- Counternarrative Possibilities: Virgin Land, Homeland, and Cormac McCarthy’s Westerns by James Dorson
The persistent indeterminacy of Cormac McCarthy’s politics has been the source of a vibrant critical conversation. Strident critiques of American imperialism exist throughout McCarthy’s Western novels alongside passages seeming to dehistoricize imperialist violence by casting it as driven by an essentially violent human nature. Concerns with ecological sustainability and the effects of late capitalism on the environment are intermingled with sometimes troubling representations of race and gender. McCarthy’s novels resist situation on the political spectrum, and politicized readings of his work can risk falling out of critical engagement with its ambiguity and into simplification and appropriation.
In Counternarrative Possibilities: Virgin Land, Homeland, and Cormac McCarthy’s Westerns, James Dorson does not seek ideological coherence in McCarthy’s novels; instead, he elucidates their function with respect to the dominant narratives of American nationalism. Central to Dorson’s argument is the counterintuitive claim that McCarthy’s work expresses many of the prevailing sentiments of contemporary fiction, even though his writing style and thematic concerns arguably appear outmoded alongside the work of postmodernists such as Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon. This is based, Dorson argues, in a widespread disillusionment with the postmodern project of destabilizing constructions of truth and upsetting hegemonic narratives. As he writes at the beginning of his second chapter, “Social change requires both the ability to unsettle dominant narratives and to institute new ones” (38). This is the function of counternarratives—they disrupt dominant narratives while also capitalizing on the moment of rupture by offering alternative narratives that might replace the dominant. If postmodernism’s liquidation of determinacy seems to limit it to the first part of this process—the negative destabilization of dominant narratives—the contemporary counternarrative [End Page 95] “appropriates the power of narrative in order to redirect it or to turn it against itself ” (59).
Part I of Dorson’s book discusses the functions of narratives and counternarratives while organizing this theoretical discussion around two of the major tropes of American nationalism: virgin land and homeland. Part II of the book provides a series of readings of McCarthy’s Western novels, seeking to demonstrate that they are effective counternarratives that subvert nationalist mythologies while using the tropes and structures of genre fiction to construct new narratives with emancipatory, and perhaps utopian, potentials. Of McCarthy’s use of genre, Dorson writes that “By eschewing a modernist shock aesthetic and taking serious the aesthetic possibilities of genre in a way that postmodern irony prevented, the trilogy represents a departure from both a modern and postmodern aesthetic rationale” (270). McCarthy’s earnest use of genre conventions is, paradoxically, an indicator of his status as a forward-looking, contemporary author.
The chapter “From Pastiche to Tragedy,” which reads the Border Trilogy’s numerous genre markers as a departure from postmodern pastiche, is one of the stronger examples of Dorson’s argument. The trilogy, he writes, “rekindle[s] a sense of intense human suffering we thought had vanished for good in a culture dominated by detached irony” (249–50). By borrowing frequently and unironically from generic conventions, the trilogy utilizes subversive potentials of these genres that are often dismissed as outmoded—for instance, by “Making readers feel the totality of global capitalism and reemplotting it as tragedy” (265). Similarly, in a chapter that takes up elements of romance in the trilogy, Dorson demonstrates that the longing for another world that animates the romance genre—and Billy Parham and John Grady Cole’s endeavors—also entails a revision of nationalist narratives. Through Billy and John Grady’s flights from modernity, the trilogy “unshackles longing from the American promise” and resituates it in the natural world that is lost with the advance of late capitalism (228). In McCarthy’s Westerns, narratives of progress and American exceptionalism are not merely subjected to postmodern critiques that reveal their narrative construction and ideological function. They are reemplotted within alternative generic constellations that foreground repressed or elided narrative possibilities.
One of the strengths of Dorson’s argument...