- “He’s a Ghost. But He’s Out There”Borderlands Science Fiction and the Gothic in No Country for Old Men
Shortly after the film No Country for Old Men (2007) premiered in theaters, the Coen brothers, along with actors Javier Bardem and Josh Brolin, appeared on the Charlie Rose show to discuss the movie.1 Near the beginning of the interview, which aired November 16, 2007, Charlie Rose asked about the source material for the film, Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 novel of the same name. Joel Coen described the directors’ attraction to McCarthy’s text as due, partly, to its being “much pulpier than his other novels,” a quality they thought would lend itself to a successful adaptation. Ethan Coen expanded on his brother’s point, describing the novel as a “chase, action, story and . . . something more than that.” Literary critics have been trying to define the “something more” of McCarthy’s novel since he published what, in an ironic and transmedial full turn of the circle, began as a film script that he later rewrote in novel form (Wallach xii).
The novel has been read in formal terms as a variant of the “border ballad” (Tatum 79), and as an example of a “neo-naturalist trend” in McCarthy’s work (Gibbs 61). No Country has also been studied in terms of its transformative imitation and parodying of the Western, noir, and detective literary genres (Luce 6; Jarrett 36; and King 535). Its postmodern tendencies have been dissected (Cagle 1), as have its theological and philosophical elements (Griffis 541; Phipps 38). McCarthy’s novel has been viewed as an instantiation of the Gothic, whose sepulchral roots twist through the deserts of the American Southwest (Biancotti 465; Monk 178), and as a depiction of the post-9/11 borderlands (Hwang 347). Thematically, it has been [End Page 261] interpreted as a “late-capitalist novel” that critiques the ascendancy of neoliberalism in the borderlands (Malewitz 734), even as it portrays new, terribly violent, and “psychopathic” subjectivities that have emerged as a result of that ascension (Elmore and Elmore 169; Braune 16–17). No Country has also been analyzed as an index of “post-Vietnam malaise” (Spoden 76), an identification that links the novel— through Richard Slotkin’s study of the post-Vietnam “demoralization of the Western” (591)— to the “poetics of violence” that characterizes all of McCarthy’s works (Frye 110).
This sampling of criticism, while not exhaustive, reveals in broad strokes the interpretive patterns that have shaped scholarship on No Country. Critics describe it as a borderlands text and as a critique of transnational capitalism. They remark its propensity to borrow from and combine other genres (the Western, the Gothic, the detective story), and they underscore how the portrayal of the Vietnam War in No Country shifts metonymically into an interrogation of the many wars that have impacted the US–Mexican borderlands. In what follows, I draw on all these approaches to advance a reading of No Country that analyzes an unstudied component of McCarthy’s novel: its inclusion of elements of borderlands science fiction, an “emergent genre” that appears in “response” to the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and “US–Mexican relations, both past and contemporary” (Wells 70–71). On the one hand, I argue that reading No Country as a work of borderlands science fiction sheds new light on the novel’s engagement with history and its critique of capitalism, fusion of genres, and musings on war. On the other hand, analyzing the science-fictional nature of No Country helps to contour the aesthetic and cultural possibilities of this new form. In particular, the novel draws into focus the genre’s capacity to generate dystopian warnings about the future of the borderlands if its past of violence and bloodshed continues to determine its present.
Borderlands science fiction, writes Lysa Rivera in a seminal essay, “embeds tales of futurity in deep-seated narratives of colonial history, labor exploitation, and racial violence, all of which continue to inform contemporary economic policy and labor practices within the region” (“Future” 431). Works of borderlands [End Page 262] science fiction by authors and filmmakers such as Guillermo...