That Fit of Pique

by | Aug 28, 2007 | Creating Characters, Literature

Sorry for that outrageous bit of venting yesterday. As I’ve mentioned before, and I really mean it, I don’t enjoy writing about bad art, and I don’t enjoy trashing other people’s work. But I’d taken a short break from my own, run across that depressing bit of news about a book that I’d really, truly hated, and snapped.

I’m feeling much better now.

I was planning to post a follow-up of some sort anyway, and my most reliable critic, Barry K, who does a most excellent and welcome job of keeping me honest, has given me a place to start out from once again. He writes:

             I’m at a disadvantage here because I’ve only read Blood Meridian. I remember it being a very dark, unpleasant story with unlikable characters, but nevertheless a very powerful book. As for the writing, it was simultaneously sparse and dense which I thought was an impressive accomplishment. So are you saying that all the critics who have praised McCarthy’s work are ignorant idiots? And why have you bothered to read three of his books? What constitutes dull writing, and how would you have done it differently?

             Well, to start with the last question, the glib answer would be that I wouldn’t have done it at all. The territory covered in The Road has already been worked over so thoroughly in so much sci-fi. The Mad Max films, for example, start from the same premise, and do, frankly, a better job of examining the human response to such a dire situation. So, for that matter, does Waterworld.

If I had to do it, I’d probably take my cue from Dr. Strangelove. Kubrick’s original notion was to treat the very bleak prospect of nuclear winter bleakly, but came to realize that the more effective way to get his message across was through satire.

As for what constitutes dull writing, in this case it has to do with my notion that fiction ought to have something to do with revealing character, and in this book the only two characters, the father and the son, are flat. The father is a good guy doing his best to save his son. The son is . . . a kid. Oddly enough, I’ve been thinking of writing about the problems of stories that have only one character, and this book has many of the same problems. The kid tends to ask questions like ‘Dad, will we ever get so desperate that we become cannibals, too?’ The dad says, ‘No, son, we won’t.’ In the absence of more interesting opportunities for revealing who these people are, McCarthy spends a lot of time discussing things like the repairing of the shopping cart wheel.

As for McCarthy’s writing being both spare and dense, I can’t say that I found that to be true in this book although it occasionally was in No Country for Old Man, but that did not make up for a fatal flaw with both books, which was that they were not believable fictions. In No Country, the whole thing hinges on the existence of a super-duper unstoppable sociopathic killer who can see around corners in the dark and smell his quarry fifty miles away under water. At one point, there is an epic shootout, shots ringing out in every direction over the course of at least fifteen minutes right downtown in a small town in Texas, that nobody but the gunmen notice until the next morning.

Which leads us to another major difficulty I have with McCarthy. His writing seems to depend on the super-exceptional, whereas to me the interesting stuff, the human condition, the character worth exploring, is found squarely in the middle of the normal.

Why do critics fall for this stuff? I hinted at that with my reference to the emperor and his naked butt. My theory is that since what McCarthy is so clearly writing about SERIOUS STUFF, critics are afraid to seem frivolous by not taking it seriously. Like Oprah, who consistently flogs books about people who overcome horrifying childhood trauma and so on, they do not stop to ask if the serious themes are written about well.

As for why I’ve read two of McCarthy icky books, the answer is that I have been trying to keep up with what is going on in serious contemporary literature.   I won’t be reading a third, and will make an effort to never mention him again.