Overrated Writers, Part Four: Cormac McCarthy and Jonathan Lethem

Cormac McCarthy and Jonathan Lethem are my final two selections for the five most overrated writers of 2006.

Some readers find Cormac McCarthy’s stiff, humorless syntax appealing. I guess this is the way people talk out on the wild western frontier, in long flat sentences, with no commas to spare. Here are the first lines from The Crossing, the first volume in Cormac McCarthy’s acclaimed Border Trilogy:

When they came south out of Grant County Boyd was not much more than a baby and the newly formed county they’d named Hidalgo was itself little older than a child. In the country they’d quit lay the bones of a sister and the bones of his maternal grandmother. The new country was rich and wild. You could ride clear to Mexico and not strike a cross-fence. He carried Boyd before him in the bow of the saddle and named to him features of the landscape and birds and animals in both spanish and english.

Would you like a Slim Jim or a pack of Marlboro’s with that? I’m sorry, Cormac fans out there, but the whole tumbleweed-on-the-prairie routine feels hokey to me.

Not that there isn’t a lot of hokey on a typical bestseller list, but what bugs me about Cormac McCarthy is that he so often shows up on lists of serious authors and gets compared to Faulkner and Hemingway. I don’t think he has the depth. Granted, I don’t always go crazy for Faulkner or Hemingway either, but at least they were blazing their own paths in trying to invent a syntax and a voice that would portray the wide-open American soul. As far as I can see, McCarthy is just following their template.

I can think of some newer books that also rely heavily on a “deep country” narrative voice, but manage to make it feel real, like Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier or Beloved by Toni Morrison. McCarthy’s books feel superficial compared to these. They’re all mood, all saddle leather and sinew. All drifters on journeys. Rivers that need to be crossed. People talking without quotation marks.

Clint Eastwood already directed the movie of every Cormac McCarthy novel put together, and it’s called Unforgiven. I just don’t think Cormac McCarthy’s body of work rises to the status of great literature. Here’s what I’m missing: humor, suspense, ideas, revelation.

I checked out the back cover blurbs of all the McCarthy novels I could find (and there are many, including Suttree, Cities of the Plain, All The Pretty Horses, Blood Meridian, No Country For Old Men). Almost every book is described as taut. Taut, taut, taut. Cormac McCarthy has been publishing novels since 1965 — how long can a guy be taut before he finally snaps?

Or, more to the point, how long can he be taut before I snap? Because McCarthy keeps turning these taut books out, year after year, with characters from Central Casting and props left over from Heaven’s Gate, and I’m sick of hearing top critics talk about how great they are.

Jonathan Lethem. Where do I start? I have written about Jonathan Lethem before. That was a year ago, and I still don’t like his books today.

There was a time, when I first heard about him, that I thought I would like Jonathan Lethem. His books always seemed to be based on clever concepts. A Brooklyn street kid with Tourette’s syndrome. A sci-fi send-up, a noir send-up. I kept trying these books, and they kept collapsing with a thud.

Motherless Brooklyn left me dizzy, and not in the good way. What the hell was that about? It was never believable for a second, none of it. Lethem’s books are intellectually paper-thin; they feel like store displays of novels, rather than novels themselves. The message is that they have no message. The message is Brooklyn. Or something. Or more likely, nothing. I think.

But I kept hearing people rave about Jonathan Lethem, and somebody told me The Fortress of Solitude was his best book, the least gimmicky and the most personal. I tried it. But I was immediately annoyed by Lethem’s signature futsy, self-conscious prose. He calls proud attention to his word choices way too often. I thought a good writer was supposed to make us forget that we’re reading words, not point to them and wait for applause. Here’s a typical line from the first page of The Fortress of Solitude, describing kids playing on a Boerum Hill street:

The girls sang murmured rhymes, were murmured rhymes.

No, Jonathan. The girls were not murmured rhymes. You were right the first time. You see, the girls are living members of the species homo sapiens, aged approximately 6 to 11, weighing approximately 75 pounds. Murmured rhymes, on the other hand, are sounds. They are pulsing waves, weightless and ephemeral. So Jonathan, why are you wasting my time with pretentious, pseudo-poetic and completely meaningless assertions like “The girls sang murmured rhymes, were murmured rhymes”?

* * * * *

With the addition of Butch Cassidy and the Brooklyn Kid to the roster, the Litkicks 2006 Overrated Writers List is complete. But I told you this would be a five-day project, and that’s because tomorrow morning I’d like to say a few summary words and then invite you to name your own choices for the most overrated writers of our time. Please drop by Friday and speak your mind … and thank you for listening to me rant the past few days. I hope you enjoyed it anywhere near as much as I did.

8 Responses

  1. Good clean fun…I have
    Good clean fun…

    I have greatly enjoyed this week’s overrated writers theme–personally I am TOTALLY with you on Didion and McCarthy, but in passionate disagreement about Roth and Lethem, both of whom I love — however to each his own. (I hope you read the whole of FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE, though; there’s a 40-50pp. stretch at the beginning that’s not so compelling, but once you get into the dynamic between the teenage boys, it’s surely fabulously good….)

