A year ago I listed Cormac McCarthy as one of the five overrated writers of 2006. This was just a couple of months before McCarthy’s The Road was published, and I had no idea what agonies lay in store.
I am simply baffled, just straight out bewildered, by the fact that so many people whose opinions I respect — Oprah Winfrey, the numerous Morning News Tournament of Books judges, even my friend Jeff Bryant (who I usually agree with, and who shares my love for Kerouac and Bukowski) — are calling Cormac McCarthy a great writer and The Road a masterpiece. I certainly can’t believe that all these smart people are wrong and I am right — yet at the same time I have made every honest effort to understand what I am missing. I even bought The Road, intending to give it a fair read, a fresh start, hoping that maybe, just maybe, this will be the Cormac McCarthy novel I can finally stand.
The fresh start didn’t pan out. The crimes against the English language committed in the first eight pages of this book are so deplorable that I could not reach the double digit page numbers at all. I also feel offended — yes, offended — by the mean, miserable view of humanity this book shoves in my face. But my dislike for this book seems to transcend any mental or aesthetic considerations, because as I suffered through these first few pages I felt my body physically rejecting this book like a badly transplanted organ. I would look down at my hands and discover that the book was closed. I’d open it, struggle through a few sentences more, and then look down and discover it closed again. Reading The Road felt like swimming in a pool of thick hard mud, and I tried and I tried but I could not get past page eight.
I know I’m not completely alone, anyway. I discussed my bewilderment with a writer who eagerly backed up my judgement and insisted that I must “own” my hate, and that’s what I’m going to do right now. I’m not complaining about The Road because I think I am smarter than Oprah Winfrey or Jeff Bryant, nor because I want to change their minds. But there must be many others like me out there, others who cannot stomach the idea of Cormac McCarthy as any kind of representative writer for our times. I am writing this for us.
Please look at these opening lines:
All day, the colors had been those of dusk, mist moving like a water creature across the great flanks of mountains possessed of ocean shadows and depths. Briefly visible above the vapor, Kanchenjunga was a far peak whittled out of ice, gathering the last of the light, a plume of snow blown high by the storms at its summit.
Sai, sitting on the veranda, was reading an article about giant squid in an old National Geographic. Every now and then she looked up at Kanchenjunga, observed its wizard phosphorescence with a shiver. The judge sat at the far corner with his chessboard, playing against himself. Stuffed under his chair where she felt safe was Mutt the dog, snoring gently in her sliip. A single bald lightbulb dangled on a wire above. It was cold, but inside the house, it was still colder, the dark, the freeze, contained by stone walls several feet deep.
Let’s look at all the things the author does well here. First, there is that dizzying plunge from the bright mountain sky to the dark ocean home of the giant squid. Mountains and sky, deep ocean depths; this signals to the reader that the novel will offer a vast range of emotion and experience, and that it will do so in surprising and dynamic ways. Then, there is the clever surprise that a “native” in a faraway Eastern land — the type of person who is more likely to be the subject of a National Geographic article than the reader — is placidly browsing a magazine that symbolizes the benevolent condescension of Western imperialist culture. This signals that we are reading a book of sly, subtle wit. Finally — and this may be a stretch, but probably isn’t — the fact that the National Geographic article is about a giant squid recalls Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, since giant squids are what sperm whales eat.
Yes, this is a hell of an opening sequence, and when I encounter a book that starts like this I feel thrilled and excited and I can’t wait to keep reading. Of course, these paragraphs were not written by Cormac McCarthy. They were written by Kiran Desai, and they begin The Inheritance of Loss.
Now, let’s look at the opening sequence that greets the reader of The Road.
