Academic journal article The Cormac McCarthy Journal

"Books Are Made out of Books": David Foster Wallace and Cormac McCarthy

Academic journal article The Cormac McCarthy Journal

"Books Are Made out of Books": David Foster Wallace and Cormac McCarthy

Article excerpt

The ugly fact is books are made out of books. The novel depends for its life on the novels that have been written.

- CORMAC MCCARTHY

Textual Connections: Wallace and McCarthy

By this point, Cormac McCarthy's most powerful literary reference points have been fairly well documented. After some forty years of scholarship, we have a nuanced understanding of the techniques, thematic preoccupations, and stylistic devices he has taken from writers such as Herman Melville, William Faulkner, and Ernest Hemingway. Moreover, scholars such as Robert Alter have mapped McCarthy's prose with reference to the particular rhythms and grammatical structures within the King James Bible, while other scholars- notably David Williams and Richard Gilmore-have explored the influence of Classical Greek philosophy and tragedy on McCarthy's work.1 And, of course, the search for the specific intertextual sources that animate McCarthy's fiction continues, with recent studies examining literary indebtedness to such unexpected texts as the Middle English Arthurian romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Jean Toomer's patriotic poem Blue Meridian, as well as the films of John Carpenter and the novels of Samuel Beckett.2 But what is far less often examined-and in fact frequently overlooked-is the powerful influence that McCarthy himself exerts over younger novelists. Scholars have not yet explored the myriad ways in which contemporary novelists have oriented themselves in relation to McCarthy's work, nor have they traced his diffuse influence on American fiction more broadly. But the notion that McCarthy's influence on American fiction has a wide reach seems obvious, particularly in light of his current cultural position-which has been given even greater visibility due to Ridley Scott's The Counselor (2014), as well as several recent film adaptations of McCarthy's novels, most notably No Country for Old Men (2007), The Road (2009), and Child of God (2013)-along with his numerous literary accolades, which include the National Book Award for All the Pretty Horses (1992) and the Pulitzer Prize for The Road (2006). That the widely influential literary critic Harold Bloom has described McCarthy as "one of the greatest living American writers," suggesting that he is among the four most important authors of the twentieth century, is also testament to McCarthy's cultural status.3 This article demonstrates how McCarthy's influence on a later generation of American writers might be explored, using the work of David Foster Wallace as an instructive case study. I begin by examining Wallace's highly idiosyncratic perspective on McCarthy's fiction, as articulated in a range of interview comments, archival materials, and journalistic pieces, before revealing the particular ways in which this perspective influenced his own fiction. Though the connection has not yet been properly acknowledged, my argument is that Cormac McCarthy exerted a powerful and tangible influence on Wallace's fiction, across multiple phases of Wallace's career. Comparative analysis also reveals that the nature of this influence evolved considerably. Before beginning work on The Pale King (2011), Wallace deployed McCarthy's stylistic innovations sparingly, and in highly strategic ways, to signal either a self-conscious moment of pastoral lyricism or an instance of moral gravity and seriousness. Such forms of homage-like appropriation, I argue, appear as highly self-conscious and dissonant linguistic intrusions within Wallace's work, and are emblematic of his emphasis on the technical devices used throughout McCarthy's prose. In later texts, however, Wallace interrogated the limits of McCarthy's representational strategies, constructing abstruse parodies of the older writer's distinctive prose style in an attempt to distance himself from what had threatened to become an overpowering influence.

In many ways, James Sotillo's brief article on Roberto Bolaño's 2001 review of Blood Meridian is indicative of the way that McCarthy scholars have intuitively understood that McCarthy's fiction must exert strong influences over younger novelists, while simultaneously shying away from addressing the specific terms of such engagements. …

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