Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is that rare contemporary novel able to capture a large, diverse audience, from the popular readership who found the novel through Oprah’s Book Club or the Hollywood film to more urban, bohemian audiences whose tastes were legitimized upon hearing it referenced in Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture (2010), and now the academy is engaged. In Styles of Extinction: Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road,” eight scholars make theoretically adventurous inquiries into the complicated questions the novel poses, questions about style and allegory, ethics and metaphysics, and the relation between The Road and American history, society, and politics. The results are often suggestive, and the volume might be best understood as a preliminary map for future scholarship on The Road.
While the editors, Julian Murphet and Mark Steven, claim McCarthy’s style as “a point on which all of the essays in this volume converge,” perhaps a deeper convergence is the experimental method animating these essays (7). What they share is the desire to bring The Road into the laboratory of literary theory, testing how McCarthy’s imaginative apocalypse mixes with ideas from Badiou, Žižek, Derrida, Agamben, and others. Chris Danta, for example, brings Wittgenstein into a discussion of the color gray, forging links to Samuel Beckett’s late gray worlds and McCarthy’s revision of Plato’s metaphysics. Grace Helleyer utilizes Walter Benjamin’s understanding of “spleen” in Baudelaire to examine the relation between The Road’s allegory and melancholia. In a fine essay, Paul Sheehan argues for a political as opposed to religious interpretation, marshalling ideas from Richard Rorty and Hegel to effectively place McCarthy’s novel into its post-9/11 context. Despite the thematic and theoretical range of the essays, the volume does have its limitations.
If there is a line between theory that illuminates and theory that frustrates, then this volume sometimes crosses it (e.g., “The consequences of the resultant ‘worldlessness’ include a regressive process of [End Page 484] global de-nomination, which is manifest in the proliferation of the hominess sacri and the homo homini lupens whose fictional avatars populate The Road” [Mark Steven, 82]). Perhaps one reason for this dependence on theoretical jargon is that the majority of the scholars are based at the University of New South Wales in Australia. Theory opens The Road to interpretation by international scholars who are unable to or uninterested in grounding their readings in more localized contexts. The limitations of this international perspective shows up in small ways: for instance, the setting is referred to as the “Southeastern United States,” which Americans would simply call the South, and there is no mention of McCarthy’s career-long engagement with this region or to what it might mean to read The Road as a southern novel. More substantially, there is an absence of interpretations rooted in McCarthy’s biography, archival materials (now available at Texas State University, San Marcos), the American reception and readership, or McCarthy’s relation to the contemporary American literary scene. It is, of course, perfectly acceptable to privilege theory over these local contexts, and perhaps this international perspective will prove the unique value of Styles of Extinction. At the very least, this book suggests McCarthy’s fiction’s capacity, rooted in stylistic force and historical-cultural significance, to make meaning across national borders, a strong sign of his work’s ongoing scholarly relevance.