- Cormac McCarthyProphecy and Metaphysics
Two new books on Cormac McCarthy demonstrate the ever-broadening range of critical methodologies his texts invite readers to employ while offering remarkably different, though equally valuable, approaches to McCarthy's border fiction.
In True and Living Prophet of Destruction: Cormac McCarthy and Modernity, Nicholas Monk grounds modernity in Marx, Hegel, and Frankfurt School theorists such as Horkheimer and Adorno to explore its impact on the characters in McCarthy's Appalachian and border fiction. While evidence of the negative effects of the "modern order" is ubiquitous in McCarthy's canon, Monk demonstrates that McCarthy does not embrace the Frankfurt School's cynicism about the power of art to resist that order (17). Instead, McCarthy challenges Eurocentric modernism's disenchantment of the world through his literary engagement with "animals, the aesthetic, the spiritual, and the broadly ecological" (xvi).
Monk's study includes an introduction followed by twelve chapters arranged thematically, rather than novel by novel, but treats McCarthy's entire published canon, including the early short stories and the screenplay of The Counselor (2013). Three chapters in particular [End Page 213] consider McCarthy's border fiction qua border fiction. Chapter 3, "Modernity and the West," presents Judge Holden (Blood Meridian, 1985) as "the supreme avatar of the European Enlightenment" (37) and the protagonists of the Border Trilogy as those fleeing the modernity that will inevitably "consume their lives" (51). Chapter 5, "Violence Fast and Slow," focuses on McCarthy's representation of the various modes of violence (both physical and symbolic) used to ensure the triumph of "Western civilization" and capitalism in the border region. In his final chapter, "Marginal Worlds, Marginal Languages," Monk considers McCarthy's construction of a linguistic and cultural "third space" as a refuge for his protagonists in the border fiction (211).
In spite of Monk's professed desire to make his work "intelligible" to those outside the academy (xvii), his book is not always reader friendly. Establishing his theoretical frame consumes two entire chapters, and throughout the book there are murky passages where the complexity of the theoretical apparatus overwhelms his prose. This problem is sometimes manifest in unclear attributions and confusing documentation of sources. He abandons his theoretical frame altogether in chapter 6, "Learning from McCarthy," for a detour into "autoethnography," a methodology focused on the critic's own affective response to the texts, one that has become somewhat trendy in McCarthy criticism thanks to such writers as Peter Josyph. Though Monk does not allow the autoethnography to devolve into autobiography, he nonetheless diverts attention from the compelling exegesis of McCarthy's narratives themselves with an extended pedagogical "how-to" seemingly out of place in his book. Also problematic are Monk's occasional editing lapses and misunderstandings of regional cultures, for example the misnaming of "Frederick Turner Jackson [sic]" (84) or the misidentification of Arthur Ownby of The Orchard Keeper (1965) as a "former slave" (120).
Monk's argument is at its best when he turns to careful textual readings, as in his examination of the scene in which Billy Parham in The Crossing (1994) witnesses the Trinity atomic bomb test, in "the apotheosis of a particular version of modernity" in which nature is undone by technology (160). Throughout the book, Monk makes a strong case that the antagonist in McCarthy's fiction is actually [End Page 214] modernity itself, whether in the guise of post-Enlightenment reason (as embodied in Judge Holden), the rise and globalization of capital, or the triumph of technology over nature. In spite of occasional errors and sometimes-laborious prose, True and Living Prophet of Destruction provides a thoughtful theorization of the ways McCarthy's canon—including his border fiction—engages with, reflects, and resists Eurocentric modernity.
While Nicholas Monk is necessarily concerned with the cultural particularities depicted in the texts, Petra Mundik in A Bloody and Barbarous God: The Metaphysics of Cormac McCarthy is concerned instead...