- Cormac McCarthy: All the Pretty Horses, No Country for Old Men, The Road by Sara L. Spurgeon
What I really like about this book is how it continuously redirects the reader back to the primary texts—the literary works and their screen adaptations. Sara Spurgeon has hit on a brilliant concept here, for her book successfully explores these three works by Cormac McCarthy in a somewhat transmedial fashion: as novels, of course, but also as films. This is achieved even though the third section of the book, on The Road (2006), does not explicitly engage the film adaptation (it was not out by the time the manuscript was being prepared for publication). Nevertheless, the way the first two sections unfold, the final section beckons to its readers to think across platforms, as it were, and to consider how its analyses of The Road (the book) might be seen to translate or interpret aspects of the now extant film.
This balancing act is indicative of the whole book, which stands in my mind as an example of the best kind of “interdisciplinary” humanities research. This is to say, the book does not attempt a sweeping or exhaustive assessment of these three McCarthy fictions but presents instead a focused set of humanities approaches through which to consider the works. The contributors (most of whom are English scholars) do literary history and work with direct quotations from the primary texts, of course. But then there are fruitful forays into gender theory and cultural geography (Linda Woodson); film studies (Stacey Peebles); critical theory (Andrew Husband); American studies (Stephen Tatum); philosophy (Jay Ellis, Dan Flory, and Donovan Gwinner); and cultural studies and environmental theory (a highlight here is Susan Kollin’s shrewd parsing of the appearance of “kudzu” in The Road). The collection closes with a theory of The Road by Dana Phillips, whose unique style of literary criticism is at turns anecdotal and empirical, colloquial and intellectually nuanced. In short, it is a volume that never gets in a rut and surprises with each essay.
Spurgeon’s thorough and deft introduction to the volume is anchoring and guiding, without being overbearing. She provides a critical-geographical framework for McCarthy’s ongoing oeuvre and then makes a convincing case for why these three novels can be treated in sequence. Having set up this schema, Spurgeon surveys the contemporary scholarship around McCarthy and then lets the contributors do their individual work; she only interrupts to set up each of the three sections with a pithy overview. One wishes that the editor had closed the book with a coda or her own chapter—but then again, Phillips’s essay serves as an apt provocation to end on, too. [End Page 409]
What first drew me to this title was a plan to teach the two most recent McCarthy novels toward the end of an undergraduate, twentieth-century American fiction course, and I was looking for a way to present some McCarthy criticism in a single package that my students could read alongside the primary texts. Indeed, I think Spurgeon’s book would work splendidly this way, especially because it would introduce students to a variety of interlinking modes of analytical reading. I particularly like how several of the chapters take up the same passages from the fiction, thus effectively demonstrating what gets emphasized or foregrounded with different critical interests or aims.
I also think this book would be fascinating to teach in terms of intersections between contemporary literature and media studies. Nearly every chapter deals in one way or another with the media ecosystems that inform (however overtly or in a background manner) McCarthy’s fictions. The film dimension is obvious here, with the adaptations to refer to. But there are other forms of media in play throughout the fictions, as the writers make clear: from musical traditions and horse-breaking mythologies to popular disaster tropes and modern messages of mobility (auto- and otherwise). Spurgeon’s collection, taught alongside McCarthy’s three primary texts, could make for...