Friday essay: the macabre metaphysic and schizophrenic style of Cormac McCarthy

Blood Moon. Robert Wiedemann/Unsplash
Blood Moon. Robert Wiedemann/Unsplash

Cormac McCarthy, who will turn 90 next July, has just published two new novels, Stella Maris and The Passenger. The latter is arguably his most ambitious and satisfying work to date.

It is hard to think of any other American writer, or indeed writer from anywhere, who has been so inventive at such an advanced age. Saul Bellow and Toni Morrison both published novels in their mid-eighties, and Tom Keneally is still active at the age of 87, but their late work largely involves a consolidation of existing creative territory. McCarthy is striking out in new artistic directions.

The central character of The Passenger is Robert Western, a salvage diver in New Orleans. The novel’s first scene depicts the suicide of his sister Alicia, a childhood genius at mathematics. Stella Maris elaborates this story from Alicia’s perspective. Both narratives are haunted in different ways by shades of impending darkness.

McCarthy is the kind of writer for whom the term “oddball” might have been invented. His first novels reflected his early life in Tennessee. Suttree (1979) displays the kind of grotesque humour that has become familiar in fiction from the American South. Its eponymous hero, Cornelius Suttree, has a body stored “in the back room” so that his wife can continue drawing the dead man’s unemployment benefit. But the demotic comedy is mixed with foreboding. It conveys the idea that

Death is what the living carry with them. A state of dread, like some uncanny foretaste of a bitter memory.

All of McCarthy’s works are suffused with violence and destruction. One of his early novels is actually entitled Outer Dark (1968). In The Passenger, Western’s father is said to have been a distinguished nuclear scientist, who went to Nagasaki after the end of World War II to investigate the repercussions of the atom bomb. The prevalence of war as a symbol for destructive human activity runs all through McCarthy’s work. In Blood Meridian (1985), Judge Holden, the sadistic deputy in a gang of scalp hunters who is also learned in philosophy and anthropology, declares:

War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here.

The macabre metaphysic of McCarthy’s fiction is based on the notion that all human systems of social improvement are ultimately self-deluding. In Child of God (1973), when the old man is asked if people are “meaner” today than before, he replies:

I think people are the same from the day God first made one.

McCarthy’s writing is replete with Biblical echoes, but he portrays a consciously inverted vision of divine providence. His world is one from which God has absconded. In The Crossing (1993), the San Luis mountains in Arizona appear “new born out of the hand of some improvident god who’d perhaps not even puzzled out a use for them”. Much of McCarthy’s fiction is a quarrel with the belief in divine redemption and the United States’s idea of itself as a providential nation.

Such pessimism is recast in McCarthy’s latest works through a scientific interest in posthuman numbers, rather than human figures. “Physics tries to draw a numerical picture of the world,” says Western in The Passenger, endorsing the observation of his sister in Stella Maris: “above all, and lastly the world does not know that you are here.” It is a vision of life from which human agency has been eviscerated. Alicia says that mathematics makes

the annals of latterday literature and philosophy by comparison […] barren beyond description.

She commends the French mathematician Alexander Grothendieck for delineating

a whole new level of logical abstraction. A new way of looking at the world.

Picture-stories

Given this commitment to a state of dehumanisation, where all human affairs are rendered nugatory, the artistic challenge for McCarthy has always been to keep his readers engaged over the temporal duration of a novel.

In an essay for the scientific journal Nautilus in 2017, McCarthy expressed a preference for the “picture-story mode of presentation” favoured by both “antiquity” and the human “unconscious”. He remarked that “a picture can be recalled in its entirety whereas an essay cannot.” His novel Cities of the Plain (2002) similarly cites “ancient pictographs among the rocks”.

Much of McCarthy’s fiction tends towards the condition of tableau. It is often organised around temporal stasis and the projection of arresting images, rather than any plot sequence that might imply possibilities of active change and development. In one of his rare interviews, McCarthy said he bases his novels more on dream visions than plot design, and that he often embarks on a narrative without knowing where it will take him.

The Road (2006) hit a public nerve (and won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction) because its depiction of a desolate post-apocalyptic world resonated with contemporary anxieties about climate change. The author subsequently submitted to a television interview with Oprah Winfrey, in which he acquiesced to her sentimental proposition that the book was at heart a love story told by the main character to his young son.

In truth, however, the images of the road, the traveller and the forlorn desert landscape have been integral to McCarthy’s imaginative world from the beginning. Outer Dark chronicles the “black immobility” of “travelers” and how they “could have been stone figures quarried from the architecture of an older time”.

