On Hodge On McCarthy

So I just read this critical essay in the Feb. Harper's called Blood and Time by Roger D. Hodge, the magazine's Deputy editor. It's a review of Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men, as well as a comment on the ouvre in general, and is interesting to say the least. Hodge takes a risk and, in parts of the essay, actually adopts a degree of McCarthy's literary style as he describes McCarthy's aesthetics and geographical milieu. The review itself is highly favorable, exalting even, and is intended as a rebuttal to earlier reviews of No Country from the contingent Hodge refers to as "the self-appointed guardians of bourgeois consciousness," including Joyce Carol Oates, James Wood, and William Deresiewicz (a fmr. professor of mine, incidentally, who once called me a "snotty little punk" in an email message. Here nor there.) The cognoscenti thought the book was basically a pulp thriller derivative.

Hodge, who's clearly a McCarthy lover, and clearly also a writer of some brilliance, argues convincingly that the boozsh-guardians are missing the point and that No Country, like all of McCarthy's work, timelessly encapsulates a lost time - book as psychic amber fossil, preserving a tiny yellow vision of the lawless and bloody West. The essay is written with feeling and with considerable insight, which is why it's hard to discount the style-imitation gambit. Here's a snippet from the review:

Sometimes [McCarthy's] subject is the tragedy of history, in which two laws equally just and true come into unavoidable and violent conflict. Sometimes it is that of transgression, as when a brother and sister come together in the darkness and out of that furtive grappling are undone. Most often it is the simple natural drama of predator and prey, of hawks and wolves, trappers and hunters and snake catchers and those who run dogs under the moon; the drama of muskrats and field mice and catfish, wild house cats aloft in the claws of owls, all of which fall prey to man, who hunts all things.
See how he tries to channel the man himself? And does kind of a good job? Weird, eh? The other interesting thing is that, in reading No Country (which I haven't read but have just ordered), Hodge thought he recognized some very specific minor landmarks -- including a cattle-guard in Lozier Canyon, TX -- that were actually on or near his own family's border country ranch. In a strange tangent, Hodge travels to the ranch in search of the semi-fictional landmarks, and finds them, along with a bunch of other McCarthyan fever dreams made manifest, like a cave full of -- well, let him say it:
We see a deep metate ground into the limestone bedrock by generations of hands...We are standing on a midden composed of more than ten feet of ash and garbage and burned stone. Bits of sotol cud, a fibrous cactus chewed for its high sugar content, lie here and there all over the floor, as do grindstones and bits of chipped and worked rock, a charred jawbone of some small critter, and thousands of empty snail shells.
One is so tempted to call this approach pretentious or somehow self-indulgent. Allowing yourself as the writer of a piece to become so intoxicated with the subject that it begins literally to possess you, to abduct you, to transport you into it. Part of me wants to say, dude, spare us the McCarthy fanfic -- imitation is fine, but do it somewhere where no one needs to read it, like on a fanfic site. But then the more magnanimous part of me -- the little yogi within -- tells me no, no, this Hodge has done something interesting here. There's a poetry to blurring the line like that. For one thing, McCarthy's work is notoriously difficult to assign anything other than nihilistic meaning to. Rather than offering a theory to explain all of it, Hodge does this homage-thing, whereby he offers a kind of personalized version of McCarthy's world, a legitimate piece of McCarthy-inspired thinking. Plus wait a second, did I say it was bad to get kidnapped by your own writing? Uh, maybe it's been too long.

Anyway, I don't think I've explained the piece well at all. You'd have to read it to see what I'm trying to get at, which maybe you don't feel like doing right at the moment. Cool. I definitely recommend it to McCarthy fans, though.


Pete said...

As one of the lesser "self-appointed guardians of Bourgeois-consciousness" who panned NCFOM, I direct hodge to my -9.8 or whatever it was on the internet lefty scale. I eat bourgeois-consciousness for breakfast.

McCarthy could wipe his ass with paper, publish it, and some people would be there saying "you don't get it, dude." to the vast majority of the population not so eager to presume any conclusions about his genius. I can't name another writer who gets that- maybe Eggers to a lesser degree, or Pahlahniuk maybe. The difference, and it is an important one, is that McCarthy actually has produced good-to-great work in his career. In a way that just muddies the issue. I think we all know what would have happened to this last one if it had a different name on the cover.

I hear the Coen bros are going to adapt NCFOM. I'll go see it. My guess is it will be a much better Coen bros. film than it was a novel

dunkeys said...

I wonder if Faulkner also inspired imitative 'reviewers'?

Robert Hass reviewed _All the Pretty Horses_ for the NYTBR years ago, and he also slipped into McCarthyness, at least at the end of the review. His review then became one of the main examples of how reviewers are giving contemporary writers such as Cormac a free pass in that feather-ruffling essay by B.R. Myers published in The Atlantic around 2001 or so, which led to a book-version of the essay, _The Reader's Manifesto_.

Did anyone ever hear Frank's hilarious dismissals of Cormac? Something like, "It's like that idiot McCartney writing those dumb cowboy novels!" while cackling gleefully.

Anyway, I used to love Cormac, but I've lost the passion. I wonder if McCarthy's 'vision' just got old. It's hard to top the Judge, after all . . . and saying more or less the same thing over and over gets a bit tired, no matter how many amazing details you use. I probably won't read No Country, unless that Harper's article gets me, too. We'll see.

ammacinn said...

(Nice original post -- I just stumbled across it, so this comment will probably be buried in your blogs' archives, but what the hell).

I liked NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN -- I read it in something like two nights; it reads like a light thriller, but it contains moments of brilliance and McCarthy's most memorable villain (aside from Judge Holden). It did seem a bit weak at times -- some passages meander longer than they need to, and there's less joy in the prose than one would expect -- but I think there's a moral seriousness to the book that requires the reader transcend the trappings of genre, and I think Hodge gets at it quite well.

I can't imagine the Coens doing justice to this material. There's a seriousness to McCarthy that I think will crumble under their ironic, playful, and somewhat superior touch.

It is a bit much that Hodge imitates McCarthy as much as he does, but overall I liked his article, too...

Allan (alienatedinvancouver.blogspot.com)