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Cormac McCarthy created unforgettable portraits of the Wild West

The Pulitzer-winning author, who died on Tuesday, was known for language unblemished by modernity in which he wrote of rugged outdoorsmen, unbound by morality

Author Cormac McCarthy in Santa Fe, US, in 2014. McCarthy, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist best known for his novels No Country For Old Men and All the Pretty Horses has died at 89.
Author Cormac McCarthy in Santa Fe, US, in 2014. McCarthy, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist best known for his novels No Country For Old Men and All the Pretty Horses has died at 89. (Beowulf Sheehan via AP)

Cormac McCarthy, widely acknowledged as one of the towering novelists of his generation, died of natural causes at his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, on Tuesday. The 89-year-old American was perhaps best known for his Pulitzer-winning novel The Road (2006), a post-apocalyptic survival narrative about a father and his young son crossing a nuclear wasteland dotted with cannibal marauders. 

With books like Blood Meridian (1985), Cities of the Plain (1998) and No Country For Old Men (2005), McCarthy created unforgettable portraits of the American frontier (what movie buffs might call ‘the Wild West’), a place with mythic levels of violence, cruelty and foreboding. Cumulatively they are a stand-in for the story of America, which after all began with a gunshot ‘heard around the world’. McCarthy’s rugged outdoorsmen, unbound by morality or the conventions of character development, instead follow an internal logic, an almost primordial narrative rhythm. Unforgettable characters like Judge Holden from Blood Meridian and Anton Chigurh from No Country For Old Men (played by Javier Bardem in the movie) extinguish lives with the moral neutrality of a flood or a plague. 

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In McCarthy’s novels, the omniscient narrator really does sound like a voice speaking calmly across time, a voice for whom a hundred years is but the blink of an eye. Following McCarthy’s passing, novelist Hari Kunzru shared the following passage from Blood Meridian on Twitter, noting that no other writer would get away with “bepopulate”. 

“The truth about the world, he said, is that anything is possible. Had you not seen it all from birth and thereby bled it of its strangeness it would appear to you for what it is, a hat trick in a medicine show, a fevered dream, a trance bepopulate with chimeras having neither analogue nor precedent, an itinerant carnival, a migratory tentshow whose ultimate destination after many a pitch in many a mudded field is unspeakable and calamitous beyond reckoning.”

McCarthy’s language was unblemished by modernity. He never owned a computer or used the Internet. Strings of spare yet lyrical King James Bible-like sentences unfurl slowly and deliberately in his books, with “and…” clauses piling up thick and fast. An oft-cited, blood-soaked battle scene in Blood Meridian is a single sentence running across a whole page. Earlier works like Suttree (1979) feature several examples in this vein. McCarthy eschewed contemporary punctuation. None of his books had any m-dashes, colons, semi-colons or quotation marks. Shifts in narrative voice are not attributed (readers of Hindi literature in particular will be familiar with this technique). Paradoxically, even his neologisms (“rachitic”, “spoorless”, “countercat”) sounded pre-historic, like they ought to be carbon-dated. 

In a 1998 conversation with the filmmaker Gus Van Sant, the late author David Foster Wallace described this improbable linguistic style. “It’s (Blood Meridian) literally the western to end all westerns. Probably the most horrifying book of this century, at least fiction. But it is also, this guy (McCarthy), I can’t figure out how he gets away with it, he basically writes King James English, I mean, he practically uses Old English ‘thou’s and ‘thine’s and it comes off absolutely beautifully and unmannered and ungratuitous. He’s got another one called Suttree… God that one, God that would make a fantastic movie.” And while Suttree hasn’t been adapted yet, four of McCarthy’s novels eventually made their way to the big screen. He also wrote the original screenplay for Ridley Scott’s 2013 crime thriller The Counselor, starring a string of Hollywood A-listers like Michael Fassbender, Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Brad Pitt and Javier Bardem.   

McCarthy wrote most of his best-known novels, including Blood Meridian and No Country For Old Men with an Olivetti typewriter that he purchased in the 1960s, ahead of a trip across Europe. In 2009, that typewriter was auctioned for $254,500 (around 2,08,99,794 now), with the proceeds going to the Santa Fe Institute, a multidisciplinary research institute where McCarthy was a trustee. This was very much in character for the reclusive novelist. During a rare interview with Oprah Winfrey in 2007, McCarthy said he rarely socialised with other writers, preferring the company of scientists instead. 

To that end, the only work of nonfiction he ever wrote was a 3,000-word essay in the scientific publication Nautilus. Called ‘The Kekulé Problem’, this 2017 essay delves into the origins of language and the workings of the unconscious mind. Its starting point is a dream by the German organic chemist Friedrich August Kekulé. In the dream, Kekulé saw a pair of snakes devouring each other by the tail—the Ouroboros of various world mythologies—and it inspired him to discover the ring-like shape of the benzene molecule. McCarthy asks us why Kekulé’s breakthrough came in a non-verbal way, through an image that originated in premodern belief systems.

“To put it as pithily as possibly—and as accurately—the unconscious is a machine for operating an animal,” McCarthy wrote. “(…) Of the known characteristics of the unconscious its persistence is among the most notable. Everyone is familiar with repetitive dreams. Here the unconscious may well be imagined to have more than one voice: He’s not getting it, is he? No. He’s pretty thick. What do you want to do? I don’t know. Do you want to try using his mother? His mother is dead. What difference does that make?”

Last year, McCarthy had surprised fans with two new novels after 16 years, meant to be read as companion pieces: The Passenger and Stella Maris, released within weeks of each other. Like his best-known works, these books take a dim view of humanity. Evil isn’t just inevitable in McCarthy’s world, it’s inscrutable as well, defying causality, showing up our collective inadequacies again and again. You couldn’t be blamed for finishing his books in a cold sweat. Like this passage from the last page of Blood Meridian, which will stay with me for a long time. 

“Towering over them all is the judge and he is naked dancing, his small feet lively and quick and now in the doubletime and bowing to the ladies, huge and pale and hairless, like an enormous infant. He never sleeps, he says. He says he’ll never die.”

Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based writer.

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