“Cormac McCarthy at the Border: All the Pretty Horses and Crepuscular Style”
Near the end of Banjo, In Atlas of the European Novel, Franco Moretti claims that “without a certain kind of space, a certain kind of story is simply impossible.” Questions immediately arise: does Moretti mean to be as spatially deterministic as he sounds? And is this a historical claim, made on behalf of European novels written between 1800-1900, or does it have broader application? Taking Moretti’s claim as an instructive beginning, the quintessential Cormac McCarthy novel would seem two-fold: first, deeply tied to the southwestern United States, hard against the Mexican border, a contested frontier space of flexible ethics steeped in a violent history; and second, composed in language that flows in a dense, even virtuosic, argot, often compared to Melville or Faulkner, with echoes from the King James Bible. We might say that McCarthy presses a relationship between landscape and language, tethering an uncertain borderland to a similarly in-between language that shifts between Spanish and English, terse and opaque, genre writing and literary performance. Just as McCarthy’s language is a border language—multi-lingual and unsettled—his border novels are at once profoundly local and elusive in their national character: the southwestern United States becomes a place that pre-dates American nationhood, resonating with echoes of Native American tribal nations and the Mexican state. The ‘West’ is often, for McCarthy, a place that nullifies the ‘imagined community’ of American life. And yet, the American community is unsettled only through McCarthy’s use of one of the most familiar, indeed emblematic, genres of American writing: the Western, and its depiction of frontier life, men apart, and dissolved social ties. In the end, then, McCarthy’s ‘crepuscular’ style gets us to the border between two nations, between Spanish and English, between sociality and solitude. He writes in an American genre at the boundaries of American life, engaging the landscape without which his stories might be ‘impossible.’
Casey Walker is completing his dissertation, The City Inside: Intimacy and Urbanity in Henry James, Marcel Proust and Virginia Woolf and is also currently at work on a new project focused on the space of the Mexican-American border.