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  • Consulting Physicians:The Role of Specialist Medical Advisers in Cormac McCarthy's Contemporary Fiction
  • Daniel King (bio)

In her essay "Illness—An Unexploited Mine," which would later be re-worked into the longer and better known On Being Ill, Virginia Woolf argued that, given the dramatic effect illness has on a person, "it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love, battle, and jealousy among the prime theatres of literature."1 Woolf writes that "novels, one would have thought, would have been devoted to influenza; epic poems to Typhoid; odes to Pneumonia, Appendicitis, and Cancer, lyrics to Toothache."2 She laments, however, that "literature does its best to maintain that its concern is with the mind; the body is a sheet of plain glass through which the soul looks straight and clear."3 Woolf's would hardly be a tenable position today. Illnesses and their treatments have become common subjects for contemporary authors. The work of Richard Powers, as just one example, has taken as the central concerns of its narratives medical conditions ranging from cancer in Gain to brain injuries in The Echo Maker. In addition, the growth in the popularity and sheer number of television medical drama series confirms the idea that medicine and health care have taken their places in the public consciousness. The increasing willingness to write about illness and medical topics in contemporary literature has been, at least in the work of author Cormac McCarthy, accompanied by an increased recourse to consulting medical professionals. There are various uses to which the testimony of these expert collaborators has been put, from ensuring medical and historical accuracy to providing a subtle shorthand facilitating allusion to more traditional intertextual [End Page 339] sources. This paper will examine McCarthy's use of medical consultants in three of his novels; the historical medicine of The Crossing; the depictions of contemporary medicine found in No Country for Old Men; and the role played by medical knowledge in the careful construction of classical allusions in The Road.

One of the explanations Virginia Woolf offers for the dearth of medicine in literature is linguistic: "English which can express the thoughts of Hamlet and the tragedy of Lear has no words for the shiver and the headache. It has all grown one way."4 This is still a problem for contemporary authors, since to write convincingly about medical matters outside their typical area of expertise, they need to turn to experts in those fields in order to accumulate the correct words for the shivers and headaches suffered by their characters. That writers turn to specialist advisers is perhaps not a revelation when dealing with those authors working through the media of film and television. Fox network's medical drama House, MD proudly displays the names of "David Foster MD," a "Technical Consultant," and three "Medical Technical Advisers" during its credit sequence, as well as listing an "On-Set Medical Advisor" in a separate section of its end credits. Long-running medical drama ER, developed by MD Michael Crichton in 1994, even featured one early "Technical Advisor [...] Lance A Gentile, MD" who went on to direct several episodes of the program. The role these advisers play is both to provide the medical terminology required by the narrative and also to integrate these terms into the flow of the narrative, both advising the writers and helping them to construct the story. The use of medical and other advisers to help lay a groundwork of verisimilitude for imaginative stories is not, however, a practice reserved solely for the visual media.

Archival sources reveal the crucial involvement of medical professionals in the writing practices of Cormac McCarthy. Across McCarthy's oeuvre the specialist knowledge these collaborators provide has been deployed in increasingly complex ways, from providing detail within a scene as in the case of McCarthy's depiction of a gunshot wound in The Crossing to forming an integral component of the allusive imagery of The Road.

The Border Trilogy: Historical Medical Knowledge

The "Border Trilogy" of novels—All the Pretty Horses (1992), The Crossing (1994), and Cities of the Plain (1998)—marked Cormac McCarthy's [End Page 340] transition from critically-lauded but...


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pp. 339-355
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