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Sunday, November 27, 2022

In His New Books, Cormac McCarthy Gets Real

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While the Westerns’ doomed love story drives the narratives, McCarthy seems most interested in his characters’ ideas about the nature of time and reality. Characters debate byzantine concepts like S-Matrix theory, string theory and the general relativistic theory of gravitation, and they discuss the ideas of pioneering physicists like Gerard ‘t Hooft, Sheldon Glashow, Ludwig Boltzmann, Richard Feynman and George Zweig, a particle physicist who has corresponded with McCarthy and read his latest work.

In one passage, McCarthy writes with reverence about gravitons — hypothetical elementary particles with no mass — and describes one as “a creature imagined but never seen.” In another, he compares the incremental nature of time passing to “a bird trapped in a barn that moves through the slats of light bird by bird. Whose sum is one bird.”

“Even if he’s not practicing mathematics and physics, there’s something beautiful to him about the unyielding quality of a difficult thought,” said Krakauer, who read early versions of the novels. “He’s drawn to the aesthetics of it.”

It remains to be seen how fans of McCarthy’s earlier works will respond to the novels, which are wildly different from anything he’s done before. At times, the narratives feel disjointed and bogged down in arcane details and enigmatic concepts, for example, in a passage where Bobby discusses the theories of the physicist Steven Weinberg: “Still he figured that if you had these neutrino-nucleon collisions that spun off the W particle and gave you a lepton with the opposite charge you’d have to get a Z particle every once in a while. And since the Z carried no charge this meant that the neutrino coming in would stay a neutrino.”

“It’s fascinating to look at a writer who’s 89 and who’s writing a book that feels pretty far away from his early works,” said Jenny Jackson, an executive editor at Knopf who worked on the books with McCarthy. (They communicated mostly through written comments on the page, she said.)

“When people say a Cormac McCarthy novel, we’re all accustomed to thinking about books with blistering violence and with dark, black-and-white views of morality, books that juxtapose good and evil, books with haunting depravity. These books are different in that way.”

But the novels are also recognizably McCarthy’s, laced with transcendent language and profound insights into human nature.

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