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.