Cormac McCarthy,
Expression & the Fictional Dream

This essay has been adapted from emails in a long-running debate from 2016 about McCarthy's writing.

It has long been a habit of mine that after finishing a novel (or a film), I venture online to read reviews and articles relating to the work, as a way of gauging whether my own interpretations concurred or conflicted with the bulk of the critical response. I guess this is something many people do. And most of the time, my opinions seem to fall in line with majority rule, sometimes having slight oppositions or objections here and there in terms of what a novel meant, what a character’s motivations were, whether the piece was credible or not, and so on.

As a novice writer and someone who is very interested in the techniques and theories of prose writing, I find myself continually disappointed by a pervasive lack of focus on the actual mechanics of works of fiction. Screeds of review bluster and countless academic articles are devoted to themes (see Appendix 1), symbolism, imagery, mythological connections, and lots of other English Literature classroom topics, while comparatively little space is afforded to the very foundations upon which all of these facets rely in order to exist: the word-by-word, sentence-by-sentence formulation of the text, the author’s expression of the story. It appears to me that only passing references are made, usually flimsy, insubstantial, ill thought-out, and often patronising remarks (in much the same fashion as TV adverts for the latest Coldplay release will invariably bill it as ‘the stunning new album’), such as: “the prose is sparse/sparkling”, or just plain old half-hearted “beautifully written”.

This culture of lazy, disingenuous analysis is something discussed by James Wood in his essay ‘Paul Auster’s Shallowness’ from the book The Fun Stuff (2013), where he noted that the New York Times referred to Auster’s prose as: “contemporary American writing at its best: crisp, elegant, brisk”. Wood goes on to list a fairly long and damning series of what he calls ‘shopworn objects’ within Auster’s work, complaining specifically about expressions that are ‘the ones most thickly lacquered with laziness’ such as ‘being beaten to within an inch of his life, drinking to drown his sorrows, and the prostitute’s eyes being too hard and having seen too much)’ [Wood 2013 p268], as well as citing particular phrases which litter Auster’s writing, such as ‘you’re one tough cookie, pal’, ‘my pussy’s not for sale’, [p266] ‘If I didn’t talk to the police… the shame of it would go on haunting me for the rest of my life’ [p268].

But this tired, cliched means of expression was labelled as ‘crisp, elegant, brisk’, and there ended the review’s focus on the writing itself, as it most often does. The cursory mention. The obligatory comment. It’s a familiar pattern to the consumer of literary reviews; prose will either receive one quick platitude or none at all, and then the ‘real’ review can begin, in the form of an extended study of parallels with the tale of Persephone and Hades, or on the recurring motif of a top hat, or even just a tiresome rehashing of the novel’s plot, and so on.

I suppose it could be that the quality of prose is simply not important when set against the overall plot and power of the story … but I just cannot accept this to be the case. This is fundamentally a question of how you read, and therefore the mindset you reach through reading from which to then experience and absorb all of the varied aspects of a novel. I’ve always subscribed to the theory of immersion, something I first heard articulated in the Creative Writing evening class I attended at the University of Glasgow’s Centre for Open Studies almost a decade ago. A rudimentary definition of this would be: when a work of fiction is succeeding at the level of art, the reader has become so immersed in the voice that is speaking, and in the characters that are doing (or thinking), and in the actions that are unfolding, that (temporarily) the act of reading is forgotten, the reader is no longer thinking of the narrative as artifice and is experiencing emotions as if he/she was a first-hand witness of the book’s events; thereby the immersion is complete. I can recall vividly the sensation of becoming aware of my consciousness again, the return to reality, remembering that I was at a desk in the school library reading Camus’ The Outsider for the first time, because I had noticed that my heart was beating more furiously than normal. It was only the awareness of this physical reaction that briefly ‘broke the illusion’ created by Camus’ prose (which to me in my late teens felt as close to perfect as the written word could be).

And this is surely what literary art is: its primary effect and goal being this level of immersion in its consumer. This is when the reader is most committed to the story, most receptive to experiencing openly and fully every facet of the author’s craft. This state of being is something that has been cited by writers such as Julio Cortazar, John Gardner and Flannery O’Connor:

…what counts in conventional fiction must be the vividness and continuity of the fictional dream the words set off in the reader’s mind… [p45]

…According to this notion, this writer sets up a dramatized action… so that we seem to move among the characters, lean with them against fictional walls, taste the fictional gazpacho... In bad or unsatisfying fiction, this fictional dream is interrupted from time to time by some mistake or conscious ploy on the part of the artist. We are abruptly snapped out of the dream, forced to think of the writer or the writing. It is as if a playwright were to run out on stage, interrupting his characters, to remind us that he has written all this.
Gardner, J (1983) The Art of Fiction [p97]

Skill alone cannot teach or produce a great short story, which condenses the obsession of the creature; it is a hallucinatory presence manifest from the first sentence to fascinate the reader, to make him lose contact with the dull reality that surrounds him, submerging him in another that is more intense and compelling.
Cortazar, J (1967) [1986] Around the Day in Eighty Worlds

The mind is led on by what it sees into the greater depths that the book’s symbols naturally suggest.
O’Connor, F (2014) [1972] Mystery and Manners, p71

