Disclaimer: These two writers are not actually enemies. As far as I know.
In 2003, Harold Bloom wrote in the Boston Globe that there were only four great American novelists alive and working: Don DeLillo, Cormac McCarthy, Thomas Pynchon, and Philip Roth. I don’t agree. I think there were a hell of a lot more, and still are, and that there is no way in this country and century that the only great living novelists could possibly all be white men. But I also think that two of the writers on Bloom’s list mark the opposite poles of contemporary American fiction. Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon are so dissimilar in style, tone, and sense of humor—no, fine, bad joke. Let’s talk about Roth and McCarthy.
Here’s why I think that Philip Roth and Cormac McCarthy are opposites: Roth is a builder, and McCarthy is a destroyer. Roth is an expert manipulator of the English language, stretching sentences beyond where a sentence should go without breaking a single grammatical rule, weaving together ten-page rants and ten-page conversations, describing the world we know with tooth-aching accuracy. Take this line from Goodbye, Columbus: “As a rule, fifty or fifty-five reflects accurately the age of late afternoons in November, for it is in that month, during those hours, that one’s awareness of light seems no longer a matter of seeing, but of hearing: light begins clicking away.” I promise, you’ll remember it in ten months, and you’ll hear the light click. I always do.
McCarthy, on the other hand, takes English and jumps up and down on it. His run-ons are run-ons. If you don’t speak Spanish you’re going to miss bits of plot. His dialogue is sometimes unidentifiable as dialogue. And his imagery is astonishing, astonishingly beautiful, and barely makes sense. I know exactly what Roth means by light clicking away. I’m not so sure I can visualize the charging warriors McCarthy describes in Blood Meridian as “screeching and yammering and clothed in smoke like those vaporous beings in regions beyond right knowing where the eye wanders and the lip jerks and drools”—and yet, somehow, I understand.