Literary Enemies: Cormac McCarthy vs. Philip Roth

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Two black and white photos of white men side by side

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.

That’s part of McCarthy’s brilliance: he destabilizes the reader completely, and yet makes himself clear. Roth, meanwhile, is aggressively clear. When somebody has sex in a McCarthy novel, it happens quickly and casually, and often not nicely. When a Roth character has sex, nice or not, with himself or a partner, it is never quick and it is never casual. Think about that footnoted phone-sex transcript in Sabbath’s Theater. It goes on forever. Every single thing one could possibly know, every thing one could wish to un-know, Roth’s reader knows. Cormac McCarthy would never do that.

And, of course, McCarthy’s world is destructive. His preferred environments are brutal at best, deadly at worst. The U.S.’s one attempt at self-destruction, the Civil War, looms over his fiction. His characters fight and scalp and steal and wear necklaces made out of ears. Roth’s world is Manhattan and its surroundings—and other cities, too, but almost always cities. McCarthy writes nature; Roth loves the man-made. He loves the groups and divides we’ve created: Jew and goy, Israel and Diaspora, New Jersey and New York. I imagine he’d be pleased—well, he wouldn’t care, but he’d be pleased—to be part of a series on enemies.

Of course, Roth and McCarthy belong to the same tradition of postwar American literary fiction. But once you’re in that category, I think they’re the leaders of two different camps. Imagine them picking teams at recess. Roth gets all the other poets of East Coast suburbia: Updike and Cheever and Richard Ford and Chang-Rae Lee and let’s throw in Jeffrey Eugenides too, even though his turf is Detroit. McCarthy takes Toni Morrison and Philipp Meyer and Flannery O’Connor, whose work I find even more nightmare-inducing than Blood Meridian. Roth gets DeLillo but McCarthy gets Pynchon. They fight over Joan Didion but McCarthy wins, and you get the picture from here. Pick a contemporary American writer you love and think about whether he or she is breaking down the language, breaking down a setting or a character or an idea, plumbing some kind of depth—that’s McCarthy. And if not, if the writer you have in mind builds sentences like towers, takes ideas to their last crazy length, then watch out. You’ve got a Roth.