in The Secret Agent: it "symbolized the insignificant results which reward the ambitious courage and toil of a mankind whose day is short on this earth of evil"; and in the same novel, a cheap Italian restaurant in London is said to have "the atmosphere of fraudulent cookery mocking an abject mankind in the most pressing of its miserable necessities." Moreover, McCarthy's writing tightens up as the novel progresses; it is notable that the theatrical antiquarianism belongs largely to the first fifty or so pages, as the writer pushes his barque out into new waters.
Did I mention I love James Wood? Here's a Globe mini-profile pegged to his move to the New Yorker, which includes this charming moment:
John Leonard, a book critic at Harper's and television critic for New York magazine, said in an e-mail that while he's determined not to start an intramural sniping session among critics, given the market pressures hurting literary criticism as a whole, he is also "tempted to suggest that not appreciating either Don DeLillo or Toni Morrison suggests that maybe you are tone-deaf to the American language as she is written."
I'm tempted suggest that anyone who does appreciate John Leonard - a master of the critic-as-fanboy style of essay-writing - may be tone-deaf to American criticism as it ought to be written. But I won't, because I'm determined not to start an intramural sniping session between general-interest magazines, given the market pressures hurting the journalism industry as a whole ...
Photo by Flickr user JBAT used under a Creative Commons license.