Unsettling prose of Cormac McCarthy : The Tribune India

Unsettling prose of Cormac McCarthy

Author of ‘No Country for Old Men’ and ‘The Road’, both of which were made into films, he pulled you into a violent world

Unsettling prose of Cormac McCarthy

McCarthy’s writing compels you to read, reread and then swallow the words, lines, sentences — dismal, dreary and desolate. Before you realise it, you have become part of his open-throated writing

Sundeep Misra

Cormac McCarthy can make you very uncomfortable. Because to understand him and his writings, you need to look inward — to see, imagine, feel the pulsating flesh, dipped and corralled in its own blood.

That, actually, was just one part of Cormac. Or just the way he expressed himself, his thoughts to the world, especially in ‘Blood Meridian’. Three words would describe that book for every reader who read, tried to read, gave up reading — powerful, unsettling, memorable.

Can one book describe an author? The easy answer is ‘No’. But, for Cormac’s legions of fans, who have read ‘The Counselor’, ‘Outer Dark’, ‘Suttree’, ‘The Crossing’, ‘Cities of the Plain’, ‘The Sunset Limited’, nothing sets him apart more than ‘Blood Meridian’. Probably even more than ‘No Country for Old Men’, which won four Oscars. After the book was released in 2005, Walter Kirn, reviewed it in the New York Times: “The conflicts set on a stage as big as Texas but as spiritually claustrophobic as a back-room cockfight ring, resolve themselves with a mechanistic certitude that satisfies the brain’s brute love of pattern and bypasses its lofty emotional centres.”

McCarthy died on June 13 at his home in Santa Fe at the age of 89. Those fingers, at their end, may have become knobby, beating down on those typewriter keys but, he was revered, underlined as one of the greats to an extent that the critic Harold Bloom put him in the same group, anointing him as one of the four major American novelists of his time, alongside Philip Roth, Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon.

Once, in an interview to the AV Club, speaking about ‘Blood Meridian’ and its place in American literature, Bloom said: “The Judge is the book, and the Judge is, short of Moby Dick, the most monstrous apparition in all of American literature. The Judge is violence incarnate. The Judge stands for incessant warfare for its own sake.” And whether McCarthy was successful in using violence in the book, Bloom said, “More than successful. It’s not only the ultimate Western, the book is the ultimate dark dramatisation of violence. Again, I don’t see anyone surpassing it in that regard.”

McCarthy’s writing compels you to read, reread and then swallow the words, lines, sentences — dismal, dreary and desolate. Before you realise it, you have become part of the man’s open-throated prose. A paragraph from ‘Blood Meridian’ sums it up:

“They rode on and the sun in the east flushed pale streaks of light and then a deeper run of colour like blood seeping up in sudden reaches flaring planewise and where the earth drained up into the sky at the edge of creation the top of the sun rose out of nothing like the head of a great red phallus until it cleared the unseen rim and sat squat and pulsing and malevolent behind them.”

After his first five novels, McCarthy’s career seemed destined to flare out with him being just another notable novelist, talented but not finding that one super-nova. And, then he wrote ‘All the Pretty Horses’, which won the National Book Award and was also made into a film starring Matt Damon and Penelope Cruz. Even in the low phases, where his hardbacks never sold beyond 5,000 copies, he had the support of prestigious fellowships like the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Guggenheim Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation. Later, he also won the MacArthur Fellowship, which supported the writing of ‘Blood Meridian’, but initially, for many years, even ‘Blood Meridian’ fared extremely poorly.

In fact, an article by the New York Times states that McCarthy wrote to a friend: “I’ve been a full-time professional writer for 28 years, and I’ve never received a royalty cheque. That, I’ll betcha, is a record.”

The story of how McCarthy moved to Alfred A Knopf is also part of folklore. The agent Amanda ‘Binky’ Urban, who represented Toni Morrison, Haruki Murakami and Mary Karr, among others way back, was then working at International Creative Management (ICM) for Lynn Nesbit, who one bright morning threw a letter on her desk and said, “You might want to follow up”, as reported by The Cut.

The letter was by McCarthy in which he writes he ‘never had an agent’ and if anyone is interested ‘please call me before noon Rocky Mountain time’.

A little research told Binky Urban that none of McCarthy’s books at Random House had sold more than 2,500 copies. Urban called Sonny Mehta, who had just taken over at Knopf, and asked him if he wanted to publish McCarthy as ‘Random House is not really doing a great job by him’. Sonny said, “I’d love that.”

Random House agreed to let McCarthy move to Knopf.

And, as it happens in fables and stories, his next book, ‘All the Pretty Horses’, became the super-nova. It was followed by ‘The Road’, a post-apocalyptic novel describing the journey of a father-son across a landscape destroyed by a cataclysm. It won McCarthy a Pulitzer and was made into a film directed by John Hillcoat.

Stylistically, ‘The Road’ was, if not completely, a departure from his earlier novels. McCarthy was 73 when he wrote it and one does not know whether he believed a world devastated by us only would play out in the end as he envisaged in ‘The Road’. The father and son, hanging onto each other, their odyssey, aimed at reaching the Gulf Coast across the ‘barren, silent’, of whatever is left of the barren, ruined land.

As reclusive as a platypus, McCarthy hardly gave any interviews, probably a couple of them in three decades or more. In an interview to The New York Times Magazine in 1992, he spoke about the violence in his books. “There’s no such thing as life without bloodshed. I think the notion that the species can be improved in some way, that everyone can live in harmony, is a really dangerous idea.”

In the ‘Blood Meridian’, the Hermit speaks to The Kid: “You can find meanness in the least of creatures, but when God made man, the Devil was at his elbow.”

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