Gardner and Cortazar describe the same thing in different words; through the text, the writer engineers (‘the words set off in the reader’s mind’, ‘make him lose contact with the dull reality’) a state of being where the reader is no longer consciously reading, no longer standing outside of a text and analysing it, but is immersed within it (‘the continuity of the fictional dream’, ‘submerging him in another that is more intense’). Flannery O’Connor also emphasizes the involuntary nature of the reader’s response (‘led on’), and conveys what the ultimate aim of inducing this state of mind is – that it permits the reader then to see, feel and experience the ‘greater depths’ of the work. If the continuity of the fictional dream is ‘set off’ by words, then surely its dis-continuity, or the inability to conjure this in the first place, is also enacted at the level of words. O’Connor’s formulation of what the mind sees and Cortazar’s ‘hallucinatory presence’ are only made possible by their ability and vision as writers, and they were surely both aware of the possibility of obliterating this mental phenomena if their prose was found to be insufficient, or as Gardner put it, guilty of ‘mistake or conscious ploy’. As I experienced with my first reading of Camus as a student (and then later with Kelman, and Sabato, and O’Connor herself, and many others), the fictional dream occurs when your vision is flowing across the sentences and paragraphs with no breaks and no impediments, and when the narrative reverberates with such conviction and artfulness and honesty that it comes to you as a living, speaking voice.

The fictional dream is broken, strangled, by bad writing. When the prose draws attention to itself as literary contrivance, the illusion cannot exist. This can occur due to a multitude of different flaws, of course. Pretentiousness which makes you think of the author and draws you away from the story, or cliched language which forces you to feel the artifice too keenly, or shallow, stereotyped characters and/or stories that hold no real intrigue or appeal for a serious reader.

I don’t believe there can be much artistry at work if a reader is totally disengaged from a text, not in sympathy with the vagaries of the character’s world, but is instead following along passively with the text, casually noting each motif or each use of imagery, often breaking off to type something into Google to double-check a reference or a term – the work in question may as well be a textbook as a novel, if that is to be the reading experience. A friend of mine, a voracious reader and lover of Kafka, recently gave up with Christine Brooke-Rose’s book Amalgamemnon for precisely this reason; that the mythological references were so dense yet so integral to the novel that constant stops were required to check them, and she therefore felt so disengaged that it rendered the reading pointless. In my view, this must mean the work is an artistic failure (unless of course it was intended to only be read by experts in the field of such mythology, which is very doubtful – Joyce, Nabokov, etc, were able to make their novels highly allusive without compromising the continuity of the fictional dream, as I found recently while reading Penguin Modern Classics’ The Annotated Lolita, and discovering just how few of the references I had ever noticed/understood whilst reading (and deeply loving) that book.

Poor fiction will never allow the reader to feel that immersion, because weaknesses in the writing continually highlight the book’s status as mere flawed artifice, contrived by the hand of a career writer, your opinion of whom is rapidly diminishing as you struggle on. This is what I consider to be bad art.

And so I come to Cormac McCarthy, the short book Child of God (1973), and some of his other novels from the same period.

I read Child of God after noticing a radio broadcaster whose work I enjoy had been gushing about it online, even though I’d tried and failed to make it through The Road several years ago (for similar reasons as I will outline here). I was aware of McCarthy’s reputation as a prose stylist, and kept thinking that he sounded like the kind of writer I should like.

Omitting any critical commentary for now, I do think McCarthy has a superb ear for voice and dialogue, and in those sections where characters are interacting and the conflicts are there on the page, I found Child of God quite exhilarating. If I was limiting my response to a purely readerly one, as opposed to someone attempting to read through the prism of writerliness, I would be considerably more positive.

I enjoyed the book in the same way I enjoy Quentin Tarantino movies – in that I allow myself to ignore the obvious difficulties with the narrative medium and the ‘authorial’ intent so I may appreciate the visuals, the music, the twists, to be dazzled and to experience pleasure on the basic level as a passive consumer of a form of art, with no desire to really engage with it, and no expectation of ever pondering it further or wishing to experience it again after leaving the cinema.

The sense is very similar while reading Child of God. It is fast, it does not lull – it even leads me to overlook the general problem with the ‘vignette’ structure as it is used in a novel: how it is as pure naked artifice as literary prose fiction is possible to get, with its quick cuts, its contrived and convenient movements, and the implicit guarantee of sensationalism that the form demands. Rarely do you ever see a novel separated into clearly demarcated, separate vignettes, if those slick slices of artifice do not contain a gory demise or a sexual advance or a killer line followed by an immediate CUT TO NEXT SCENE.

I believe McCarthy surmounts this structural complaint somewhat by how authentic the book feels. The type of dialogue at play in Child of God could not have been written by someone who does not know those voices, know those speech-patterns, know that kind of squalor and darkness and cruelty. Although I feel his execution is horribly, even fatally flawed, I wouldn’t castigate on the grounds of insincerity or falsity, nor a lack of conviction. You can feel, hear, smell the world of Child of God on every page. On the (important) level of stimulation of the senses, this writing certainly works. In this respect, it reminds me of the brilliant Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, as raw and sensual a book as I have read.

I can also disregard what I consider to be rather flagrant focalization or narrative errors that have gone unchecked by the editor, such as on page 110 (Picador 2011 edition) where the narrator haphazardly pops his head out of the rabbit-hole, makes an unprecedented type of comment in the text then promptly vanishes, never to be seen again.

The great problem I have with Child of God is that, in my opinion, his narrative style simply does not work, and is the antithesis of writing that encourages and enables the ‘fictional dream’. I would here cite the well-worn analogy of the difference between a camera on an actor’s shoulder, giving us a point-of-view perspective (common to the Existential tradition), and a camera 20-50 yards behind the actor, viewing him/her from the same distance as several or many other characters (used in much of both 19th century fiction and the ‘postmodern’ novel). Cormac McCarthy wishes to write in the first style, but within that he uses narrative techniques of the second style, thereby creating a hybrid that, in my opinion (and in an attempt to come from a writer’s perspective) is invalid.

