Compliments Are Nice, but Enough With the Cormac McCarthy Comparisons

Every author welcomes praise, but what’s a writer to do when readers persist in comparing him to an another author he’s not even that crazy about?

Elena Scotti/The Daily Beast

The “anxiety of influence” breathes and heaves almost four decades after Harold Bloom birthed that wily method of reading: during composition a work of literature is engaged in an unconscious “agon” with a certain existing work, an agon that forms the sways and contours of the new work under construction, even though the writer is probably unaware of this agon. Bloom’s theory is frequently mischaracterized as Freudian—the ambitious son attempting to overthrow the sovereign father, Tennyson needing to vanquish Keats before Tennyson can establish his own effective selfhood as a poet—but, as Bloom himself has repeatedly insisted, his theory isn’t Freudian because it isn’t sexual, Oedipal, or psychoanalytical. Furthermore, this agon happens between the poems or plays or novels themselves, and not between the writers. This theory for lovers of literary tradition takes some steadfast handling, but once you learn how it drives it lets you see some thrilling views.

I’ve been cogitating on Bloom’s theory because my second novel, Hold the Dark, has just appeared and I’m having to hear the name “Cormac McCarthy” rather more than is necessary. Mostly well-meaning readers and reviewers and friends and colleagues are finding everywhere in my tale the vestiges of McCarthy, that cowboy-booted paragon who has supplanted Norman Mailer as the regnant mafioso of the American masculine, as the unrepentant vicar of violence. I won’t look at responses on Amazon or Goodreads, so I have a friend’s word that a great many of them mention McCarthy. I’m half sure I get what readers and reviewers mean when they summon McCarthy in regard to my novel, but—and this is going to sound like both sacrilege and a lacuna in my learning, I realize—with the exception of Child of God, I don’t know McCarthy’s work all that well.

I made it a scant five pages into his debut novel, The Orchard Keeper, befuddled as to what exactly was supposed to be happening, turned away by the knotted syntax. I recall being impressed as a teenager by the sinister and alien tenor of Outer Dark, but that was twenty years ago, so please don’t ask me about the plot of that novel. That Faulknerian barge of a book called Suttree? I quit a quarter of the way in, and I’m guessing you did, too. His universally lauded masterwork, that orgy in the abattoir, Blood Meridian? As soon as I recognized that it was indeed an unholy and antinomian masterwork engined by all those otherworldly sentences, I let myself off the hook—at a little past the midway mark. (About Blood Meridian, Bloom has said, “The violence is the book.”) No Country for Old Men reads too much like a screenplay for my antennae, its cinematic nihilism-as-violence too unmodulated, too exterior, and so I put that down. The Road I never even picked up because as a father of young boys I can brook only so much vicarious heartwreck involving young boys. The Border Trilogy? I still haven’t got around to that—my fault, not his.

Hold the Dark is set in the Alaskan wilderness, in an isolated village at the lip of the tundra. Children have gone missing, possibly taken by wolves. Medora Slone summons the wolf scholar Russell Core to investigate the vanished, and once he arrives at the furthermost reaches of American soil, in this austere and fatal landscape, he must oppose not only the enigma of evil and the indifferent majesty of nature, but his own spiritual banishment. When Vernon Slone returns from a desert war to discover his young boy dead and his wife missing, he cuts a vengeful swath across his frozen homeland, pursued by both Russell Core and a police detective called Donald Marium. The story’s violence never approaches the pitch of Technicolor savagery in Blood Meridian (so much of it in service of only itself—babies butchered in high-def, etc.), but is rather an inevitable, organic outcrop of the landscape’s indifferent decrees.

Being praised for false emulation is nearly as bad as being pilloried for false errors. I'm not aware of McCarthy’s ever having ventured into the gelid wilds of Alaska, into the village-living of a clan forgotten, forsaken by civilization. Nor am I aware of his ever employing a female protagonist. Hold the Dark belongs to Medora Slone: not only is it she who sets the clock of the narrative, but it is she who risks the most, who is the most hell-bent in her determination, and who by the novel’s close is the most transformed. Did McCarthy invent the portrayal of violence in fiction, or should that laurel go to Homer? Did he invent the cop-and-criminal plot, the chase story?

