There have always been two dominant styles in Cormac McCarthy’s prose—roughly, afflatus and deflatus, with not enough breathable oxygen between them. McCarthy in afflatus mode is magnificent, vatic, wasteful, hammy. The words stagger around their meanings, intoxicated by the grandiloquence of their gesturing: “God’s own mudlark trudging cloaked and muttering the barren selvage of some nameless desolation where the cold sidereal sea breaks and seethes and the storms howl in from out of that black and heaving alcahest.” McCarthy’s deflatus mode is a rival rhetoric of mute exhaustion, as if all words, hungover from the intoxication, can hold on only to habit and familiar things: “He made himself a sandwich and spread some mustard over it and he poured a glass of milk.” “He put his toothbrush back in his shavingkit and got a towel out of his bag and went down to the bathroom and showered in one of the steel stalls and shaved and brushed his teeth and came back and put on a fresh shirt.”
McCarthy’s novel “The Road” (2006) can be seen as both the fulfillment and the transformation of this profligately gifted stylist, because in it the two styles justified themselves and came together to make a third style, of punishing and limpid beauty. The afflatus mode was vindicated by the post-apocalyptic horrors of the material. It might have been hard to credit, say, contemporary Knoxville as the ruined city that McCarthy describes in his earlier novel “Suttree” (1979), a giant carcass that “lay smoking, the sad purlieus of the dead immured with the bones of friends and forebears . . . vectors of nowhere,” and all the rest. But the imagination had much less difficulty in “The Road,” where a similar rhetoric floats over the ashen landscape of an annihilating catastrophe. Meanwhile, the deflatus mode suddenly made both literary and ethical sense, since a world nearly stripped of people and objects would necessitate a language of primal simplicity, as if words had to learn all over again how to find their referents. One of the most moving scenes in “The Road” involves a father and son discovering an unopened can of Coke, as if in some parody of Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories, with the father having to explain to the son just what this fabled object once was.
The third style holds in beautiful balance the oracular and the ordinary. In “The Road,” a lean poetry captures many ruinous beauties—for instance, the way that ash, a “soft black talc,” blows through the abandoned streets “like squid ink uncoiling along a sea floor.” This third style has, in truth, always existed in McCarthy’s novels, though sometimes it appeared to lead a slightly fugitive life. Amid all the gory sublimities of “Blood Meridian” (1985), one could still find something as lovely and precise as “the dry white rocks of the dead river floor round and smooth as arcane eggs,” or a description of yellow-eyed wolves “that trotted neat of foot.” In “Suttree,” published six years before the overheated “Blood Meridian,” this third style was easier to find, the writer frequently abjuring the large, imprecise adverb for the smaller, exact one—“When he put his hand up her dress her legs fell open bonelessly”—or the perfect little final noun: “while honeysuckle bloomed in the creek gut.”
There may be several reasons that McCarthy’s simpler third style is so often the dominant rhetoric in his two new novels, “The Passenger” and “Stella Maris” (both Knopf). Their author is nearing ninety, and perhaps a relatively unburdened late style tempts the loaded rhetorician who has become “weary of congestion” (as Henry James assessed late Shakespeare). A character in “The Passenger” describes this condition with appropriate plainness: “To prepare for any struggle is largely a work of unburdening yourself. . . . Austerity lifts the heart and focuses the vision.” A likelier reason is that, for the first time in his career, McCarthy is aiming to write fiction about “ideas”: these two novels contain extended conversations about physics, language, and the symbolic languages of music and mathematics.
Of course, his earlier novels explored “themes” and, in their way, ideas; an academic industry loyally decodes McCarthy’s every blood-steeped move around evil, suffering, God or no-God, the Bible, genocidal American expansion, the Western, environmental catastrophe, and so on. But those novels did not purvey, and in some sense could have no space for, intellectual discourse. These books were inhospitable to intellectuals, with their characteristic chatter. McCarthy’s two dominant styles conspired to void his fiction of such discourse. The afflatus mode gestured toward its themes so stormily that ideas were deprived of the thing that gives them power, their ability to refer. There is mathematics and theology in the following sentence from “Suttree,” but of the most opaque kind: “These simmering sinners with their cloaks smoking carry the Logos itself from the tabernacle and bear it through the streets while the absolute prebarbaric mathematick of the western world howls them down and shrouds their ragged biblical forms in oblivion.” At the same time, the deflatus style wicks away all thought—William Carlos Williams’s motto, “No ideas but in things,” has always come to mind when McCarthy is trudging along in this minimalist mode.
In the new pair of novels, which separately tell the life stories of two brilliant and frustrated physicists, Bobby Western and his younger sister, Alicia, a fresh space is made to enable the exchange of ideas, and the rhetorical consequences are felt in the very textures of the fiction. The old, bifurcated McCarthy is still evident in every sentence—my earlier unsourced examples of afflatus and deflatus were all from “The Passenger”—but the new hospitality to physics entails a hospitality to the rational that hasn’t exactly bulked large in McCarthy’s most celebrated work. His ear for dialogue has always been impeccable; in these novels, in place of the portentous reticence of McCarthy’s earlier conversations, whole sections are given over to long scenes of lucidly urbane dialogue. People think and speak rationally, mundanely, intelligently, crazily, as they do in real life; only for a writer as strange as McCarthy would this innovation deserve attention. And along with the excellent dialogue there are scores of lovely noticings, often of the natural world. In Montana, pheasants are seen crossing the road “with their heads bowed like wrongdoers.” A fire on a Mediterranean beach: “The flames sawed in the wind.” Taking off over Mexico City, “the plane lifted up through the blue dusk into sunlight again and banked over the city and the moon dropped down the glass of the cabin like a coin falling through the sea. . . . Far below the shape of the city in its deep mauve grids like a vast motherboard.”