I don’t view the most likely defence of the McCarthy style (that technically it is 3rd person narration) as being particularly legitimate, because this is primarily a focalization issue and not one of the book’s overarching narrative style. The vast majority of the book is focalized through Ballard, and even when it isn’t, it never rests solidly within the consciousness of any other character. This often becomes the “virtual first-person” (a term applied to James Kelman’s work in a Goldsmiths Podcast episode), and I don’t consider it valid (or at least, aesthetically sound) for the narrative to be anchored with one character, and then to continually shatter the illusion and identification as McCarthy does continually when he suddenly dispenses with that consciousness, resides above/outside it, then dips back in whenever it’s convenient to do so.

There are several specific points to be made in order to explain this position.

Firstly, that the distance between the narrator and the characters in Child of God is hugely problematic. I don’t believe it’s possible for me to love a novel where this kind of chasm exists. Conversely, this is why I feel so strongly about the work of James Kelman and Hubert Selby Jr – those writers who refuse to elevate their narrators (and by extension, themselves) above the characters by ensuring there is no hierarchy of language at work in the text. By contrast, McCarthy is very clear and definite in his prizing of his narrator way, way above his characters, who remain scuttling and scrabbling around the text like insects, that his vast celestial hand lifts and points and moves at will – doubtlessly with many readers smirking along at their blundering, knuckle-headed efforts. This is usually conducted at the level of language, where the calm, knowing voice of the narrator speaks to us eloquently, objectifying and inferiorising the story’s characters.

Yet many writers who don’t necessarily write in a form of primarily phonetic (Selby) or primarily syntactic (Kelman) representation of voice, still resist the traditional hierarchy of language that is present in much of McCarthy’s work. A great lineage of twentieth-century literature, deriving from Dostoyesvky, was composed of either first-person narratives or non-omniscient third-party narrators whereby the reader was permitted close identification with one focalizing protagonist, a view of their experiential world, and afforded no privileged position above them. The characters were allowed to be human, and we were allowed to be alongside them.

The examples you could cite of great modern prose, free of hierarchy and full of authentic voice and life, are almost endless – what follows is a short excerpt from Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners (1956). It, like Child of God, is essentially a third-person narrative, mostly but not exclusively focalized through one central character (in this case, Moses):

While Moses smiling to see the test hustling tenants, a newspaper fellar come up to him and say, ‘Excuse me sir, have you just arrived from Jamaica?’

And Moses don’t know why but he tell the fellar yes.

‘Would you like to tell me what conditions there are like?’ The fellar take out notebook and pencil and look at Moses.

Now Moses don’t know a damn thing about Jamaica – Moses come from Trinidad, which is a thousand miles from Jamaica, but the English people believe that everybody who come from the West Indies come from Jamaica.

‘The situation is desperate,’ Moses say, thinking fast, ‘you know the big hurricane it had two weeks ago?’

‘Yes?’ the reporter say, for in truth it did have a hurricane in Jamaica.

‘Well I was in that hurricane,’ Moses say. ‘Plenty people get kill. I was sitting down in my house and suddenly when I look up I see the sky. What you think happen?’


‘The hurricane blew my roof off.’

Even though the narrator is mediating between us and the character, there is no distance, no hierarchy, no shift in register, and no objectification. The narrator is from that same culture – separate from the consciousness of Moses but with a keen understanding of him, his mentality and his spirit, and is almost colluding in the harmless lie and joke being played on the unwitting journalist.

There are two entities involved in the focalization here, but the narrative comes to us as one voice, and when this occurs it is beautiful, mesmeric, the greatest reading pleasure.

This form of synthesis is not possible in Child of God, because the narrator is The Voice of Erudition, while the characters are all yee blastin sickenin vermints.

This isn’t a purely political objection. As a reader, I find this sort of movement abrupt, disjointed, and unpleasurable. The linguistic shift is bizarre. The first few pages of the novel are particularly difficult in this regard:

A piece of real estate, and particular in this valley, is the soundest investment you can make. Sound as a dollar. And I’m very sincere when I say that.

In the pines the voices chanted a lost litany… (p8)

McCarthy wants to dispense with quotation marks because he wishes to write within a tradition of voice (the tradition that Kelman & Selby Jr & Selvon & Junot Diaz and so many more are/were committed to), but then he wants to use a narrative technique that is invalid within that tradition. Quotation marks are eschewed to remove the hierarchy between characters’ dialogue and a narrator’s narrative – but how can that hierarchy be removed when it is being reinforced as heavily as it possibly can be, by following a character’s direct speech (camera on actor’s shoulder) with a narrative/authorial intrusion (camera 20-50 yards behind/above characters), consisting of a register that neither could nor would be used by any of the characters in this story?

This is the value of that first style, already outlined. I find it so much easier to become invested in a piece of fiction if I can really see/feel the emotions of the character involved. To really be that camera on the shoulder for a short time: that is art. I had that sensation throughout Kelman’s How Late It Was, How Late because the narrator is and isn’t Sammy, yet everything in the text is him. Everything comes to us through him, even when the third-party narrator speaks. The focalization is close, it is stable, it is a relationship. The movement between dialogue and narrative in Child of God is utterly jarring and disengaging, despite it being essentially the same narrative perspective. I’m listening to the real estate salesman, I’m hearing that voice, and then in the very next line the camera flies off the shoulder to a lamp-post on the other side of the road, and some irritating ‘writerly’ narrator starts trying to charm us with some figurative, irrelevant, meaningless nonsense. ‘Chanted a lost litany’? Just get back to the characters instead, or at the very least tell us what’s actually happening.

