To publish a bestseller is a major achievement. To publish two bestsellers in one year is an extraordinary feat. To do so just shy of one’s 90th birthday, after a literary silence of 16 years? That’s the stuff of a Hollywood screenplay – or a page out of the life of Cormac McCarthy, arguably one of America’s greatest living writers.
McCarthy – who released his first novel in 1965 – published two books in 2022, which both enjoyed (and are still currently enjoying) extended residencies at the top of the bestseller charts. The Passenger, published in October, is the thriller-paced investigation into a 1980s plane crash, told through the eyes of Bobby, a salvage diver. Stella Maris, which released in December, picks up the tale from Bobby’s math-genius sister’s perspective, McCarthy’s first foray into a female narrator, 50 years in the making.
And while both books have been a success by the metric of sales, it has been more than 15 years since McCarthy last flashed across the celebrity author firmament with The Road, catapulted into the commercial stratosphere by becoming an Oprah’s Book Club pick. (Their interview to mark that occasion was the second the famously media-averse McCarthy had ever given in his career, and his first for television.) Even for long-term fans, these two new books signal a moment of reflection and reappraisal.
Which brings us to Steven Frye, professor of American literature and chair of English at the California State University, Bakersfield. A novelist himself, Frye is also a noted McCarthy scholar – he has written the Cambridge Companion to his work, among other texts – and is the perfect person to lend some perspective on the life, legacy and literature of this legendary writer.
As a McCarthy scholar, what have you made of the two books he’s released this year?
They are a remarkable coda to a long and productive career. The novels touch on many of his most common themes – the reality of human suffering, alienation, the anxiety of the modern moment and the question of the divine. All this is accomplished in the context of a richly human story, involving two characters who respond to the world and its traumas by engaging the realm of ideas through studied contemplation. In these novels, McCarthy makes the realm of intellect and philosophy supremely relevant and intimately personal at the most basic level.
How is the 89-year-old McCarthy a different writer to the young man who published The Orchard Keeper in 1965?
The Orchard Keeper was a fine first novel and signalled the extraordinary career that would follow. In that book McCarthy orchestrated parallel narratives and the poetically rendered prose that would mark his work throughout his career. He has always explored a rich array of themes and many of them remain, including the traumatic effects of historical change and the beauty and transformative power of the natural world. In these last two novels, he employs a late style that embodies the same voice, but with a more laconic expression and a simpler prose. His vision remains realistically dark and ominous, but there is a more balanced tension between the troubling aspects of the human experience and the compensatory reality of human relationships and memory.
By almost universal consensus, he’s hailed as one of our greatest living writers. For the uninitiated, what is about McCarthy’s writing that is so, well, great?
What makes a writer or any artist great is always a hard question to answer. In many ways it comes down to whether in classical terms they can render the beautiful and sublime and move people to heights of emotion through their expression. Using that as a measure, McCarthy stands out in the American literary tradition. He takes on the most challenging human conditions and considers them honestly in a language that is uniquely his own. In an articulation that is bleak and at the same time inexpressibly beautiful, he offers art itself as the very thing that makes the human condition livable. If that’s not artistic greatness, I don’t know what is.
His work is often described as nihilistic, violent, with a bleak vision of humanity. Is this reductionist?
It is quite reductionist and unfair. Everything that McCarthy portrays or explores has a referent in the world in which we live. The brutality of Blood Meridian, the necrophilia of Child of God, the ubiquitous violence of the Border Trilogy, are all things we find in the history books. The question becomes this: Taking these very real conditions into account, where do we find meaning, purpose and value? McCarthy discovers these things in the sustaining power of human relationships, community, even perhaps in the vague and ubiquitous voice of God, however thinly understood. In his works, life is very much worth living. For Bobby Western in The Passenger, his relationship with his sister Alicia lives on in the power of memory and in the love that sustains them even after loss and separation. These are conditions we can all recognize. Darkness, yes. Nihilism and lack of meaning, no.
For you personally, what is it about McCarthy and his work that you find so compelling?
His deep commitment to living and striving even amidst the most daunting of human and environmental conditions. In characters such as the kid in Blood Meridian, John Grady Cole and Billy Parham in the Border Trilogy, the man in The Road, and finally Bobby Western in The Passenger, we find examples of courage that are not predicated on victory but resilience, stoic resistance and moral compass.
He’s won so many awards and inspired generations of writers. But what do you think the enduring legacy of McCarthy and his work will be?
His favourite book is Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. In that novel, Melville writes, “To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme.” McCarthy takes this admonition to heart. In works that are stylistically rich and incomprehensibly beautiful he confronts the reader with a rare honesty. He invites us to consider the world as it is – stark, violent, indifferent, tragic, but beautiful, sustaining and full of humanity and even hope. This is a rare and historically unique artistic accomplishment.
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