Sam Bankman-Fried, the crypto guy whose business model just exploded, said he thought everyone who ever wrote a book failed. If they had something to say, they should have said it in a six-paragraph blog post.
Sometimes I think he’s right.
The literary fiction market has never been robust, and there have always been more efficient ways to reach an audience than the doorstop novel. But efficiency is not what everyone wants.
Haruki Murakami, in his just-released book Novelist as a Vocation, makes the interesting (and insincere) argument that some people are just too smart to write (or, it is implied, read) novels. They see things so clearly that they go straight to the heart of the matter.
Meanwhile, like a slow math student, the novel has to repeat the same material to master even fleeting and tentative understanding.
There’s a lot in Murakami’s book that I disagree with – writing, he argues, is or at least should be easy. (“Frankly, I’ve never found writing painful,” he writes. Shut up, Haruki.)
But he’s onto something with his idea that the novelist (and the reader of novels) is some kind of obsessive grinder, an anachronism in the world of Twitter and Snapchat. (It’s touching that anyone can still write about books.)
And if the novel has an archaic form, perhaps there is no more archaic American novelist than
Cormac McCarthy, who turns 90 next year and has published two new novels, “The Passenger” and “Stella Maris.”
These come 16 years after his last novel, the 2006 post-apocalyptic travelogue “The Road,” which spawned a literal, serious, and somewhat silly film and was awarded the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
This is despite “The Road” feeling like McCarthy Lite, or a payoff for the great eminence. After the book was selected by Oprah Winfrey for her reading club, MCarthy submitted to his very first television interview and seemed to agree with her when she suggested that the book was essentially a love story between a father and his son.
In fact, ‘The Road’ felt like a distillation of McCarthy’s favorite themes of dark travelers and devastated landscapes – more of his Murakami-esque brooding over material that had fascinated him from the start.
There’s an accessibility to “The Road”—which could pass as an environmental horror story—that’s absent from such early work as 1968’s “Outer Dark,” the story of an Appalachian woman, Rinthy, who is raped by her brother and bears his child. The brother leaves the child in the woods and tells his sister that the baby has died. She doesn’t believe him and goes looking for the child. She finds the man who took her son in, but he doesn’t want to give up the child.
Later years? months? — she lives in a comfortable farmhouse with a nameless man (her brother?) but feels compelled to flee: “And she waited again at the front door with the door open, balancing between the maw of the dead and loveless house and the outer darkness like a weak thief.”
Rinthy is on his way again. Everyone in the world is a stranger to her.
“Outer Dark” is bleak and difficult – McCarthy holds back his readers a lot, presumably because GPS coordinates and calendars don’t really matter.
One of his central concepts is the irreparability of the human animal and the immutability of our dull instincts. In “Child of God” (1973), an old man is asked if people have gotten “meaner” over the years. He replies, “I think people have been the same since the day God first made one.”
In 1985’s “Blood Meridian,” Judge Holden, a highly trained professional scalp hunter with a philosophical streak (reportedly based on a historical figure), is asked what he thinks about war:
‘War continues. Also ask people what they think of stone. War was always there.’
The argument could be made that if you’ve read one Cormac McCarthy novel, you’ve read enough Cormac McCarthy. That’s probably true unless you’re among those who like Cormac McCarthy novels.
I absolutely love 2005’s “No Country for Old Men,” an outlier among his books because it was originally written as a screenplay.
For me, McCarthy’s golden age began in 1992, when he made a conscious decision to push back the rhetorical biblical thunderclap that characterized his earlier work in favor of direct, declarative sentences. From 1992 to 2006, he published five outstanding novels: “All the Pretty Horses,”https://news.google.com/__i/rss/rd/articles/”The Crossing,”https://news.google.com/ __i/rss/rd/articles/”Cities of the Plain,”https://news.google.com/__i/rss/rd/articles/”No Country for Old Men” and the aforementioned “The Road.”
The protagonist of “The Passenger” is Bobby Western, a salvage diver from New Orleans, who is haunted by the suicide of his sister on Christmas Day, a math prodigy and arguably genius, and by the contributions of his scientist father, to the development of the atomic bomb.
After making a recovery dive to recover the bodies of a plane that crashed in the Gulf of Mexico, Western notices that the pilot’s flight bag and a data box are missing from the cockpit. Shadowy figures show up at his apartment to ask about the job.
Western is shocked when the IRS confiscates his car and freezes his bank accounts, supposedly for tax evasion. He goes on the road, visits his grandmother in Tennessee and discovers that her house has been ransacked and his father’s research papers have been stolen. Destitute, he roams the land. Eventually he ends up in Ibiza, where he writes a long letter to his deceased sister.
Every other chapter is a cursive excursion into the fantasy world of that sister, Alicia, in the last year of her life as she harbors demons and hallucinations. This isn’t “No Country for Old Men,” but it’s McCarthy Country.
I was planning to read “Stella Maris” now, the sister novel to “The Passenger”, but “The Passenger” is slow going and I haven’t gotten to the second novel yet. You can understand what McCarthy does with all those ‘ands’ – he uses them to slow down and accentuate the rhythm of his prose; a long time ago he decided to avoid most of the punctuation (“weird characters,” he calls it) in his work. He hates semicolons; he sees no reason for quotation marks.
You might think this is one way he showcases his style. You wouldn’t be wrong.
But it is also effective. McCarthy, to a certain kind of reader, is a kind of drug that drags us into his worlds of fear and horror where women and men are what they are and nothing more beautiful, though numb with hope and beaten by sunsets. Where everything is as it always has been and will be until the long arc of history is surpassed by the unnamable and timeless.
You could say so much in a six paragraph blog post. But how would you spend the rest of your day?
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