The Prettiness in the Noise of Cormac McCarthy

A tribute to the fun of failure, the compulsion to make art, and the late writer.

When word came out that Cormac McCarthy died on June 13, I was in a part of Pennsylvania that, aside from being slightly to the north, would’ve been a perfect setting for one of his pre-Blood-Meridian books. Appalachian, under-known, poor. Decayed and decaying, but hinting at shadows of previous wealth that had, at the behest of global capital, shifted elsewhere in the last half century. At the center of the town was an old K-12 school that had closed in the ‘80s and since been abandoned, and its insides were now covered in pigeon shit and pigeon corpses and some still-living pigeons fluttering around the exposed ceiling joists. 

I was, on that day, on a break from Cormac. In December, about 800 pages into Marx’s Capital, I had felt the need to take a minor break with All the Pretty Horses, but then felt I had to finish the Border Trilogy, and then there were new books out for the first time in a decade and a half, so it just kept going. In the six months before his death I had read Horses, The Crossing, Cities of the Plain, The Passenger, Stella Maris, The Sunset Limited, and No Country for Old Men (in that order). Having read his earliest books years earlier, I was addicted to seeing the ways his prose would grow and shed tendencies in different phases (the tangled, elaborate, threatening-but-still-gentle gorgeousness of The Orchard Keeper eventually replaced by the literally prose-less Stella Maris). But having read all those, I returned to Marx, and then Cormac died. 

Ridiculous as it might be to say, he was, along with a few other fiction writers, an influence. The ways writing about guns, arroyos, bivouacking, flora, etc. creeps into the way I try to make music are subtle, but for me, important. That he deploys certain words — “insane,” for example — to cut through the firm biblical feel of much of the rest of the text. It’s such a good trick. I probably do this too much, and especially with that word specifically, but it’s really fun to do. He does this with emotions too, where, after a hundred pages of wandering and/or violence, a character will be confronted with something that cuts them to their spiritual core. Reading these sections, realizing I’ve come to a moment like this, I sit up straighter, the feeling, the awareness, that something quietly sublime is unfolding. Prettiness mixed into the noise. 

Or that he will let an embedded narrative (there are several in the The Crossing alone) expand until it fills the reader’s entire view, like a painting held so close to your eyes that you can’t see the person holding it, before withdrawing into the bigger narrative. Disorienting. The world of the story within the story was so complete and rich, with so many strange little questions specific to itself. And then it’s just gone. Just like a song, or a section of a song, that feels like it was recorded in a room with different laws of physics from everything on either side of it. 

And then there’s the end of Blood Meridian. I refer here specifically to the final paragraph (save for the brief epilogue). It is a passage so terrifying that, when I first read it, I felt I had to throw the book across the room to feel safe. Everything that came before it is of course famously hellish too, but, outside of those closing seconds of Twin Peaks: The Return, there really isn’t much else in fiction like that last paragraph. The feeling of the author/creator lurching towards you with something that can actually hurt, and then, that’s it. Something hinted at all along, finally, suddenly, revealed in all of its (hideous) power, and then just as suddenly cut off. How rare. How special. It is not merely good. It is special. 

And that is what art can be. I like to think of those moments where a song can go from being simply good to being special through the lens of moments like these in art by people like Cormac McCarthy. We fail, as we must, but it’s fun. 

It is at this point that this piece must devolve into a silly, seemingly over-romanticized discussion of the dedication to making art, because there is also the way that the writing of these strange books, and their writer’s insistence on writing them even when they brought in very little income for him, offers up a mindset of dedication that artists can hope to have. For the first 25 years of his career, McCarthy sold very few books, even with Blood Meridian. It supposedly was not until All the Pretty Horses that he had even sold more than 2,500 copies on a single book. But he kept doing it, in an interim lasting decades, with no sign that the financial end of things would ever change. He lived in “total poverty” and bathed in lakes. McCarthy, during this period, said that writing was a “compulsion” for him. 

I come from no generational wealth and have yet to cobble together the kind of work that would make much more than the barest of living wages in New York City. But I have a compulsion to make music, and any professional life will be structured around that, and in service to it, not because it’s comfortable (it isn’t (I’m fine)) but because it’s all that makes sense. I’m not romanticizing anything. I hate that McCarthy made so little money writing some wonderful and adventurous books that he couldn’t afford proper plumbing. There is nothing to romanticize in a great artist scrounging to stay alive. It isn’t the way any society should operate for anyone, doing any kind of work, art or otherwise. But that was the situation for him. He knew what he wanted to do, what he felt he had to do, and he did it, and kept doing it. And I love that so much. 

(Photo Credit: left, Ebru Yildiz)

Activity are an avant four-piece featuring Travis Johnson, and drummer Steve Levine, both from the band Grooms, bassist Bri DiGioia, and guitarist Jess Rees from Russian Baths. Produced by engineer Jeff Berner of Psychic TV, their new album Spirit In The Room is an emotional seance held through an unearthly haze of menacing trip hop, ambient electronica, and synth-based noise rock, and is out August 4, 2023 via Western Vinyl.

(Photo Credit: Ebru Yildiz)