This is not some anti-intellectual crusade against figurative language, or high linguistic register, or descriptive writing. Quite the opposite.

In the book How Fiction Works, James Wood puts forth a brilliant case for when figurative language works, and how it should be used:

As a logical development of free indirect style, it is not surprising that Dickens, Hardy, Verga, Chekhov, Faulkner, Pavese, Henry Green and others tend to produce the kinds of similes and metaphors which, while successful and literary enough in their own right, are also the kinds of similes and metaphors that their own characters might produce. When Robert Browning describes the sound of a bird singing its song twice over, in order to ‘recapture / The first fine careless rapture’, he is being a poet, trying to find the best poetic image; but when Chekhov, in his story ‘Peasants’, says that a bird’s cry sounded as if a cow had been locked up in a shed all night, he is being a fiction writer: he is thinking like one of his peasants. (pp19-20)

Applying Wood’s point, Cormac McCarthy is not being a true (literary) fiction writer of his era when he chooses to focalize through a single character, then superimpose his own very impressive vocabulary and linguistic verve upon the story. Contrastingly, in Lolita, in Coetzee’s Disgrace, the high-register and linguistic play and descriptive passages are totally, totally justified and necessary and wonderful because in both cases, we are being treated to the excavation of a cunning, eloquent, seductive human consciousness. Wood’s point on Chekhov has nothing to do with a “dumbing down” of language, it is about a relativity of language. The language should be relative to the characters and their world. Much like there is integrity to Chekhov’s peasant drawing that parallel, there is similar believability and purpose and beauty in Humbert’s epic description of Lo playing tennis:

My Lolita had a way of raising her bent left knee at the ample and springy start of the service cycle when there would develop and hang in the sun for a second a vital web of balance between toed foot, pristine armpit, burnished arm and far back-flung racket, as she smiled up with gleaming teeth at the small globe suspended so high at the zenith of the powerful and grateful cosmos she had created for the express purpose of falling upon it with a clean resounding crack of her golden whip. (pp231-2)

Here we experience figurative language, elevated register, writing which reads like anything but the spoken voice, but it is utterly justified by the format of the narrative. Humbert is fetishizing Lolita, he is remembering this action, he is creating it in his words, he is seducing his readers. When he lapses into high register and/or unleashes the force of his vocabulary, it is fully within his character. When Cormac McCarthy splices his sections with the “stygian mist” (p149) or the “ghast succubus” (p144), or when he slips a “palimpsest” or an “intaglio” (both p130) into the text, the effect is the same as the “lost litany” cited earlier. We are not drawn further into this world, the world of the characters, we feel that shattering of the illusion, the camera zooming backwards away from the action, the familiar and unwelcome sense of a writer forcibly leaning into the text to remind us that this is a written account being penned by a very intelligent and articulate person. At its worst, it verges on the truly risible writing of someone like Will Self, where the work is wholly narrator-led, never character-led, and where the full might of the famous vocabulary is flexed again and again, presumably leading his readers to lay down the novel and reach for the dictionary. Immersion and identification and illusion cannot matter to the readers of Self and his like (we shouldn’t expect much from a writer who once remarked that a Borges story was “perhaps a little bit short on characterization – but who cares about that?” on a Guardian podcast, 4/1/13).

Indeed, figurative language is an aspect of McCarthy’s fiction that is worth considering in further detail. Not solely on account of the fact that he uses it so heavily, but because he is so uniformly awful at doing so. In particular, the simile is one of his most favoured tools, and one which he uses poorly throughout his fiction.

Of course similes can and should be used in fiction, because they are part of the fabric of human speech. Prose without simile or metaphor would most likely appear like stylized work where they have been consciously omitted, as any characterized narrator (ie: any person) would/does use these forms of expression. And so logically, the use of such devices in fiction should be for the same reasons and with the same outcomes as in everyday conversation – to describe, to clarify, to illustrate.

Having thought about figurative language while writing this article, I have arrived at a general principle of three points that the successful simile or metaphor in prose should satisfy:

1. Immediate Intelligibility / Clarity of Meaning - the expression should be clear and concrete in terms of what its image actually is – if the reader has to stop, think, wonder, in an attempt to make sense of it, then the expression is ineffective

2. Helpful Clarifying Connection - the expression, once understood by the reader, should achieve some greater level of illustration or elucidation, otherwise its use has been unsuccessful and pointless

3. Relativity of Language - this is the point already cited from Wood’s How Fiction Works, and is specific to prose fiction – that the writer does not seize upon the appearance of figurative language to suddenly, temporarily, and incongruously elevate the register of the work in a transparent attempt superimpose his/her ‘intellect’ over the narrator/character, and so ‘impress’ the reader.

If the expression fails on any one of these facets, the reader is left either confused or annoyed, and far too many times for comfort, McCarthy fails on more than one point. Often, I would contend, all three.

