- No More Heroes: Narrative Perspective and Morality in Cormac McCarthy
This trenchant study by Lydia Cooper offers a useful lens through which to consider the complex ethics of Cormac McCarthy’s often dark and troubling fiction. Even as Cooper concedes the seeming bleakness in much of McCarthy’s writing—a body of work sometimes characterized as naturalistic and even nihilistic in its views—she argues for an interplay between McCarthy’s prose and its readers, one which engenders what she calls an “empathetic engagement” between McCarthy’s readers and his characters which reveals “the ethical necessity of imagination [End Page 324] in human interaction” (4, 5). For Cooper, McCarthy’s unorthodox syntax and his shifts in narrative perspective enable and embolden this empathetic engagement and imaginative interaction, creating opportunities for characters and readers alike to consider morally challenging scenarios and points of view, forcing meaningful considerations of deep human depravity alongside moments of transcendent human goodness.
Cooper’s book tracks these complicated moral dimensions in an organization that respects the publication chronology of McCarthy’s works. The book begins by examining narration and morals in McCarthy’s three early Appalachian novels in its first chapter and treats Suttree (1979), Blood Meridian (1985), and the Border Trilogy in the subsequent two chapters. The book culminates with studies of No Country for Old Men (2005) and The Road (2006) in its final two chapters. Through all the book’s pages, Cooper wishes to underscore the crucial role of narrative in “bearing witness to moral courage” and in providing “the only means by which morality is recognized” (22). For Cooper, McCarthy’s prose carries with it the obligation to depict “the most extravagant catastrophes of human evil” and the “slender threads of hope” so that readers know how to interpret both villainy and heroism in the larger contexts of a darkened world (23).
One of the most compelling contributions of Cooper’s study is its insistence that one must consider the form and the content of McCarthy’s novels as linked, not separate, issues in the estimation of the empathetic possibility of its moral statements. In her chapter on prophetic narrative and The Road, for instance, Cooper points out how one of the most fundamental struggles in that postapocalyptic novel is not between the cannibals and their human prey or even between survival and death but between language’s capacity to mean and the dissolution of that meaning in linguistic symbols now devoid of their referents. If the stories told between father and son in The Road take on a ritual or even sacramental dimension, it is, in Cooper’s estimation, because these stories consistently point to a world that has largely passed away but may only come into existence again through the performative—and therefore prophetic—capacity of language itself. Thus, the form of language—its structures, its syntax, its range of signification—becomes in itself the content of a world that has in large part disappeared except in its linguistic signs. If the young boy of The Road is not only to survive but to continue “carrying the fire,” as the refrain of McCarthy’s novel consistently reminds its readers, it is, according to Cooper, because the “fire” is inseparable from the words that nourish and sustain its transmission between the boy and other characters as well as between the novel and its readers. Even The Road’s perplexing final paragraphs, which allude to memories of fish and other primordial forms of life that appear to have been destroyed in the unidentified apocalyptic a priori of the novel, might for Cooper be explained by humanity’s inherent and unquenchable goodness as retained in language and story.
Cooper’s careful close reading of McCarthy’s novels—a trait long appreciated by McCarthy scholars—and her eloquent insistence on [End Page 325] the importance of considerations of morality in McCarthy’s work make this book an important contribution to the ever-burgeoning body of McCarthy scholarship.