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Cormac and Oprah, Revisited

Five years ago this June, Cormac McCarthy appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show. Given McCarthy’s legendary reticence (he had done only one major interview in the past, with the New York Times in 1992) and exalted literary stature (he has won every major American book award; Harold Bloom has called Blood Meridian the preeminent novel by a living American), this was one of the greatest “gets” in the history of television. It was also one of the strangest. Staged at the Santa Fe Institute for advanced scientific research—where McCarthy apparently goes to relax—it evoked a collision between opposing subatomic particles: a smashing together, by sheer force of will, of mass media and solitary art.

To be fair, that distinction is never absolute, and both Winfrey and McCarthy had blurred it before. Winfrey, through her Book Club, had sung the praises of Tolstoy and Faulkner; McCarthy’s weaker novels read like particularly violent potboilers. Even so, reclusive authors of his caliber are hardly ever coaxed out of hiding, let alone thrust into a limelight so intense. It was like seeing Emily Dickinson resurrected at the Super Bowl halftime show.

Unlike some observers at the time, I didn’t think Winfrey was out of her depth. She is both a consummate professional and a formidable interviewer; with better preparation from her consultants, she could have been exactly the right person to interview McCarthy. And notwithstanding his home court advantage, there was certainly a sense in which he was hard pressed from the outset. After what happened to Jonathan Franzen, someone—his publisher? his family? his own best judgment?—must have told McCarthy that this was an interview request he couldn’t refuse. With his slouched posture and tidy haircut, he looked like a boy dragged to church by the ear.

Yet the actual interview was for the most part a wasted opportunity. McCarthy was courteous but effortlessly deflective. Winfrey kept things upbeat and “accessible”; what she should, and could, have been was accessible like a fox. That would have meant asking critics to supply questions that have nagged McCarthy readers for decades, then using her own brand of genius to translate them into cunning bluntness. It didn’t happen that way. Winfrey seemed more interested in satisfying her personal curiosity—asking repeatedly, for example, whether he really never cared about money?

Here are five questions I wish she’d asked instead.

What makes you laugh?

My own reading history of McCarthy is as follows. I read Blood Meridian and was bowled over by it: it’s just about as good as Bloom says it is. Then I read All the Pretty Horses and was impressed by some passages, but irked by the unrelieved solemnity and the sentimentality toward women and horses. Finally I tried to read The Road and put it down after ten pages. McCarthy’s blood-soaked world has devolved into self-parody; you want to tell him, “It’s only the apocalypse—lighten up.”

His work contains grim ironies (think of a cowboy’s drawled retort before he shoots you) but very little comedy as such. Why is this? If he’s led an extraordinarily lucky life, as he says in the interview, why’s he so sore in the saddle about fate and human nature? Does our impending doom ever strike him as funny? What’s his favorite joke?

Every critic points out your similarities to Melville and Faulkner. Who are your hidden influences?

“The ugly fact is that books are made out of other books,” McCarthy once admitted. Bloom has noted that McCarthy, in particular, “tends to carry his influences on the surface.” True, but not necessarily all of them. Read Nightwood (1936), Djuna Barnes’s Modernist classic, and you’ll notice some striking parallels with McCarthy’s fiction. Her Dr. O’Connor speaks in baroque prophetic monologues much like those of Judge Holden in Blood Meridian. An “ex-priest” appears in a minor role in both books. Even her prose can be, at times, a dead ringer for McCarthy’s:

Suddenly she took the Catholic vow. She came into the church silently. The prayers of the suppliants had not ceased nor had anyone been broken of their meditation. Then, as if some inscrutable wish for salvation, something yet more monstrously unfulfilled than they had suffered, had thrown a shadow, they regarded her, to see her going softly forward and down, a tall girl with the body of a boy.

Granted, Barnes and McCarthy share some influences, but this is uncanny. Could the quintessential “man’s man’s writer” (as Oprah put it) have gone to school on one of the pioneers of lesbian literature?

Do you feel that your lack of female characters is a limitation in your work?

Here Oprah had him on the ropes, but never swung hard enough: 

O: Is there a reason why women are not a big part of the plot?