A brief look at what I would consider an effective simile may be helpful in explaining this point. From John Fante’s Ask The Dust (1939), where the narrator Arturo Bandini stares at the object of his affections, Camilla Lopez, and states:

"Her hair was so black, so deep and clustered, like grapes hiding her neck." (p41)

This may appear unspectacular as an example simile, but note that I said ‘effective’; there was no claim of the ‘spectacular’. A spectacular simile will most often violate the third principle as outlined above – although crucially not always, as of course a narrator like Humbert Humbert or David Lurie can produce outrageously grandiose expressions with total legitimacy, because the nature of their characterized narration supports this. John Fante’s, like McCarthy’s in Child of God, does not. However, Bandini’s simile is effective on several levels. This expression stuck with me because I believe the image of the grapes does immediately illustrate exactly what Camilla’s hair was like, in a way that merely saying it was ‘so deep and clustered’ does not. The term ‘like grapes’ automatically makes the reader see and feel the dense, layered heaviness and the shining blackness of what is surely thick, lustrous, beautiful hair of his young Mexican-American waitress. The image of grapes stimulates thoughts of colour, texture, shadow as they conceal the neck, and the contrast with her lighter skin.

The expression succeeds on another level, in that its use can also be seen to characterize Arturo himself. If the simile is removed from that line, we are left with something far more detached and objective. Anyone, a co-worker, a friend, a relative, could make the fairly neutral observation that Camilla’s hair is deep and clustered, but the appending of the simile brings the sentence firmly into Arturo’s focalization, his ‘male gaze’ – is he objectifying Camilla, likening one of her features to a fruit, an inanimate object of consumption? He is already thinking on one level of her possible resistance to his desire (that the hair is ‘hiding’ her neck from his eyes), although it’s an equally fair reading to here say that the use of the simile is humanizing, in that it is only natural for a young man like Arturo to appreciate what he considers to be real, physical beauty, and again, this very human moment of him enjoying this view of her beauty would be lost without the presence of the expression. This simple simile, on yet another level, would also satisfy the excitable teacher of literature, who could examine it from the perspective of what connotations the grapes could be said to have in this context – ripeness, sensuousness, exoticism, the mystique of the female, the forbidden fruit, and so on. Although that sort of classroom connotative analysis is not something I find particularly interesting, speaking personally.

The point remains that unless you have a strongly-characterized, eloquent and artful Humbert-like narrator, the most effective similes are simple, and do not mean the reader’s fictional dream is disturbed while they decipher the expression. As Fabb et al states in Ways of Reading:

Figurative language… is capable of affecting us even (or perhaps especially) if we do not consciously recognize that it is being used. (p156)

When Dostoyevsky writes that Raskolnikov:

…went down the sidewalk like a drunk man, not noticing the passers-by and running into them, and was in the next street before he came to his senses. (p10)

It barely even registers as a simile due to it being such a common likeness to be drawn, and yet it works successfully and importantly in the way Fabb describes, because not only does the expression enhance the view of Raskolnikov as deeply troubled, unsteady, fixated, but also this aids the building image of him as someone who blends into the crowd in terms of his external appearance and outward behaviour, but is actually subject to serious mental tribulations underneath this surface – by this early stage in the novel, we have already seen the streets full of drunks wandering and stumbling aimlessly in 1860s Petersburg, and Raskolnikov is certainly amongst them, but he is not drunk. We know he is not just another of this crowd, despite appearances.

In rare instances, Cormac McCarthy uses such expressions in a similarly effective fashion – of the books I’ve read of his, most examples were found in the novel Outer Dark. When the male protagonist Culla is watched ‘throwing himself to the deck again while the horse went past with a sound like pistolfire’, it is barely noticeable as a device, but is effective in conveying how loud, shocking and dangerous the noise would have come to the cowering, frightened Culla. Soon after, he states (in direct speech this time): ‘That cable did when it busted. Sounded like a commonload of cats goin by’. This sentence is clearly in the character’s own voice, it is a phrase from within his own culture, that he would’ve heard and known and used in that community, just as we use similes from our culture/vernacular when trying to describe something in our own lives.

In Child of God, and also Blood Meridian, McCarthy’s famous cowboy novel, such instances are so heavily, heavily outnumbered and outweighed by what I view as very poor attempts at using figurative language.

The three facets of effective use of similes and metaphors established earlier can be subverted in an attempt to show just how weak McCarthy’s execution is in these two novels.

The books are replete with expressions which are so vague that they require concerted thought to comprehend, and thereafter hold no real resonance anyway.

When Ballard is briefly off-balance in Child of God, he is said to be ‘like something come against the end of a springloaded tether or some slapstick contrivance of the filmcutter’s art’ [my italics], while a landscape in Blood Meridian is described as where ‘turrets stood like basalt prophets’. I imagine most readers would share my difficulty in immediately knowing or understanding what a strange conflation like ‘basalt prophets’ means, or what the term is intended to signify. What is the purpose of the expression? And there is surely a glaring impediment to the visualization of a’slapstick contrivance of the filmcutter’s art’, as what can this actually mean in literal terms? The expression is too oblique, it cannot resonate. Perhaps McCarthy has a very clear idea of what these things are, but this is not being communicated clearly, or at least, not in a way that the earnest reader can readily/adequately grasp.

