This book is a lament for the world we live in. It knows there is no victory over death. The best you can hope for, in Joseph Heller’s view, is to persevere. He is not a cynical writer, as some may claim, because a cynic doesn’t have sympathy with anyone else. Heller is more the way I picture God: he’s smitten with the human race. All the poor luckless bastards of the world are Heller’s people: the inefficient and the inopportune; the people whose minds have cracked; whose spines have dissolved; those who can scarce face the thought of living… They are the heroes of Catch 22. Here is an epic for the bungled and the botched. There are no great deeds, and no innocents are saved. The hero wins because he refuses to die.
Is it fury that makes a man? It would explain why boys’ video games are all about killing, and girls’ video games are all about being kind to horses. Pre-video game, men took violent inspiration from nature. Now it’s obvious why men have such fury. The unpaved world, the one lacking in concrete, is a savage place. Big spaces aren’t peaceful; they howl for blood. Hills and fields are, by nature, indifferent to suffering. Timelessness does it. A hill stays a hill for eons, grass grows and grows. Why should the earth care for us? We only expect it to be humane because we’ve humanised it. Old peoples, like the Vikings, knew not to expect much. You’re born, you fight. Valhalla Rising is about a man who fights well.
In movies, there are certain things you can’t do. You can’t let dogs die. You can’t show a man’s penis. You can’t sleep. And you definitely can’t sympathise with a Nazi. In fiction, however, you can do whatever you want. Jonathan Littell’s novel The Kindly Ones proves this axiom, repeatedly. Here is one book that will never be a movie. This is not just because its hero is a Nazi, but also because he’s an incestuous, matricidal, tree-shagging Nazi…who often quotes poetry. Since the novel was originally written in French, I suppose there is a chance that The Kindly Ones could be a French movie. But even Gaspar (Irreversible) Noe would find some of it worthy of a “Sacrebleu!”
Did you ever play cowboys and Indians? Did the cowboys ever rape and mutilate the Indians? I thought not. You were with me up to the second part, right? Like most of Cormac McCarthy’s readership in the 1980s, you like Westerns, just not the whole “rape and mutilation” hootenanny. The trouble for prospective readers of McCarthy’s 1985 magnum opus Blood Meridian (and for any potential movie adaptation) is that the atavistic violence starts on page one and continues, roughly one act of violence per page, throughout the novel. If you took the words “they rode on” and “blood” out of the writing, you’d be left with a gibbering description of a desert.
Cormac McCarthy looked incongruous on The Oprah Winfrey Show. If he’d been denouncing the show, fine. If he’d been denouncing the show with blood on his hands and a burning church in the background, and a high plangent wail of a grieving mother shredding his words, and a look in his eyes as if Hell was close… no problem. But to see him chatting – for Cormac McCarthy to chat with Oprah – was disturbing. The very fact that his apocalyptic sermon, The Road, had been chosen for Oprah’s Book Club was strange enough. But I suppose (to use a Biblical parallel) even Moses had to talk to someone when he came down from the mountain.
Cormac McCarthy is an old crank. He may well be the William Faulkner of the 21st century, but he’s a crank. I read a lot of critics rhapsodise about No Country for Old Men when the hardback hit the stands, but precious few took note the book’s old-man-erisms: the crankiness, the misanthropy, the pessimistic certainty that only comes with old age – or youth. McCarthy’s world view is that the world is going to hell in a handbasket. In the Coen brothers’ adaptation of No Country for Old Men, doom is like a blanky that Javier Bardem’s character trails with him. You can ignore it if you want; talk all you like about the modern Western, but this movie is only, only about death.