If most of the McCarthy comparisons have been favorable, all of them have been facile. This is testament to the McCarthy hegemony, to how wholly he dominates an entire sector of American fiction, and to how he has usurped our understanding of a certain literary pedigree. Write a novel with a specific poetical register adequate to the task of addressing nature and redemption, one which includes the sanguinary madness of men, and McCarthy is the artist languidly at hand for every reader itching to make a connection. But McCarthy’s prominence is such that another novelist interested in the primitive flux and flex of violence, and in that crossroad where this world grinds against the other, would have to be outright masochistic to attempt to emulate him. Neither the novelist nor the novel could ever get away with it. Every page would carry its own proof of transgression, and thus its own guarantee of detection. ‪Let's remember, too, Walker Percy's perfect warning to writers who attempt to channel Faulkner: "There is nothing more feckless than imitating an eccentric."‬

Every serious novelist, I’m convinced, enters each new narrative with an imago, or with a confluence of imagoes. If I was at all cognizant of other novels during the construction of my own, those novels were Mann’s Death in Venice and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: the taut pathos at the hub of their telling, their structural efficiency, the intrepid dealing with death’s dominion, the stab of their brevity. But no novelist with a lifetime of reading behind him can ever be completely cognizant of the manifold literary influences that set up residence inside his own story. “To read means to borrow,” wrote G.C. Lichtenberg in one of his many unkillable aphorisms. “To create out of one’s reading is paying off one’s debts.”

My own anxiety of influence derives not from an unconscious agon with a preceding work, but from knowing the necessity of originality while acknowledging that consummate originality is impossible. It’s all been done before. After Homer and Virgil, after the King James Bible, after Dante and Chaucer, after Cervantes and Shakespeare and Tolstoy—what’s left to invent? You’ve no doubt heard about the “biblical” bent to McCarthy’s subjects and sentences, but he’s more Hellenic than Hebraic—his tales unfurl at that juncture where the accidental collides with the ordained, where human agency is constrained by the exigencies of fate, and where the horror you see indicates a more terrible horror you cannot.

And I have to admit that I wanted Hold the Dark to unfurl at that same juncture, but I doubt that had anything to do with McCarthy. I’d guess it had everything to do with the Homer and Aeschylus of my boyhood—those Greeks I was steeped in as a half-lonesome lad of divorce who somehow intuited that these ancients had usable responses to my woe. (In Hold the Dark, Medora is my Medea.) But not only the Greeks: there were also those Jack London tales of far-out frigidity, White Fang and The Call of the Wild and his imperishable story “To Build a Fire,” which still serve as some boys’ welcome mat into the world of imaginative literature. And there was Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” a ferocious story by a fearless genius who astonished my 12-year-old sensibility and astonishes me still. The novelist Padgett Powell has named O’Connor “the goddesshead,” the fount touched by every medieval-minded crooner of darkling forces, and you can be certain of McCarthy’s tremendous debt to Ms. O’Connor.

Like O’Connor, I was reared beneath the allegorical tyranny and flesh fetishism of Roman Catholicism, the maelstrom of blood and pain that is the Passion, and yet only a few especially astute readers have noticed this strain in my story. Catholics both practicing and lapsed never shake off the pageantry and mythos of that worldview, its dramatic grasp of causation and salvation—it affects every molecule of our lives, every inch of our art. I understand that McCarthy, too, was reared a Catholic, and he has my empathy for such a baroque and bloody upbringing, but I’m not responsible for that shared fact of our biographies.

Literary pedigree is or should be a valid concern for any writer or for any critic considering that writer. A novelist must tell his own story while consciously and unconsciously filching from the masters, from the mythical and historical and folkloric and religious, while imbuing his own sentences with a vitality and nuance which will elevate them above the widespread swamps of middling prose. McCarthy won’t be denuded of his divine status any time soon, if ever, and that is probably as it should be. But if we agree that after a certain point in literary history wholesale originality became impossible, then we might benefit from the understanding that McCarthy is not the begetter of what we now consider the McCarthian. He has his own literary gods to whom he offers alms, the Homers and Faulkners and O’Connors, and those same gods can hear the invocations of us all.