Friday, August 19, 2011

OUTER DARK by Cormac McCarthy

Cormac McCarthy suffered no sophomore jinx. Quite the opposite, in fact. Three years after his highly promising 1965 debut, The Orchard Keeper, McCarthy delivered Outer Dark, his first great book and the work in which he first struck the seam of surreal apocalyptic violence that he would continue to mine for the next 40 years. A double-picaresque that follows both a young woman's wanderings through Appalachia in search of her abandoned baby and her brother's wanderings in search of her, Outer Dark is a marvelously lyrical tale of American terror. It's the kind of book Paul Bowles might have written had he never gone abroad, the kind Stephen King might have written had he been a better and more Faulknerian writer. The panoply of horrors to which McCarthy, like a loathsome god, delivers his protagonists begins with the usual Southern Gothic incest and insanity, moves on to murder and lynching, and doesn't cease until we've been subjected to a scene of vampiristic cannibalism that anticipates both the sublime terrors of Blood Meridian and the horror movie excesses of his more recent works (e.g. The Road). On the final page of Outer Dark McCarthy shows us an image that might represent the entire novel: a road disappearing into a gray, deathly, impassable swamp. This is the Cormackian Rome to which all the author's roads lead, a miserable sink of death. This swamp is the true and only setting of Outer Dark. The reader has spent the preceding 241 pages wandering feverishly through it, smelling the sulphur reek of this miasmic "spectral waste." It should also be noted that the swamp, which is approached by the male protagonist but not the female, is described in explicitly female terms. The mud that sucks Culla Holme's shoe is described as rising in a "vulvate welt." The swamp, like the pond with the "singing willow rim" in Hart Crane's "Repose of Rivers," is an image of female genitalia as the site of an incestuous return to origins, of male penetration as a violation of the incest taboo. It's a fundamentally misogynistic and puritanical image of the vagina as a thing to be fled. And since the novel contains obvious allusions to the Oedipus myth (the baby abandoned in the wilderness, for one), it should surprise no reader that the thing these characters flee will be the thing to which they are inevitably returned. The forbidding vulval swamp is both the provocation and the only end of Culla's wandering. Like his sister Rinthy, it is the female object that equally attracts and repels him--consciously repels and unconsciously attracts. It is the motor that will keep him moving through the Dantean hills of McCarthy's Appalachia until he finds at last his final swamp.


Jason Miller Bailey said...

Real good novel. Leaps better than the Orchard Keeper, which just felt like a series of exercises in setting and tone.

It also might be his most explicitly Faulknerian book. The premise and title always struck me as a sort of response to Light In August.

BRIAN OARD said...


Yes, I think you're right about the Light in August connection. At several points while reading Outer Dark I thought of the wandering, childless Rinthy as a kind of photo-negative of the wandering, pregnant Lena Grove.

Unknown said...

Culla approaches the swamp, but it repulses him to the point that he heads back up the road that brought him to it. There, he meets the blind prophet he talked with earlier. McCarthy's language clearly implies that the prophet will meet his end in the spectral swamp that Culla flees