Between the lines

June 2007 / Prospect

In an interview earlier this year, Norman Mailer was asked about the contemporary writers he most admired. There were only a few novelists, the old egoist replied, who were truly ambitious, excluding himself naturally: Martin Amis, Thomas Pynchon, Cormac McCarthy.

As surprising to me as the omission of Philip Roth from this list (though this being Mailer, it is probably not so surprising that he would not privilege a fellow Jewish-American) was the inclusion of Cormac McCarthy. It was a long time since I had read him and when, in idle moments, I thought of the writers by whom I would most like to read a new novel - Roth, JM Coetzee, Ian McEwan, Milan Kundera, Zadie Smith - I never thought of McCarthy. Then I read The Road, his latest, and astounding, novel. Set in an America ravaged by an unexplained global catastrophe, it describes the journey of a father and young son in search of food and shelter through a landscape that is ashen and deathly.

I was alerted to The Road by Jon Riley, who used to publish McCarthy when he was an editorial director at Picador. He had an early proof and was enthralled by the beauty and brutality of McCarthy’s vision of a world in ruins.

He was right to be excited; I have read many writers who have dared to dream of how our human story might end - most recently Douglas Coupland’s Girlfriend in a Coma and Michel Houellebecq’s The Possibility of an Island - but none who writes as well as McCarthy, has his intelligence or the compassionate intensity of his vision. His prose, so much sparer here, is richly allusive, with its biblical cadences, recondite vocabulary, and abrupt changes of pace - short, verbless sentence and then something longer, more looping and poetically expansive. Images from The Road, especially of the frightened boy and his father alone in the ash-darkened snowy wastelands, are unforgettable.

Saul Bellow once remarked on McCarthy’s “absolutely overpowering use of language.” Yet you seldom feel overpowered reading him, as you can be by Bellow himself, who buries you under an avalanche of words. This is because McCarthy’s fictions, at their finest, have the moral force of parable and the compulsion of adventure: you read on, because you have no choice but to read on. You care about what happens next.

An admiring reader is none other than Oprah Winfrey. Attracted no doubt by its subtext of Christian redemption, she has chosen The Road as the latest offering from her television book club. This means that McCarthy is guaranteed to sell a million copies; the Hollywood film of the book is on its way. And, in a remarkable coup, McCarthy has agreed to be interviewed by Oprah, his first ever television interview, in what will surely be one of the literary events of the year.

McCarthy is not a recluse: he is often seen out and about around the town of Tesuque, in New Mexico, where he lives with his third wife. But he remains one of the commanding absences of modern American letters. Like Pynchon and Thomas Harris, the creator of Hannibal Lecter, he has long refused to be interviewed or photographed and disdains the rituals of the publicity circuit: the readings, the festivals, the signings, the prize lunches and dinners. He is not a misanthrope, like the aged and disturbed JD Salinger, yet he is resolutely silent.

In 1994, ahead of the publication of The Crossing, the second in what is known as the Border trilogy, British journalist Mick Brown travelled to El Paso, where McCarthy then lived, on a mission to find and interview the writer. He admired the work and so, as he wrote, he wanted to know the man, as you do.

After much searching, the hunter trapped his prey in a modest café. Before McCarthy were a bowl of soup and a mug of coffee: his lunch. “I’m sorry, son,” McCarthy said, “but you’re asking me to do something I just can’t do. I’m just not in the writing business, you know? If I’d known all this was going to happen, I’m not sure I’d even have started.”

But start he did - and, though he was born in 1933, his journey is far from finished; The Road is about to introduce Cormac McCarthy to a whole new popular audience, and make him, if only fleetingly, the most famous writer in America. One begrudges him nothing because, as Andrew O’Hagan said recently on Radio 4, The Road is an “American classic, which, at a stroke, makes McCarthy a contender for the Nobel prize for literature.”

That seems about right - but even if he won, would he attend the lavish ceremony in Stockholm, and deliver the obligatory lecture? He may have been enticed out of seclusion by Ms Winfrey (Jonathan Franzen, one of the last prominent literary writers she approached, turned her down), but it would probably be too much to ask this poet of the wild frontier and lonely outpost to put on a dinner suit and perform as if the whole world were watching.

But that is mere hypothesis - the white noise of so much media chatter. Whatever McCarthy does next, he will continue along his own road, with or without Oprah at his side, writing whatever he wants whenever he wants, and in a style that is radiantly, majestically, his own.