Sunday, February 14, 2010

DeLillo and McCarthy

Don DeLillo interviews are as rare as Cormac McCarthy ones. There's a current one in the Wall Street Journal, to coincide with the publication of his new novella, Omega Point, and a very interesting read it is, too.

Mention of McCarthy is apposite, because there is much in the interview that is reminiscent of him. For example, DeLillo has set his new work in the California desert:

The desert landscape drove him, and his character Elster, to "think of time in a completely different way," Mr. DeLillo says. "It becomes enormous. It becomes geological time, and he thinks in terms of evolution and extinction."

This is true McCarthy territory, the size and scale of time, the smallness of humanity within it. Borrowing from Teilhard de Chardin, the focus of DeLillo's novelis on "the idea that human consciousness is reaching a point of exhaustion, and that what comes next may be either a paroxysm or something enormously sublime." Isn't that a summation of Ed Tom Bell's emotional paralysis at the end of No Country For Old Men?

There's no great surprise in this. McCarthy and DeLillo are both lapsed Catholics whose upbringing has strongly influenced their writing. DeLillo says: "It has an effect in ways I can't be specific about—the sense of ceremony, the sense of last things, and the sense of religion as almost at times an art." Again, that could almost be McCarthy speaking, couldn't it?

In terms of writing craft, there's an interesting observation:

Sometimes, Mr. DeLillo says, he will swap out a word for a more rhythmically appealing one, even if it alters the meaning of the sentence. He often types up a single paragraph at a time, using a clean sheet of paper for each paragraph, so that he can study the architecture of each passage in isolation.

Hmmm. One to discuss. I suspect Cormac would have no truck with anything so imprecise. Sure, the rhythms are important, but the words still have to say what they're meant to say. Changing the meaning to suit the rhythm is surely compromising the art. It is concentrating to too great a degree on the surface detail and not on the emotional depth.


The Witchfinder said...

"Changing the meaning to suit the rhythm is surely compromising the art."

That seems strange to me. Isn't it just as easy to say that changing the rhythm to suit the meaning is compromising the art as well? A poet could very well think so.

A fine post at any rate!

Tom Conoboy said...

Yes, I take your point.

I guess it depends how you view the process of novel writing. Do you write to say something, which you hope you will be able to say beautifully? Or do you write to say something beautiful, which you hope will mean something? A question of degrees of intent, I suppose.