McCarthy’s similes are not always so imprecise, but even many of his more intelligible instances still leave little impression, due to the expression lacking a concrete meaning, or by failing to provide any clarification whatsoever on its subject. In his book On Writing, Stephen King cites a particularly ineffective simile he’d come across in his own reading, where someone was said to be sitting patiently, ‘like a man waiting on a turkey sandwich’. King remarked: ‘If there was a clarifying connection here, I wasn’t able to make it’ (pp208-9). Similarly, there appears to be little or no clarifying connection to be drawn from such phrases as:

"like some demented hero or bedraggled parody of a patriotic poster come aswamp" (p147, CoG)

"they rode out of the sea like burnt phantoms" (p116, BM)

"He looked like some loutish knight beriddled by a troll" (p108, BM)

"Or slept with their alien hearts beating in the sand like pilgrims exhausted upon the face of the planet Anareta, clutched to a namelessness wheeling in the night" (p48, BM)

Although these images (knights, phantoms, pilgrims, and even patriotic posters) are more readily identifiable than ‘slapstick contrivances’ or ‘balast prophets’, the mere ability to imagine them while in the act of reading still fails to aid understanding or inner visualization of the subject. A ‘bedraggled parody of a patriotic poster come aswamp’ is not only too vague, but too convoluted. Having never before seen nor heard of nor imagined either a burnt phantom or an exhausted pilgrim in Anareta, the expression carries no clear, substantive meaning over and above that which the reader can already derive from the context. And if there is a ‘clarifying connection’ within the line ‘some loutish knight beriddled by a troll’, I certainly was not able make it (Why a loutish knight? And would the image be different if he had been befuddled by the troll, not beriddled? What if a turkey sandwich was involved here too?).

Also, there are often violations of the third ‘principle’ as laid down earlier, where McCarthy uses instances of figurative language as a convenient means of abruptly elevating the register of the narrative and flexing his linguistic skills. In Child of God, the shift to more poetic language is noticeable, when (focalized through the uncommunicative and brutish Ballard) bats are seen to be ‘fluttering wildly in the ash and smoke like souls rising from hades’ (p133), and later four medical students are viewed as being ‘like the haruspices of old’ (p184). The visceral content of Blood Meridian is interspliced with such terms as ‘like some fabled equine ideation out of an Attic tragedy’ (p122) and ‘to the west lay reefs of bloodred clouds up out of which rose little desert nighthawks like fugitives from some great fire at the earth’s end’ (p23).

In an article entitled On Metaphor, Jorge Luis Borges wrote:

Some verbal combinations may have the power to impress the reader… but in the final analysis they communicate or reveal nothing. They are, in a manner of speaking, verbal objects that stand in pleasant isolation like glass or a piece of silver jewelry. (p43)

I believe he would have had expressions like the ones I have listed from McCarthy in his mind while making this statement. ‘Souls rising from hades’ may be a pleasing/pleasurable image to some, but it does ‘stands in pleasant isolation’ from the consciousness it is supposed to emanate from. The ‘fabled equine ideation’ and ‘haruspices of old’ are haphazard impositions of a more poetic phrasing, ‘verbal objects’ presumably designed to ‘impress the reader’. McCarthy does have the ability to ‘impress the reader’ in the right way, the way that all great writers do, when the attempt is not so naked as with this type of contrived, elevated expression, but unfortunately they appear so often in his texts they are impossible to ignore. ‘Like fugitives from some great fire at the earth’s end’ – for me, this certainly does ‘communicate or reveal nothing’. Many readers doubtlessly enjoy these wistful, almost mythological expressions, but as I see it this is precisely what Borges’ point about ‘verbal objects’ applies to – they sound nice, much like ‘pieces of silver jewelry’ look nice, but prose fiction is surely not the medium for indulging in vague and meaningless decoration.

Then there are McCarthy’s figurative phrases which may or may not apply to the aforementioned ‘three principles’, but which certainly seem to me to be straightforward examples of bad writing.

In Child of God, McCarthy is not satisfied with presenting an image and allowing the reader to visualize it him/herself then so create their own connotative pictures from his words. Instead, he lists and layers metaphors on top of the image of the character, pinning down a visual deduction from his own description, leaving little room for imaginative interaction:

Ballard in a thin white gown in a thin white room, false acolyte or antiseptic felon, a practitioner of ghastliness, a part-time ghoul. (p165)

The appended clauses here are quite ridiculous. A more courageous (serious?) writer would have left us with the situation of the roving killer, Ballard, now trapped in state clothing within a white, sterile environment. The only effect of thrusting these insubstantial and ambiguous labels (‘antiseptic felon’, ‘part-time ghoul’) is negative, and detrimental, in that their presence impedes and irritates the reader.

An example even more heinous can be found in Blood Meridian, where McCarthy refuses to simply make a comparison via simile, but insists on extending and complicating the expression to the point where it becomes unwieldy and loses any correlative value that could have been attained. I’ve put each additional condition on a separate line to illustrate this:

"great clanging reaches ordered out of night like
some demon kingdom
summoned up
or changeling land
that come the day would leave them neither trace nor smoke nor ruin
more than any troubling dream." (p49)

This is too many layers for a reader to easily process, and the expression is a failure (see Appendix 5). The more regular simile would have been simply ‘like some/a demon kingdom’, as every clause added thereafter means a further leap in imagination must be made in order to grasp the author’s intended meaning, and by the fourth addition to the image, the mental effort expended is certainly not being matched by the visual or semantic resonance that the expression brings.

It isn’t simply the expressions used by McCarthy that strike me as especially problematic or weak (‘he looked like some crazy winter gnome’ p102, ‘A crazed mountain troll’ p143, ‘a misplaced and loveless simian shape’ p21, all CoG), but often it is their placement within the text that’s most damaging to the procession of the fictional dream. My criticisms in relation to figurative language so far are aesthetic, and wholly subjective. Expressions that I find unconvincing or unevocative could very easily and persuasively be argued to be quite the opposite by someone with a radically different artistic sensibility – of this I am aware. Yet I feel it’s a firmer, more technical ground upon which to criticize McCarthy, with regard to how he utilizes his figurative phrases in their immediate context and how he integrates them into the narrative.

