Styles of Extinction: Cormac McCarthy’s The Road

By | June 27, 2012

We are thrilled to announce the publication of our new book Styles of Extinction: Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, edited by Julian Murphet and Mark Steven. The book brings together a superb set of critical essays to examine Cormac McCarthy’s esteemed post-apocalyptic novel, The Road.

Editors Julian Murphet and Mark Steven open Styles of Extinction with an introduction that suggests McCarthy’s The Road is “a belated addition to a modernist spirit first energized by Cervantes and reactivated through Joyce.” For Murphet and Steven, McCarthy’s singular literary style fills the same void of extinction proclaimed by his narrative. A singular literary style, the editors write, that “flickers like a last taper in the harsh winds blown down along the soggy library shelves, lighting here and there on some stray phrase, some lost chronicle of humankind, in order to poach from them a stubborn force—a subjectivity—that has not yet succumbed to the general darkness.”

The topic of style in McCarthy’s The Road unites the eight essays collected in Styles of Extinction: Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Through close readings and hermeneutics, each writer explores “style as what negates, but also as what succumbs to, the entropic horizon of what, inexorably, is.” In the book’s first essay, “‘The cold illucid world:’ The poetics of gray in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road,” Chris Danta probes what he calls McCarthy’s “glaucomic” world, one in which any light decays not into complete darkness, but into gray—the color that saturates The Road’s post-apocalyptic setting. Danta finds connections and apertures between the use of the color gray in McCarthy’s work and in the work of Samual Beckett. Danta states, “An important point to grasp here is that gray is a color that marks eventuation or transformation—it is a color that things become, as when we say the sky becomes gray. By neutralizing luminosity, gray draws attention to light as a source of eventuation and transformation. But, by the same token, gray—or as in the case of Beckett, the black-grey or the ash gray—is anti dialectical; it ‘does not come with the realm of clear and distinct ideas.’”

Sean Pryor’s essay “McCarthy’s rhythm” showcases the rigorous close reading that can be found throughout the excellent essays in the collection. In “McCarthy’s rhythm,” Pryor parses through a number of sentences from The Road, analyzing each in terms of its unique rhythm, as well as its place within the larger scope of the novel. Pryor argues that The Road announces itself as a work of prose imbued with rhythm in its first paragraph, stating:

"McCarthy’s rhythms could certainly be accused of distracting the reader’s attention, and after that first paragraph, it can be difficult not to keep an ear out for unusually regular or neatly mimetic patterns. One irony is that these deliberate, ‘artificial’ rhythms frequently match natural phenomena. But the logic of that matching is one of cosmic correspondence: heartbeats, breaths, waking and sleeping, days and nights, safety and danger, food and hunger, travel and rest, action and though, question and answer, speech and silence, life and death—all conform to rhythms sounded by McCarthy’s language. Life like language in The Road is limited by number. There is an order to a cosmos."

In the essay “Spring has lost its scent: Allegory, ruination, and suicidal melancholia in The Road,” Grace Hellyer examines the functions of suicide and melancholia in McCarthy’s novel by introducing Walter Benjamin’s concept of “allegory as an artistic strategy that emerges out of and responds” to melancholia. Hellyer goes on to suggest that “The Road puts forward an allegory as a means of achieving a fragile intentionality that works to alleviate the suicidal despair of a melancholia that is ambiguously positioned between the consciousness of the man and the objective conditions of the new post-apocalyptic world.”

Mark Stevens elaborates on the idea of allegory in The Road in his essay “The late world of Cormac McCarthy,” drawing from theories of worldlessness. Stevens opens his text with the Alain Badiou quote, “I hold that we are at a very special moment, a moment at which there is not any world,” and argues that we live in a moment that “lacks its world because the splintered shards of meaningful existence have ceased to register within a globalized, superstructural expression.” What a worldless existence means for The Road, Stevens suggests, is that “The Road has something very significant to offer its readers: if not the literary construction of a new ‘world’ then the presentation of that world’s lineaments.”