When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him. Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world. His hand rose and fell softly with each precious breath. He pushed away the plastic tarpaulin and raised himself in the stinking robes and blankets and looked toward the east for any light but there was none. In the dream from which he’d wakened he had wandered in a cave where the child led him by the hand. Their light playing over the wet flowstone walls. Like pilgrims in a fable swallowed up and lost among the inward parts of some granitic beast. Deep stone flues where the water dripped and sang. Tolling in the silence the minutes of the earth and the hours and the days of it and the years without cease. Until they stood in a great stone room where lay a black and ancient lake. And on the far shore a creature that raised its dripping mouth from the rimstone pool and stared into the light with eyes dead white and sightless as the eggs of spiders. It swung its head low over the water as if to take the scent of what it could not see. Crouching there pale and naked and translucent, its alabaster bones cast up in shadow on the rocks behind it. Its bowels, its beating heart. The brain that pulsed in a dull glass bell. It swung its head from side to side and then gave out a low moan and turned and lurched away and loped soundlessly into the dark.
The first thing the reader detects is that this will be a thoroughly humorless book, a book of punishing, guilt-ridden unpleasantness, a book that must be aimng to be “good for us”, because it’s sure not aiming to be fun. That’s the moral outlook Cormac McCarthy always offers — a stern “church lady” tone warning of stark choices between evil and redemption. Maybe that’s why I’m mystified that somebody like Jeff Bryant can appreciate Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, a book that refused to wallow in shame or guilt, a book that sang out with the joy of being alive, and can also swallow spoonfuls of medicine from a mean old physician like Cormac McCarthy.
And then there are those stubby ungrammatical half-sentences, the prose signature of junior high school students everywhere, and of Cormac McCarthy. Sentences that do not have a subject and an object. Short. Brutish. Sentences that make me feel rotten. Contractions that dont have apostrophes, accompanied inexplicably by contractions that do have apostrophes.
And, now that we’re discussing these lost apostrophes, why is it that McCarthy gets away with giving us “hadnt” and “wasnt” while also giving us “I’m” and “we’re”? I suppose he does this because “Im” doesn’t look right on the page and “were” looks like “were”, but if there’s one thing worse than a pretentious and stiff prose device, it’s a pretentious and stiff prose device that the author doesn’t use consistently.
Back to the text: Kiran Desai nods to Herman Melville in the opening passage above, while the end of McCarthy’s first paragraph clearly recalls the rough beast of W. B. Yeats’s Second Coming. But “crouching there pale and naked and translucent” is simply not the equal of “slouches towards Bethlehem to be born”. Yeats did not write with such a heavy hand, nor such a deadening lack of humor.
Then, finally, inevitably, we get to the dialogue without quotation marks:
… He watched the boy and he looked out through the tress toward the road. This was not a safe place. They could be seen from the road now it was day. The boy turned in his blankets. Then he opened his eyes. Hi, Papa, he said.
I’m right here.
Hi, Papa. And hi, William Saroyan, and hi, James Joyce. We don’t use quotation marks here, because the world is evil and everything is dark and now it is day. And you can make anything sound profound when you don’t use quotation marks or punctuation. Witness the following lines of dialogue from the TV show “Friends”:
Monica said, Oh my god, Chandler. I can’t believe it.
Chandler said, I know.
You gave my father a lap dance.
Chandler said, why do they put so much steam in there.
Ross stood up. Because otherwise they’d have to call it the room room.
Cormac McCarthy is far from the first champion of grim and mannered literary prose to be called a genius, and it’s a telling fact that he’s most often compared to William Faulkner, who I don’t particularly care for either (and, in fact, I know that Oprah Winfrey has cited William Faulkner as another favorite author, so maybe it’s all starting to make sense).
The dilemma I feel as I hear one intelligent reader after another praise a writer whose works I hate (to top it off, Harold Bloom is in the fan club) points, for me, to the problematic nature of literary criticism itself. In one extreme sense, a person might conclude that the only valid form of literary commentary is praise, because it’s illogical for a person who dislikes something to claim to have a better understanding of that thing than somebody who does like it.
And yet, we criticize. I don’t know exactly why we do this, but it feels important, and it helps ease the pain. If I didn’t write this article objecting to the Cormac McCarthy craze that’s currently gripping the world around me, I don’t know what would happen. Maybe I would explode.
In the end, it’s simple as this old cliche: there’s no accounting for taste. You know, I hear Jeff Bryant likes the Atlanta Braves too.