I will return to a line cited earlier in order to examine this point:

…one foot almost going from under him as he turned and making a vicious slash in the mud, the rifle now in one hand and his thumb hooked over the hammer, mounting the steps in a crazy sort of hopping gait and rushing towards the door.

He looked like something come against the end of a springloaded tether or some slapstick contrivance of the filmcutter’s art… (p164)

Rather than again focusing on the incongruous nature of the simile itself (although if there was to be an essay dedicated to further exploring a theory of use of figurative language, due consideration could certainly be given to the inelegant, uncertain and ineffective ‘double/conditional’ simile form of ‘X was like Y or Z’), but the insertion of this image has again not been an artful one (much like the ‘lost litany’example from earlier). In the movement between the paragraphs of this excerpt, there is that same shift, an abrupt retreat from the narrative as it was, rooted with the character and his own actions and perceptions, as the next paragraph has not only moved in terms of perspective, but also in time. As a reader, you are left asking why the action has been halted and the narrative time frozen just so we can witness the fairly inane observations of (or objectifications by) this narrator? Who is this person making the observation, and what is their place within the world of this text? Such questions are inevitable whenever the dream becomes linguistically or temporally disjointed, or inflected by a consciousness that is not of the focalizing character.

The same offence is committed just as flagrantly on page 84:

He came back and shut the car door and walked around the other side. It was very cold. After a while he got in the car again. The girl lay with her eyes closed and her breasts peeking from her open blouse and her pale thighs spread. Ballard climbed over the seat.

The dead man was watching him from the floor of the car. Ballard kicked his feet out of the way and picked the girl’s panties up from the floor and sniffed at them and put them in his pocket. He looked out the rear window and he listened. Kneeling there between the girl’s legs he undid his buckle and lowered his trousers.

A crazed gymnast laboring over a cold corpse. He poured into that waxen ear everything he’d ever thought of saying to a woman. Who could say she did not hear him? When he’d finished he raised up and looked out again.

Again, narrative action occurring within or very close to the character’s consciousness (and in the same straightforward language as this character would have used himself if narrating events directly) is then freeze-framed so that the more ‘literary’ voice of the narrator can intervene and objectify Ballard as a ‘crazed gymnast’. Such expressions, while being weak with respect to clarity (How exactly does he resemble a gymnast here? Why ‘crazed’?), are positioned as if intended to purposefully break the flow of the narrative – shifting from the plain language of the character’s experiences to the literary language of the detached narrator’s freeze-framed commentary. As I can’t fathom any reason for why doing so would be desirable to the writer of fiction, I can only interpret this as simply bad fiction-writing – at least, to someone of a similar artistic sensibility to myself.

I remain unsure as to whether this indictment of McCarthy’s uses of figurative expressions will convince, or interest, those who enjoy his descriptive flair. James Wood, quoted already in this essay and somewhat of a literary hero of mine (indeed some of the reasoning applied to McCarthy’s work in this essay was gleaned from Wood’s magnificent, seminal piece, Hysterical Realism, and his linguistic points on Updike in How Fiction Works), stated that many of the figurative phrases in The Road were ‘not only beautiful, but powerfully efficient as poetry’ (p57, Wood 2012). He specifically cites an instance where black ash ‘blew through the streets like squid ink uncoiling along a sea floor’. This is a very rare juncture for me, as I find myself in disagreement with Wood, despite being very much in awe of his knowledge and insight as a critic. I view this expression as a very clear and obvious example of, to use Wood’s own terms, Robert Browning trying to find ‘the best poetic image’, and also what Borges would have considered a ‘piece of silver jewelry’.

As I have said, I don’t think Cormac McCarthy is a terrible writer, but I do think he is a highly flawed technician whose novels that I’ve read, while they may be fairly enjoyable, are deeply problematic (some far more than others). His work does not permit ‘the vividness and continuity of the fictional dream’, and as a reader and a dreamer, I feel these flaws should be recognized and noted far more than they appear to be by literary critics and reviewers, and such like.

In the recently released book How To Write Like Tolstoy by Richard Cohen, Anthony Trollope is quoted as follows on the subject of rhythm in prose:

"The harmony which is required must come from the practice of the ear. There are few ears naturally so dull that they cannot, if time be allowed to them, decide whether a sentence, when read, be or not be harmonious. And the sense of such harmony grows on the ear, when the intelligence has once informed itself as to what is, and what is not harmonious."
Cohen, R (2016) How To Write Like Tolstoy – quoting Trollope, A (1883) An Autobiography

I think this is generally true of writing in general, not just its rhythmic aspect. Whereas Trollope advocates a reader’s emphasis on the harmonious, I would extend this to cover the qualities of prose-writing as a whole. As a novice, aspiring writer of fiction myself, I have to believe that the principles of good writing can be learned, and that continuous exposure to and consideration of great prose is the best means of absorbing and understanding these, and therefore of being able to appreciate the highest class of literary art. If the ‘vividness and continuity of the fictional dream’ is the ultimate aim of literary fiction, then the aesthetic quality of the prose is the most important facet of writing, and as such it should be prized, or at least considered and referenced, in reviews, essays, books, and all forms of analyses. To disregard prose and to focus purely on other aspects of novels and stories would surely result in the inverse of what Trollope mentions above – ears grown dull through a lack of practice, a stagnant intelligence no longer able to discern the most harmonious, most wonderful art that literature can offer us.

