Cormac McCarthy’s Paradox of Choice: One Writer, Ten Novels, and a Career-Long Obsession
McCarthy has given new shades to the English language, and that should be enough. Were he a painter or a composer, or perhaps even a poet, it probably would be, but Cormac McCarthy is a fiction writer, and fiction is generally construed to carry burdens above and beyond anything so frivolous as mere style. Stories must mean something. They must appear to argue for or against moral systems—or at least interrogate them. They must be a little less inconstant than dreams.
It is strange to charge McCarthy with not caring about anything more than surfaces, as his single most famous public utterance indicates otherwise. This is the author who declared “I don’t understand [Proust and Henry James]. To me, that’s not literature” because real literature “deals with issues of life and death.”
Here McCarthy reveals his great interest in the choices his characters make. True, he may not realize that, to Proust and James, Swann’s choice to court Odette or Isabel Archer’s choice to marry Osmond are issues just as “life and death” as any murder or tryst found in McCarthy, but the quote still flatly contradicts the claim that McCarthy is a pure formalist. And does McCarthy’s work itself back up his claim? Yes. In fact, in each of his ten novels McCarthy has showed an obsession with the rare, crucial moments when people make the decisions that will define their lives forever.
From the very beginning, McCarthy has been an author fascinated by the give-and-take between modern-day humans and the multiple systems they are exposed to in day-to-day life. These systems react potently with McCarthy’s other great novelistic concern: the alienated individual and his ultimate recognition (with McCarthy it is invariable a he) that no one can stand outside of human society, and that our codes and bureaucracies decide for us far more often than we actually decide for ourselves. McCarthy’s novels are built around the rare moments of genuine decision-making when the swell and swirl of the world pulls back to relinquish agency to the individual.
In this way, the work of Cormac McCarthy strikes deep into the heart of American literature, as his books are always rooted in that most American of themes: the search for identity. In McCarthy it is often seen as an obsession with borders: of personal identity, of physical place, and of spiritual position within an existential realm of conflicting value systems.
In exploring these borders, McCarthy has carved out what is perhaps a unique place in all of American letters; he has overseen the decline of a traditional way of life in the American South while also personalizing and reframing the rise and fall of the romanticized American West. His protagonists, so similar and yet so different, have revealed the overlap between what are generally understood as two discrete historical phenomena. And in his final novel to date, McCarthy has even showed an ability to project these typical concerns into purely speculative territory, to improbably yet powerfully fuse his earthy immediacy with the lightness of fantasy. Throughout all of this, McCarthy is grounded by his interest in moments of choice and their attendant moral consequences.