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14 June 2023

The high plain style of Cormac McCarthy

The late American novelist wrote with a strange and streamlined grandeur, and sounded like nobody else.

By Erica Wagner

“The candleflame and the image of the candleflame caught in the pierglass twisted and righted when he entered the hall and again when he shut the door.” Cormac McCarthy, who has died aged 89, came to wide attention with his sixth novel, All the Pretty Horses (1992), the first volume in his landmark Border Trilogy, set across the contested ground between Texas and Mexico. Its hypnotic, high plain style was a departure from the Faulkneresque prose that had marked his earlier work, and it won him a National Book Award. Apparent simplicity (a figure walks into a hallway and shuts the door) is instantly layered by the description of both an ephemeral object – the candleflame – and its reflection; it’s up to the reader to decide where the emphasis lies. Three of the twenty-seven words are “and”, carrying the sentence forward like the footsteps of the character who moves into the frame. No one writing sounded like Cormac McCarthy, though the influence of his work spilled across contemporary culture and still does to this day.

The critic James Woods noted the way his work could hold “in beautiful balance the oracular and the ordinary” – while also remarking that his prose was full of contradiction, “magnificent, vatic, wasteful, hammy”. It is the balance, however, that will stay with the reader now that McCarthy has gone: his fierce conjuring of landscape, the way he imbued it with emotion through action. In All the Pretty Horses, one of his cowboys, John Grady, sits on a high mesa listening to tales of the past while “a windtattered fire sawed about in the darkness”; in The Crossing, the second volume of the trilogy, Billy Parham watches the night sky: “The earliest stars coined out of the dark coping to the south hanging in the dead wickerwork of the trees along the river.” A writer can’t be defined by single phrases but there is so much to be gained by observing the power of McCarthy’s best sentences, the active and unusual verbs (twisted, sawed, coined) that bring apparently ordinary language alive.

There is very little punctuation in his work; quotation comes in reported speech. In a rare interview in 2007 (with Oprah Winfrey, who had chosen The Road for her book club) he said he saw “no reason to blot the page up with weird little marks” – taking the work of James Joyce as his model. The Road, a post-apocalyptic tale following a father and son, won him the Pulitzer Prize, and cemented his reputation as a writer of biblical cadence and sensibility. “Carry the fire,” says the father to the son. His influence is apparent in writers as varied as the Irish novelist Sebastian Barry (consider his compelling Western, Days Without End) and the screenwriter David Milch (NYPD Blue, Deadwood), whose characters blended, in their speech patterns, the orotund and the ordinary. I thought I felt a hint of McCarthy’s influence in Susanna Moore’s remarkable novel of Native American uprising, The Lost Wife, published earlier this year.

McCarthy was adamant in depiction of the cruelties of the world, but he also perceived its miraculous qualities. Bitterness only won’t endure; there must be beauty, too. “Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains,” he wrote at the end of The Road. “You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.”

Cormac McCarthy wrote with a strange and streamlined grandeur. Though his technique drew its power from landscapes steeped in blood, its distinctive cadence lifted his reader’s spirits towards the glory of the real.

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This article appears in the 21 Jun 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The AI wars