The outlier in McCarthy’s corpus is No Country for Old Men (2005), which was originally conceived as a screenplay and later turned into a fine film by the Coen brothers. The novel is presented primarily as a black comedy caper centring on a drug deal gone wrong and various nefarious strategies to reclaim the lost money, though again it is a narrative with philosophical undertones. Hired hit-man Anton Chirguh meditates openly on questions of fate and chance, even as he ruthlessly dispatches his victims.

If McCarthy’s macrocosmic universe is hard and unfeeling, quite oblivious of human interventions, his microcosmic scenarios are dominated by chance, symbolised by throws of the dice that recur frequently throughout his novels. He distinguishes between chance and fate. The latter implies some kind of shaping destiny, however malignant, whereas chance indicates merely a roulette wheel of random variations. In Stella Maris, Alicia says that “people prefer fate to chance”, because

fate can be appeased, gods prayed to. But chance is just what it says.

Read more: The unfilmable 'Blood Meridian'

The world as number

What is particularly impressive about The Passenger, and the reason it apparently took McCarthy so long to complete, is its assimilation of this dense philosophical idiom into a narrative aligned with a recognisable, contemporary American world. Where Blood Meridian veers into apocalyptic abstraction, The Passenger embeds its intellectual investment in “the deep core of the world as number” within a social environment where science and technology play increasingly significant and visible roles.

Though centred in the New Orleans area, the novel ranges widely across the US South, including McCarthy’s home territory of Tennessee. In John Sheddan, it contains one of the author’s most memorable comic creations, an ebullient and hard-drinking forger who declares stoically:

Suffering is a part of the human condition and must be borne. But misery is a choice.

The premise of The Passenger is that Western has been tasked with retrieving bodies from a sunken aeroplane, only to find that one of the corpses has gone mysteriously missing, along with the plane’s black box. This is never explained. After his co-worker is found dead, Western is trailed and targeted by government agents, again for undisclosed reasons.

Part of the novel’s strength lies in the way it takes contemporary anxieties about surveillance (by big business as well as government) and puts them into a dystopian context where machines control everything and human agency has been marginalised. This model of sinister objectification contributes to the the book’s title: “we don’t move through the days,” says John.

They move through us […] the passing of time is irrevocably the passing of you.

The inhabitants of planet Earth are effectively passengers in a machine driven by larger forces. The novel alludes to Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan to suggest that it was always thus, that the manipulation of human destiny by unseen hands is nothing new.

Formal fragmentation

Stella Maris is intended to be read as a “coda” to The Passenger. It is presented as a dialogue between Alicia and her psychiatrist in the medical “facility” in Wisconsin that gives the novel its title. Though it addresses Alicia’s intense emotional attachment to her brother, its main focus is on her theories about mathematics and science. As her psychiatrist astutely recognises, Alicia does not appear to be “clinically depressed”. She rationally and even cheerfully compares the advantages and potential drawbacks to various methods of suicide.

As with Robert in The Passenger, Alicia’s life has been shadowed by their father’s involvement with the Manhattan Project, which she ominously describes as

one of the most significant events in human history […] It’s up there with fire and language. It’s at least number three and it may be number one. We just don’t know yet. But we will.

The form of Stella Maris resembles the dialogues of Plato, treatises with which McCarthy has long been familiar and which he has explored, along with other philosophical and scientific material, during his long-standing residency as a fellow at the multidisciplinary Santa Fe Institute. It is also noticeable that phrases from his Nautilus essay, particularly his biological argument that “the unconscious is a machine for operating an animal”, find their way verbatim into Alicia’s conversation in Stella Maris.

Alicia appears intermittently in The Passenger, where scenes in the psychiatric hospital are interspersed with the main story, but in Stella Maris she is the main focus of the narrative. The formal fragmentation in both novels speaks to a schizophrenic dimension that is always implicit in McCarthy’s fiction. His narratives wrestle with the problem of creating correspondences between worlds that would otherwise appear disjunctive or disconnected: the worlds of Robert and Alicia, contingency and infinity, human and inhuman.

Read more: Guide to the classics: Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville

Artist of integrity

McCarthy began his writing career as a macho male author after the model of Hemingway – his first wife left him after he suggested she should get a regular job to support his writing. He was propelled into the cultural mainstream after winning a Macarthur Fellowship in 1981 on the recommendation of Saul Bellow, who admired his “life-giving and death-dealing sentences”. It was through the Macarthur Foundation that McCarthy met Murray Gell-Mann, winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics, who introduced him to the Santa Fe Institute and became an important influence on his work.

