Cormac McCarthy: A True Wordsmith

When I first heard that my AS English Literature class would be studying ‘The Road’ by Cormac McCarthy as one of our set texts for the summer exam, I wasn’t bothered. I’d never heard of the name Cormac McCarthy, so I thought, in my ignorance, that this would be ‘just another book’ to analyse and then forget when the year was over. I was wrong.

All things of grace and beauty such that one holds them to one’s heart have a common provenance in pain. Their birth in grief and ashes.” – The Road by Cormac McCarthy

I remember closing the book after finishing reading it and just sitting there, stunned – I had never read a book like it before. It is hard to describe a book like that, a novel so beautifully wrought, yet so devastating at the same time. The world that McCarthy constructed was so desolate, so brutal, yet there was something unquantifiably majestic about it. The quote above has stuck in my mind since my first reading of the novel and it sums up the book about as well as any quote could. The prose style that I was introduced to in ‘The Road’ is very different to anything else that I’ve seen another author produce. There is minimal punctuation and no chapter heading and the characters don’t have names and there is a repetition of the word ‘and’ that is often used in very long sentences such as this one. I am aware that McCarthy has been criticised for this style, but I honestly think that criticising it is missing the point completely. If you take away the distinctive style then you take away the soul of the book.

Having enjoyed ‘The Road’ so much, I went on to read some more of McCarthy’s works, namely, the three books of the Border Trilogy: ‘All the Pretty Horses’, ‘The Crossing’ and ‘Cities of the Plain’. The setting of this trilogy is very different to the setting of ‘The Road’. The latter is set in post-apocalyptic America, whereas the trilogy is set in the southern states throughout the 20th century. Before reading the Border Trilogy, I believed that the unique prose style found in ‘The Road’ would not be used in these books because I had been told in English that it was symbolic of the changing world, but that was not the case. That same lack of punctuation, short sentences and repetition of ‘and’ was in this trilogy as well. In fact, it was only through reading the trilogy that I really appreciated the mastery that Cormac McCarthy has over language. When he writes, all the words just seem to fit. There is no other way to describe it. As I mentioned in the title of this post, McCarthy is a true wordsmith, a unique artist.

After finishing ‘Cities of the Plain’ this week, I considered writing a review for the blog. I mentioned this on Twitter, and I almost immediately received this reply from @benjiw: ‘You don’t try and review Cormac McCarthy. You just bask in the glow of the way all the words fitted together just so.’ I realised very quickly that this was very true. After all, what can you say in a review of a book that leaves you sitting on your bed, speechless, staring at the front cover?

Therefore, instead of writing a review, I wrote this. I’m not really sure what ‘this’ is, perhaps it’s nothing more than a way for me to share my appreciation for a brilliant author. Would I recommend McCarthy? Probably not to everybody. His books are brutal; there is no hiding from that fact. My advice would be have a look for yourself, decide if you can look past the brutality, and then dive in to one of the greatest emotional journey’s you’ll ever find within a novel.

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