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Dhaka Tribune

The American Novelist without parallel

Update : 17 Jun 2023, 02:57 AM

Cormac McCarthy died on 13th June. For those who are not familiar with him, Mr. McCarthy is widely recognized as the greatest and most revered American novelist of the last few decades. He also gained mainstream fame because some of his novels were brought to the screen by Hollywood. Among those movies, the most well-known is “No Country for Old Men”, which was released in 2007 by the famous Coen Brothers. The movie itself is known as one of the best films of the 21st century. Among the many outstanding features of the movie is the lean dialogue with heavy meaning in each utterance. Those dialogues were lifted straight out of the novel. 

Why is Cormac McCarthy so widely revered? His novels dealt with themes like life and death, violence and struggle, the destiny of man and society, the nature of the world and civilization, and such. All quite heavy and bleak. He was often criticized for a very masculine worldview and lack of female perspectives in his works. In one of the very few interviews he gave, an interview with Oprah herself, Mr. McCarthy frankly said that “I don't understand women.” The interview was focused on McCarthy's novel “The Road” for Oprah's Book Club; a post-apocalyptic, father-son novel that was also made into a famous movie. This was the nature of the man and his work. McCarthy gave no compromises for readers and popularity. He wrote novels for himself. 

Complex, heavy themes are essential features of Mr. McCarthy's novels because he had a lifelong interest in the nature of human beings and society. For the last four decades, he has been living in Santa Fe, New Mexico where the famous Santa Fe Institute is located. The institute is famous for bringing accomplished physicists, mathematicians, economists, neuroscientists, and such, to study complex systems underlying the behavior of man, society, and nature. Mr. McCarthy was a trustee and collaborator with the researchers of the institute.   

However, many novelists use complex, heavy themes in their work. What made Mr. McCarthy stand far above any other writer of the contemporary era is his unique and incandescent language. He used spare and laconic dialogues, florid and detailed descriptions, and arcane and ornate words in sentences without conventional punctuations that read more like poetry than prose. Scholars have compared his language with the high English style of the King James Bible or Shakespeare. Just as the first English Bible or the Bard of Avon constructed language itself as they expressed, Mr. McCarthy seem to craft a style completely of his own.           

Cormac McCarthy's complex, dark themes and unique language style came together in their finest expression in the 1985 Novel “Blood Meridian”, his most famous work and the novel that many consider the second “Great American Novel” after “Moby-Dick”, the mid-nineteenth century epic by Herman Melville. The novel is loosely based on real historical events surrounding the infamous Glanton Gang, a band of American ex-soldiers and mercenaries hired by Mexican authorities in 1849 to fight and eliminate warlike Apache Indians in the borderlands between the USA and Mexico. Since the gang was paid for the number of scalps, the piece of skin cut from the head of slain people, it soon expanded the scope and ruthlessly started massacring whole villages of peaceful Indians, Mexicans, women, and children, for the vastly increased and easy bounty. 

Many literary analysts have called Blood Meridian the ultimate Western novel, the portrayal of the violent foundation of the American imperium. Like Moby-Dick, Blood Meridian has themes of the violent capacity of humans, obsession and destiny, and the nature of good and evil, while the language of the novel is like no other book of the modern era. There are many paragraphs of lyrical descriptions of sceneries and movements taking place in the forbidding landscape of the southwestern borderlands. One of my favorite lines describes how the group of riders departed a town for their next destination.        

“They rode out on the north road as would parties bound for El Paso but before they were even quite out of sight of the city, they had turned their tragic mounts to the west and they rode infatuate and half fond toward the red demise of that day, toward the evening lands and the distant pandemonium of the sun.”

The central character of Blood Meridian is Judge Holden, again a fictionalized portrayal of a real person in the Glanton Gang. McCarthy made Holden a supernatural personification of violence and domination. Scholars have said Judge Holden is the most frightening character in modern American literature. Here is how Holden explains the role of war in the affairs of mankind.  

“This is the nature of war, whose stake is at once the game and the authority and the justification. Seen so, war is the truest form of divination. It is the testing of one's will and the will of another within that larger will which because it binds them is therefore forced to select. War is the ultimate game because war is at last a forcing of the unity of existence. War is god.”  

This hits home quite resoundingly nowadays with the war going on in Ukraine. 

Philosophers and academics have spent thousands of hours and thousands of pages analyzing Blood Meridian and Judge Holden. One must go through the book to understand why the book is singular.    

In recent years McCarthy was frequently rumored to be the favorite for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Unfortunately, this didn't happen before his sudden demise. It is the Nobel prize that is poorer for this miss. Cormac McCarthy will be celebrated in the American literary pantheon as a giant like Herman Melville.   


Shafiqur Rahman is a political scientist.

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