    I hope you will give us some meta-thoughts tomorrow on the rationale for singling out these particular writers, and also on what most makes us crazy about overratedness. My version is exactly like what you say here about McCarthy, that it’s hokey/middlebrow/ok but perhaps slightly full-of-itself stuff being presented as great art. I put Ian McEwan in this category, and also Zadie Smith; I prefer either (a) straightforwardly difficult or accessible fiction, one extreme or the other, but with a distinct sensibility in either case or (b) unassuming middlebrow, but I do not like this middlebrow-in-the-guise-of-high-culture thing one bit….

  2. CrooklynI was sure your

    I was sure your Brooklyn victim was going to be Paul Auster. Oh, well, maybe he’ll make the next round. Do we have to wait until 2007?

  3. I actually like Paul Auster a
    I actually like Paul Auster a lot — in fact one of my Jonathan Lethem gripes is that Motherless Brooklyn reads like City of Glass with everything good removed. 2007, definitely!

  4. McCarthy DissenterWhile I
    McCarthy Dissenter

    While I certainly understand everybody having their own tastes – I’m stunned you haven’t found any humor in McCarthy – As gruesome as some of his settings and characters are, there’s almost always some black humor hiding behind them. Hell, Suttree is about 75% humor.

    Plus, fans of his WISH he’d churn them out year after year. Unless I miscount, he’s got 9 novels and two plays published in a 21 year span. He’s not even cranking out one a year since he ‘became prolific’ with All the Pretty Horses.

    That said, I loved this series.

  5. Hmm, Dan, maybe I will check
    Hmm, Dan, maybe I will check out Suttree and see if you’re right. Nothing wrong with keeping me honest …

  6. The Wrong End of McCarthyHey
    The Wrong End of McCarthy

    Hey folks, must say McCarthy is a very important writer, though if you think you’ll get the meat of McCarthy from his latest novels you’re looking up the wrong end of this tree — McCarthy’s first four novels are his best and the most socially relevant. As a stylist I probably would not compare him to Faulkner or Hemingway but rather to writers much older like Edward Dahlberg, Melville, Poe and Thoreau. In fact, I think of his book Child of God as the closest thing to Walden this most recent generation of important writers has yet produced!

    Blood Meridian is MCCarthy’s Moby Dick and is great but it speaks us into mythical abysses that, rather like sink holes or Thomas Mann novels, are almost impossible to plumb and pull yourself out of again. His first four novels — The Orchard Keeper, Outer Dark, Child of God and Suttree — are a perfect marriage mythology and social analysis with aspects of all the great writers mentioned above — Poe’s dark suspense, Melville’s depth and heaviness and Thoreau’s insight into the human condition.

    In The Border Trilogy McCarthy critiques the modern world. Most of us do not see it as a critque, though. We think the guy is dredging up stereotypes — but if you read closely you’ll see the thrust of the Border Trilogy has to do with the way people travel and what that traveling does to the soul. Also, it all happened so fast. In less than 50 years a country that ‘You could ride clear to Mexico and not strike a cross-fence’ in has become desolate highway country. We like to think of the highway as the great open road and equate that to freedom, but is that really freedom? The road takes you somewhere and you must follow — it is a perfect metaphor for what American life has become in less than a hundred years time! Then I think of the scene in The Cities of the Plains where the guys have driven many hundreds of miles in Texas and pull into a gas station and this girl freaks out because of their car. They wonder why but then they discover it is because they have hit so many Jack Rabbitts their grill is wearing rabbitt heads like some head hunter’s necklace — that shows in a single image the disconcern of technology for the natural world and the mindlessness, the primitive thoughtlessness of following The Road to wherever it leads us!

    This brings me full circle back to McCarthy’s first book and his first hero, Uncle Ather in The Orchard Keeper, who is an old man who has suffered a terrible loss and lives on an old mountain road where he ‘keeps’ an old orchard that is overgrown. Well, because he shoots a government pesticide tank, obviously he hates the encroachment on his way of life that this tank represents, he is hunted down and taken into custody and diagnosed with Anomic Personality Disorder and left to rot in some kind of home. When he is visited by a boy who is about to depart from his home to the mountain where uncle Ather lived, he tells the boy that ‘they’ have made it so that it is just about impossible to live anymore. What does he mean by that? I think, like the so-called open road, the so-called freedom we all supposedly experience in choosing the course of our lives is so hedged in, so rat-mazish in nature, that one cannot experience an authentic human life anymore… that’s what I think McCarthy is writing about. His characters all lead lives that are basically illegal or frowned upon in one way or another. In the very end of the last volume of The Border Trilogy, we come to the epilogue in which the once cowboy is now homeless and living, where else, in an underpass near a raging highway. What does he do now? He dreams. He has his freedom, it is in a world of his imagination’s making. What judgement will our world impose upon these dreamers now? They are nuts? Lock them up — put them on anti-hallucination medication? See the ultimate ramifications of this are that you will not even be allowed to think in freedom anymore and then where are you?

    I think that’s what McCarthy is all about.

  7. McCarthy’s prose is brilliant and he deserves the title of greatest living American author.

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