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StoReads: The benefits of (Cormac) McCarthyism

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Cormac McCarthy is among the greatest living American writers, and his works are leading candidates for American literary canonization. He is a master of run-on sentences and is described as the most important fixture of his diction. He does not outline, rather he views writing as a “subconscious process.” He sent his publisher to accept his Pulitzer Prize for fiction because he did not care to attend the ceremony. He once conspired to secretly (and illegally) reintroduce the Mexican wolf into Arizona. His novels consist primarily of unspeakable violence in godless expanses of anarchy in the American west. He says he cannot respect authors who do not write primarily about life and death. He is not a fan of magical realism or any unrealistic fiction, “You know, it’s hard enough to get people to believe what you’re telling them without making it impossible.” His philosophy on life is, “There’s no such thing as life without bloodshed. The notion that the species [humankind] can be improved in some way, that everyone could live in harmony, is a really dangerous idea.” McCarthy says he became a writer because “I always knew I did not want to work.”

In the pursuit of not working, he wrote over five million words on a typewriter he purchased for 50 dollars at a pawn store in the 1960s, maintaining it only by shooting the dust out with a gas station air pump. When McCarthy auctioned away the typewriter for 254,500 dollars to charity in 2009, he bought an identical replacement for 11 dollars. I am an enormous fan of Cormac McCarthy.

McCarthy’s work is, as he promises, unflinchingly serious. It is deeply interested with not just violence but grotesque and causeless cruelty. Authorities and would-be saviors are bumbling at best and more often evil. It is not comfort reading, although it does leave you with the sense that the world outside is unlikely to disillusion you any further. It’s worth questioning to what extent McCarthy’s willful isolation from the changing world around him is an adjacent gimmick of his character and to what extent it is a prerequisite for what critics recognize as literature. Where are the distinctions between the natural disposition and what McCarthy says is the prerequisite for the only kind of writing that can be considered literature. If you are a person who, like me, is sympathetic to the idea that we live in an era of profoundly serious crises paired with a profoundly unserious zeitgeist, it’s worth asking whether serious literature in the McCarthyite mold can be produced by anything other than a vacuum chamber set aside from the mainstream.

The buried promise of change in our cultural conception of literature as freedom through the abolition of the high-brow low-brow distinction would generate new and great art. Has it? In many ways the shattering of every figure of haute-couture’s worship has freed us from pretense. In many ways it has ushered in an era where we are terrified to take anything seriously, up to and including matters of life and death. In many ways it has led us to speak to each other in winking sarcasm and oblique references, to value only that which is subversive or transgressive for fear of being asked to take responsibility for anything, to practice lesser forms of idolatry. Cormac McCarthy is in many ways an out-of-place, out-of-touch, and out-of-time artifact of a notion of literature that no longer exists. His works are not veiled parodies of something else. They do not excuse their own existence or locate themselves within sociopolitical lodestones. They are straightforward and self-conscious attempts at great literature. They are worth reading.