C: Women are tough. They’re tough. I don’t pretend to understand women. I think men don’t know much about women; they find them very mysterious.

O: Still, you do?

C: Yeah, although—

O: Three wives later, they’re still mysterious?

C: Yeah, they’re still mysterious.

I share her skepticism. As Lindsay Beyerstein has written: “Men’s jokes about the supposed ‘mysteriousness’ of women are usually thinly veiled swipes at women’s capacity for rational thought, self-expression, or honesty.” For a novelist, tasked with depicting human character, they’re a particular cop-out—akin to a painter’s saying that female anatomy has always baffled him.

At best you can argue that McCarthy knows his weaknesses and would rather avoid female characters than botch them. But their scarcity in his work is finally a blemish on his work. Even Blood Meridian is hard to take as representative of the human condition when half of humanity is practically absent from it.

What happens to the Kid in the outhouse at the end of Blood Meridian?

He’d never have given a straight answer to this, of course; better to leave the Kid’s unspeakable fate unspoken. Still, it would have been fun to see the subject broached on daytime TV.

What do you think of America, really?

Coming from Oprah, this would have been a genuinely interesting question—one that could have fully teased out the contrasts between host and guest.

To start with the obvious: McCarthy is a white man and Winfrey a black woman in a society that has historically privileged the former demographic while reserving some of its worst treatment for the latter. Both McCarthy and Winfrey have been poor, but where her childhood poverty was famously desperate, his writerly privation seems more to have been a lifestyle choice. (When he admits to having turned down lecture opportunities during his leanest years, her disbelief is telling.)

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And yet where Winfrey is the ultimate product and priestess of American optimism, McCarthy is its ultimate hanging judge. They may well have advanced, respectively, the most and least inspirational visions of our country in its history. As I read it, McCarthy’s America is a place of relentless and pathological violence, a perpetual Wild West that eviscerates all our myths about ourselves. It’s the America of scalp hunting and serial killing and wars, wars, wars. Winfrey’s America is a tough, sometimes cruel place, but one that permits us—through ordinary courage and faith—to achieve extraordinary triumphs. It’s the America of, well, Oprah.

Then of course there’s the matter of fame. Winfrey is the epitome of our cultural hunger for applause, acceptance, love. She sells out stadiums, names TV channels after herself, publishes magazines featuring her face on the cover. McCarthy, for his part, is every inch the alienated artist. He doesn’t “interact” with fans. He holds the harshest possible mirror up to our natures. His reclusiveness may have swelled his legend, but his shyness in front of the cameras is genuine. “I don’t think it’s good for your head,” he says of self-promotion, and here too Winfrey seems skeptical.

Still, there’s some tantalizing overlap between them. Winfrey, raised in rural Mississippi and inner-city Milwaukee, has always emphasized the bedrock of suffering on which her inspirational empire is founded. Indeed that experience shapes her tastes as a reader: her literary hero, Toni Morrison, descends from the same Southern Gothic tradition as McCarthy. McCarthy, meanwhile, has softened somewhat since Blood Meridian. The traditional romanticism of All the Pretty Horses was surprising, and I’m told The Road turns into a fairly heartwarming father-son portrait. Maybe it was McCarthy’s true self emerging when he explained what readers should “get out of” The Road:

Life is pretty damn good, even when it looks bad, and we should appreciate it more. We should be grateful. I don’t know who to be grateful to, but you should be thankful for what you have.

Or maybe this was only the recitation of a catechism, a great nihilist’s brief concession to the cult of Oprah.

In retrospect their collision seems inevitable: the superstar and the hermit, Oprah and the man she introduced to us as “Cormac.” The experiment produced tension but no explosions, and no fusion either. It was deeply fascinating, deeply disappointing, and never to be repeated.

Postscript: While we’ve probably seen the last of McCarthy on TV, he has given occasional post-Oprah print interviews, including with Time magazine and The Wall Street Journal. In the Journal interview he touches on the subject of women in his fiction: “[The book I’m working on] is largely about a young woman…I was planning on writing about a woman for 50 years. I will never be competent enough to do so, but at some point you have to try.”


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