Science and Literature in Cormac McCarthy’s Expanding Worlds
By Bryan Giemza.
Bloomsbury Academic, 2023.
Hardcover, 184 pages, $100.
Reviewed by Philip D. Bunn.
Works of scholarship on art, literature, or poetry can take multiple forms. One form might be scholarship that is itself an exercise in interpretation and criticism, unpacking the meaning of a story or a poem for the reader with the aid of textual evidence and close readings, drawing on prior interpretive scholarship and methods for engaging in such study. Another form of scholarship might exist primarily to prepare readers to better interpret these works for themselves, providing background on the artist or author, their methods, influences, thoughts, aspirations, and self-understanding.
Take, for example, scholarship on the life and work of Cormac McCarthy. Scholars have, at various times, engaged with McCarthy’s work in ways that broadly fit into these two categories. A recent example of the first category, an exercise in direct interpretation, comes from Patrick O’Connor’s piercing study Cormac McCarthy, Philosophy, and the Physics of the Damned (Edinburgh University Press, 2022). Engaging in detailed readings of McCarthy’s corpus, from his unpublished Whales and Men to his novels, plays, and screenplays across his career, O’Connor advances useful and novel interpretations of characters and themes in McCarthy’s works, defending his own reading of McCarthy as a quintessential philosophical novelist and attempting to persuade the reader of the utility and accuracy of his readings.
A recent example of the second category is Michael Lynn Crews’s Books are Made Out of Books: A Guide to Cormac McCarthy’s Literary Influences (University of Texas Press, 2017). Utilizing manuscript evidence from McCarthy’s papers and notes, Crews catalogues explicit references to works of literature, thinkers, philosophers, and historical figures and events that McCarthy drew from as he pieced together what would become his famous works. Rather than primarily advancing interpretations of McCarthy at length, Crews lays the foundations for other readers to take what they have learned about the influences on which McCarthy drew and to then approach his books with more depth and care.
Of course, these two types of scholarship are not mutually exclusive. An excellent interpreter of a work of literature might readily draw on direct archival evidence in building their novel interpretations, and insightful interpretations of a work might lead a more archivally-minded scholar to search for evidence of cross-pollinating influence. Readers of the two aforementioned examples will find their respective authors engaging in both types of analysis at various points. Nevertheless, these two broad categories can be helpful in selecting which secondary works might be helpful for different readers’ purposes.
It is largely into this second category, that scholarship that equips readers to return to texts with tools necessary to excavate their own interpretations, that Bryan Giemza’s Science and Literature in Cormac McCarthy’s Expanding Worlds falls. This is not to say that Giemza has nothing substantively interesting to say about the content of McCarthy’s novels; far from it. It is merely to frame the expectations of the reader. Interwoven with able references to particularities of McCarthy’s stories and characters, Giemza focuses his study on background material that would illuminate heretofore neglected aspects of McCarthy’s work. Giemza’s book draws heavily from interviews with close friends, associates, and family of Cormac McCarthy. Welcomed as a guest at the Santa Fe Institute, a research institute where McCarthy served as a scholar, board member, and fixture for decades, Giemza has been able to probe the role of science in shaping McCarthy’s imagination in a way few others have had an opportunity to do.
A chapter on chirality or “handedness” in the universe, for example, serves to show that McCarthy’s fascination with the way nature tends to arrange things in patterns or with “left” or “right-handed” tendencies permeates his fiction from early (Suttree’s narration that observes the twists of climbing vines and seashells alike) to his late (discussions of chirality in the “duology” of The Passenger and Stella Maris). Likewise, a chapter on the explosive and destructive use and proliferation of dynamite in the south during McCarthy’s “Tennessee period” serves to excavate certain matters of historical record that frame the stories McCarthy tells in his early works. A chapter on the displacing work of the Tennessee Valley Authority, for whom McCarthy’s father worked while raising the younger McCarthy, provides much-needed context to Cormac’s ambivalence toward the TVA’s engineering marvels in his debut novel, The Orchard Keeper, and his skepticism about techno-professional meddling more generally.
The work concludes with a chapter specifically on math and science, which comprises the first extended scholarly treatment of The Passenger and Stella Maris that has been published. Far from disrupting any of Giemza’s prior analysis, the publication of the duology affirms many of Giemza’s insights arrived at prior to their publication: his belief that chirality was a central theme in McCarthy, for example, finds explicit treatment in these last two novels that make up McCarthy’s final tale. Here Giemza engages in his lengthiest textual interpretation, offering a novel analysis of The Passenger’s Thalidomide Kid as an expression of the deep human unconscious, and takes the novels as exploring the bounds of both human understanding and our current scientific possibilities. Giemza’s conclusion is far too subtle to be reproduced in short form and will require a serious reader’s careful attention for full effect.
Throughout, Giemza’s tireless work to mine relevant historical influences on McCarthy is particularly excellent and commends this book to the hands of all students and interpreters of McCarthy. Giemza makes use of archival material, news and events local to McCarthy’s life in Tennessee, and interviews with contemporaries and locals who would have shared common vernacular and knowledge to provide background information necessary to understand the depth of McCarthy’s stories. Tales of exploding shacks, bank robberies, and fatal mining accidents in fact and in history enhance the reader’s appreciation for semi-fictional dynamite explosions and caves and heists in The Orchard Keeper and Suttree, for example. Exploration of McCarthy’s personal geographic history further colors the development of his novels: places that figure strongly in Suttree or in McCarthy’s personal life reappear in The Road as stops and landmarks along the southward journey of The Man and The Boy, as Giemza ably demonstrates.
The most poignant example of this applied historical insight comes from archival and interview material relating to the displacement of families and towns by the hydroelectric dam-building projects spearheaded by the TVA. The sheer distress caused by this displacement is easy to overlook in retrospect and from outside the valley. Taking this opportunity, Giemza explores the symbolic significance of the hearth at the heart of Irish immigrant households in the area, hearths that were kept constantly burning until they were doused and drowned by the liquid consequences of progress. This symbolic hearth fire and its Irish origins provide Giemza with material to complicate long-discussed symbolism in McCarthy’s work: the “fire” carried by the Man and the Boy in The Road, an explicit expression of previous fire symbolism that runs through Blood Meridian, The Border Trilogy, and No Country for Old Men.
Finally, it is in the acknowledgements of the book that the reader finds a tantalizing suggestion: in addition to conversations with McCarthy’s friends and colleagues at SFI and family members of Cormac, Giemza’s book is “informed by the real human understanding” brought to the text by conversations with Cormac himself. As Giemza says, “This material will find its place in the literary record in the fullness of time.” That McCarthy disliked discussing his own work and writing is no secret; that illuminating personal conversations with him remain to be published in the future is a welcome balm for any fans still mourning his passing.
In sum, this book is an essential companion for anyone interested in a deeper scholarly and thematic treatment of McCarthy and his works. The breadth of the volume makes it useful for approaching a variety of McCarthy’s texts with new information in hand. This breadth, however, also means it may be less suitable for those looking to dig deeply into textual analysis of any one specific McCarthy book. In that endeavor, there are likely apt resources available to supplement what Giemza has contributed here.
Philip D. Bunn is a Postdoctoral Fellow for the Department of Political Science and the Clemson Institute for the Study of Capitalism at Clemson University.
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