As I’ve said, I don’t believe Cormac McCarthy is a writer of no value, but I do feel he is highly flawed as both an artist and a technician, whose novels that I’ve read, while they may be fairly enjoyable, are deeply problematic (some more so than others). His work does not and cannot permit ‘the vividness and continuity of the fictional dream’, and as a reader and as a dreamer, I feel these flaws should be recognized and noted far more prominently than they appear to be by the bulk of our literary critics.

I have been critical of reviewers and academics with regard to reviews and evaluative work on McCarthy in this article, and although this may seem petty or unmerited, I will return to Steven Frye and his book ‘Understanding Cormac McCarthy’, in which he states that:

”Though it contains little action in a conventional sense, Child of God is quickly paced and minimalist…” Frye (2009), p42

Leaving aside the ‘minimalist’ comment, I focus instead on ‘little action in a conventional sense’. Child of God is a novel about a necrophiliac serial killer, which features incestuous rape between a father and his daughter, Lester being jailed on accusation of rape, a boy chewing the legs off a robin, sex with dead girls, murder of live girls, the mass burial of victims within a mountainside living tomb, Lester escaping custody by leaving a mass of lawmen trapped inside subterranean caves, and his eventual incarceration and death.

I am never sure if such reviewers and critics are reading with their brains actively engaged. ●

Appendix 1: O’Connor
from O’Connor, F (2014) [1972] Mystery & Manners p73
I am using this opportunity to include this extract, in reference to my mention of theme-heavy reviews, as it’s a great point to note whenever analysing texts. An antidote to the tiresome and reductive preoccupation with themes and ‘messages’ in fiction.

“People have a habit of saying, ‘What is the theme of your story?’ and they expect you to give them a statement: ‘The theme of my story is the economic pressure of the machine on the middle class’ – or some such absurdity. And when they’ve got a statement like that, they go off happy and feel it is no longer necessary to read the story. Some people have the notion that you read the story and then climb out of it into the meaning, but for the fiction writer himself the whole story is the meaning, because it is an experience, not an abstraction.”

Appendix 2: Borges
from Borges, JL (2010) [1927] On Writing p74
Considering that figurative language was one of the central topics of this article, I think it is interesting to include this short passage from Borges (which is concerned with figurative language in totality, not simile exclusively). This excerpt simultaneously warns of judging expressions without context, while reinforcing the importance of the voice and integrity of the characterized narrator. With reference to a phrase he states he initially finds unpalatable, ‘The fire, with ferocious jaws, devours the countryside’:

“Let us now suppose that it is presented to me as originating from a Chinese or a Siamese poet. I will think: The Chinese turn everything into a dragon, and it will represent to me a clear fire like a celebration, slithering, which I will like. Let us suppose that the witness to a fire uses it, or even better, someone whose life was threatened by the flames. I will think: This concept of a fire with jaws is really a nightmarish horror, and adds a ghastly human evil to an unconscious event; the phrase is very strong, almost mythological. Let us suppose I am told that the father of this figure of speech is Aeschylus, and that it was uttered by Prometheus (which is true), and that the shackled titan, tied to a precipice of rocks by Force and Violence, those harsh ministers, declaimed it to the Ocean, an old gentleman who came to visit his misfortune on a winged chariot. Then the sentence would seem good, even perfect, given the extravagant nature of the speakers and its (already poetic) remote origin.”

Appendix 3: Partridge
from Partridge, A (2011) I, Partridge: We Need To Talk About Alan

Part of the brilliance of the Alan Partridge autobiography released a few years back was its consistent mockery of the devices of popular fiction – one of which being the over-elaborate or flashy or meaningless simile. Here are a few of the best examples:

p22 “She holds the newborn aloft like a captain lifting a fleshy World Cup.”
p29 “And now I did do a trump. The noise fizzed out of my back passage like a child calling for help.”
p29 “’I think you’ll find they are,’ raged my mum, like some sort of feral animal (a badger with TB perhaps).”
p33 “All I knew was that these tears felt like a monsoon on a parched African savannah to the delight of a proud but easy-going black farmer.”

Appendix 4: Chaining Similes
From Berlin, L (2015) A Manual for Cleaning Women p210
To further prove the idea that rules can never really apply to the language of prose fiction, Lucia Berlin uses three similes in a single sentence to begin her short story Macadam, and yet manages to form something beautiful in doing so:

“When fresh it looks like caviar, sounds like broken glass, like someone chewing ice.”

From Hrabal, B (1971) I Served The King of England p19
And in this brilliant novel, Hrabal manages to capture perfectly the passive narrator’s fascination with the object of his desires by allowing him to narrate freely, rhythmically, in his own mind:

“I saw how the sun had dried the raspberry grenadine in her hair and made it stiff and hard, like a paintbrush when you don’t put it in turpentine, like gum arabic when it spills, like shellac, and I saw that the sweet grenadine had stuck her dress so tightly to her body that she’d have to tear it off like an old poster, like old wallpaper.”

Appendix 5: MacLaverty
From MacLaverty, B (2017) Midwinter Break p204
The concept of a composite simile is treated negatively in the essay, but as with everything else in prose literature, it can be done effectively in certain ways by certain writers. Bernard MacLaverty uses a three-level simile in his novel Midwinter Break, but the qualifiers are all part of the one central image, unlike the example cited from Blood Meridian.

“Stella would appear at the study door all glammed up in her best coat and he would look up from his reading like

a startled animal

caught drinking

at a watering-hole.”

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