Paul Sheehan argues in his essay “Road, fire, trees: Cormac McCarthy’s post-America” that McCarthy’s novel has a “serious political agenda,” more so than it has a religious or environmental agenda, as some critics have suggested. Sheehan states that “although there is a surfeit of religious allusions filling out the interstices of the novel, the questions they raise concerning faith and belief acquire a more critically directed political orientation as the narrative unfolds.” Sheehan considers The Road in terms of “Western fears of violence and fanaticism,” as well as current perceptions of refugees and displaced peoples, determining McCarthy’s man and boy to be “refugees, seeking asylum from the earth itself, vainly pitting themselves against the dead shell that is the depleted biosphere.”

In the penultimate chapter of Styles of Extinction: Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, editor Julian Murphet explores McCarthy’s purposeful emphasis of silence in the post-apocalyptic world, as well as the conception of time in The Road, and adds to the other Styles of Extinction writers’ placement of McCarthy’s novel in the present political moment.

Paul Patton’s “McCarthy’s fire” closes the collection, bringing our attention back to the unnamed catastrophic even at the beginning of The Road. Patton writes, “McCarthy’s novel presents us with an event that exemplifies the conditions that make unexpected catastrophic events so terrifying, especially in the initial aftershock, namely that we do not know how to describe, identify, or name the event. As a result, we do not know what it is that has happened.” Patton also interrogates the meaning of fire in The Road, and how perhaps catastrophe itself is more imaginable than we originally thought, while that what comes after the apocalypse is truly the unimaginable.

Styles of Extinction: Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is an ideal book for anyone interested in a rigorous and thorough investigation of McCarthy’s novel. Praised for being “A series of brilliant illuminations of McCarthy’s great darkness, and great literary power,” readers can be sure that “This book carries the fire.”

Early reviews:

"The evocative title of this superb collection of critical essays—Styles of Extinction: Cormac Mcarthy’s The Road—designates both the novel’s unnamed catastrophic event that reduces all human and natural life to the condition of savagery and elemental survival, and the essays themselves, which examine with insight and eloquence the consequences of that event. In the context of 'extinction' as destruction, absence, silence, nostalgia, prelude, as well as the work of fictional representation of a world growing wordless, the essays explore the implicated angles of reference: linguistic, historical, social, political, philosophical, anthropological, psychological, and moral—with even a touch of the spiritual out of the novel’s hint of some quality of life sufficient to what a brutalized world might remember or imagine." – Donald Kartiganer, Howry Professor of Faulkner Studies Emeritus, University of Mississippi

"Shuddering with the aftershocks of apocalyptic devastation to the natural world, social viability, ethical capacity, spiritual hope-with the exposed bare life of human beings, The Road shimmers in  contemporary fiction as an enigmatic reflection on end things. These essays one-by-one interrogate McCarthy's reticent text patiently yet  relentlessly, making it yield the deeply considered questions animating the novel's quiet, haunted lyricism. The essays range with frequent brilliance across matters of morality, religion, aesthetics, politics, and culture. Styles of Extinction debates how The Road negotiates the terminal conditions of late capital: economic degradation; state violence; predatory speculation; environmental abuse-the suspicion of having arrived at  worldlessness." –John T. Matthews, Professor of English, Boston University

"A timely study of McCarthy, featuring an excellent line-up of some of the very best emerging and established scholars working in literary studies, film studies, and philosophy." — Alex Houen, University Lecturer and Fellow of Pembroke College Faculty of English University of Cambridge, UK.

"A series of brilliant illuminations of McCarthy's great darkness, and great literary power. This book carries the fire." — Michael Zeitlin, Associate Professor, Department of English, University of British Columbia, Canada

Styles of Exctinction: Cormac McCarthy's The Road is available now in the US. It will publish elsewhere in August.

Hilary Reid, Editorial Intern 

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