McCarthy is a writer who sometimes compromises with popular genres and the literary marketplace, but he is nothing if not an artist of integrity, who insists ferociously on sustaining his own intellectual vision. He has confessed that his interaction with scientists has led him to “have a lot less tolerance for things that are not rigorous”. Polite attitudes towards contemporary norms of gender, race and social manners do not interest him, and there is a satisfyingly ascetic quality to his best writing.

Seeking out his lost cat, Western is described in The Passenger as being “like some wandering mendicant”. This image of a monastic recluse is one that recurs throughout McCarthy’s fiction. It is, perhaps, no coincidence that he was brought up in an Irish Catholic family and once served as an altar boy. Born Charles McCarthy, he took his pen-name “Cormac” from a family nickname given to his father by his Irish aunts. At some level, McCarthy consistently draws on this ethnic heritage to expose the historical heritage of American Puritanism, with all of its claims on “Manifest Destiny,” to a more expansive circumference.

His fictional universe is also notable for the connections it makes between human and non-human worlds. Affinities between people and animals are particularly apparent in All the Pretty Horses (1992) and The Crossing, where there are anthropomorphic crossovers between humans and wolves, with the animals described in human terms. The latter book’s hero, Billy Parham, suggests

that the wolf is a being of great order and that it knows what men do not: that there is no order in the world save that which death has put there.

The Crossing situates itself geographically between Texas and Mexico, and linguistically between English and Spanish. One of the consistent themes of McCarthy’s work is its exposure of confined American categories, both geographic and discursive, to larger contours of time and space.

Late style

One criticism frequently made of McCarthy’s work is that it is overwritten. His emphasis on a “primordial” quality, represented through statuesque tableaux, sometimes leads to a rhetoric that appears to be striving for effect. The Road, for example, conjures up

The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable.

The Passenger largely circumvents such grandiloquence. It draws its strength from another characteristic McCarthy idiom: the black comedy of laconic understatement. It is often what is not said, or said only obliquely, that gives McCarthy’s work its peculiar power. His sentences are often staccato and minimalist, as if to delineate a world whose syntactic components never quite fit properly together. In his creative fiction, he has never used inverted commas or a semi-colon.

No Country for Old Men deploys such elliptical focus particularly effectively, as in Carson Wells’s sardonic comment about Chigurh:

There’s no one alive on this planet that’s ever had even a cross word with him. They’re all dead.

Similarly, part of the attraction of The Passenger lies in its iconoclastic dialogue, its capacity to hold up a dark mirror to contemporary America by its refraction of current events through a wide philosophic lens. Its dark social comedy has shadowy depths. There is an amusing conversation, for example, where Sheddan tells Western that he has

never understood why justice wasn’t supposed to be for sale. Perhaps including a reasonable credit plan. What’s so special about justice?

This could be linked specifically to public cynicism about civic institutions in the Trump era, but the novel invokes a wider scepticism about the viability of social conventions. Though McCarthy’s imaginative world is schizophrenic on every level, oscillating uneasily between surface and depth, his literary work is most pointed and effective when it brings these two dimensions into disorienting juxtaposition.

McCarthy’s first novel, The Orchard Keeper, was published as far back as 1965, and the consistency of his output over a publishing career extending across nearly 60 years is impressive in itself. So is his receptiveness to changes in the social and intellectual environment. Saul Bellow’s final novel, Ravelstein, was a nostalgic throwback to the University of Chicago world he had known many years earlier, but The Passenger is edgily contemporary in its evocation of surveillance and the changing worlds of information technology.

In his book On Late Style, Edward Said suggested that the work of artists and musicians in their later years was characteristically more open to contradiction and incoherence. But McCarthy’s fiction has, in a sense, always been “late”. It is belated in its relation to Southern literary traditions and frontier myths of the American West; it is belated in its relegation of contemporary human civilisation to an inconsequential position at the end of a long arc of planetary time. In his idiosyncratic way, McCarthy has succeeded creatively in turning the schizophrenic imagination into a compelling public art form.

This article is republished from The Conversation is the world's leading publisher of research-based news and analysis. A unique collaboration between academics and journalists. It was written by: Paul Giles, Australian Catholic University.

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Paul Giles does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.