how to write like Cormac McCarthy | virtual book

how to write like Cormac McCarthy

#notes #writing #literature Mentioned in what I'm doing now, The Passenger (2022)

The main reason I read Cormac McCarthy is to experience and learn from his writing craft.

Here is his description of two salvage divers investigating a sunken airplane at the beginning of his penultimate novel,

The Passenger

The Passenger (2022)

by Cormac McCarthy

#reviews #books #fiction #literature Mentioned in Stella Maris (2022), what I'm doing now, how to write like Cormac McCarthy, what I'm doing now, what I'm doing now

This novel is like a long, restless dream about a man paralyzed by his guilt and his grief. Along one plotline tension builds, but then neither resolves nor dissipates completely. It remains an anonymous threat hanging over the protagonist’s head, a darkling mystery suspended, never precipitating. It’s a confounding book, and one that I would be thrilled to see adapted into film by David Lynch.

It is never clear who is after the protagonist, Bobby, or why. It seems at first related to his presence at a suspicious scene in a sunken airplane, which he encountered while working as a salvage diver. Later, it seems that anonymous authorities are after his father’s old papers. Mysterious men pay periodic visits and ask questions. Some of Bobby’s belongings are stolen. His cat disappears. His car get confiscated. The persecution seems operated through the US government, but it’s carried out obliquely and underhandedly.

Regardless, Bobby lives his life as if in penance. He is stuck in limbo, confined by his apparent ambivalence towards life, which has him constantly approaching and evading danger, all the while awaiting his death. He camps out for a while in a shed near a deserted beach. When his stalkers seem to be closing in, he flees from New Orleans to Idaho and squats in a derelict house in the freezing cold. In the end, he settles in the southern coast of Spain, holed up in a windmill with a crumbling roof. In the quiet of these exiles, without the comfort of shared food, drink, and conversation, the pitch of his grief reaches shrieking, hallucinatory levels, setting the stage for quasi-spiritual moments of revelation.

The most potent aspect of this book is probably its mood, which reflects the hopeless remorse that Bobby feels. Remorse for the unholy devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that his father and mother helped engineer. Regret for his helplessness before the great mysteries of mathematics and physical science. In these Bobby seems to bear the burden not just for himself and his family, but for all of humanity. Principally, however, Bobby’s remorse and grief are for his inability to prevent his sister’s suicide and their inability to enact the deep, incestuous love between them.

Throughout the book, Cormac depicts Bobby’s agonizing internal conflict regarding his feelings for his sister. Here, from page 184, is one of the most memorable:

In his dreams of her she wore at times a smile he tried to remember and she would say to him almost in a chant words he could scarcely follow. He knew that her lovely face would soon exist nowhere save in his memories and in his dreams and soon after that nowhere at all. She came in half nude trailing sarsenet or perhaps just her Grecian sheeting crossing a stone stage in the smoking footlamps or she would push back the cowl of her robe and her blonde hair would fall about her face as she bent to him where he lay in the damp and clammy sheets and whisper to him I’d have been your shadowlane, the keeper of that house alone wherein your soul is safe. And all the while a clangor like the labor of a foundry and dark figures in silhouette about the alchemic fires, the ash and the smoke. The floor lay littered with the stillborn forms of their efforts and still they labored on, the raw halfsentient mud quivering red in the autoclave. In that dusky penetralium they press about the crucible shoving and gibbering while the deep heresiarch dark in his folded cloak urges them on in their efforts. And then what thing unspeakable is this raised dripping up through crust and calyx from what hellish marinade. He woke sweating and switched on the bedlamp and swung his feet to the floor and sat with his face in his hands. Dont be afraid for me, she had written. When has death ever harmed anyone?

The prose is a major reason I keep picking up books written by McCarthy. Who else writes like this?

Here, from pages 115 and 116, is another striking example of McCarthy’s prose – a description of the scenes following the dropping of the atomic bombs in Japan:

There were people who escaped from Hiroshima and rushed to Nagasaki to see that their loved ones were safe. Arriving just in time to be incinerated. He went there after the war with a team of scientists. My father. He said that everything was rusty. Everything looked covered with rust. There were burnt-out shells of trolleycars standing in the streets. The glass melted out of the sashes and pooled on the bricks. Seated on the blackened springs the charred skeletons of the passengers with their clothes and hair gone and their bones hung with blackened strips of flesh. Their eyes boiled from their sockets. Lips and noses burned away. Sitting in their seats laughing. The living walked about but there was no place to go. They waded by the thousands into the river and died there. They were like insects in that no one direction was preferable to another. Burning people crawled among the corpses like some horror in a vast crematorium. They simply thought that the world had ended. It hardly even occurred to them that it had anything to do with the war. They carried their skin bundled up in their arms before them like wash that it not drag in the rubble and ash and they passed one another mindlessly on their mindless journeyings over the smoking afterground, the sighted no better served than the blind. Those who survived would often remember these horrors with a certain aesthetic to them. In that mycoidal phantom blooming in the dawn like an evil lotus and in the melting of solid not heretofore known to do so stood a truth that would silence poetry a thousand years. Like an immense bladder, they would say. Like some sea thing. Wobbling slightly on the near horizon. Then the unspeakable noise. They saw birds in the dawn sky ignite and explode soundlessly and fall in long arcs earthward like burning party favors.

McCarthy doesn’t make it clear what “truth” the mushroom cloud embodied, but it is certainly not a comforting one.

Later, on pages 175 and 176, he describes a factory where uranium was prepared for the bombs:

His mother was nineteen when she went to work at Y-12, the electromagnetic separation plant. One of the three processes for the separation of the uranium 235 isotope. The workers were driven out to the compound in buses, bumping over the rough graded road, through dust or mud given the weather. Talking was not allowed. The barbed wire fencing ran for miles and the buildings were of solid concrete, massive things, monolithic and for the most part windowless. They sat in a great selvage of raw mud beyond which lay a perimeter of the wrecked and twisted trees that had been bulldozed from the site. She said it looked as if they had just somehow emerged out of the ground. The buildings. There was no accounting for them. She looked at the other women on the bus but they seemed to have abandoned themselves and she thought that she might be the only one of them that while she did not know what this was about knew all too well that it was Godless and that while it had poisoned back to elemental mud all living things upon that ground yet it was far from being done. It was just the beginning.

The buildings held over one thousand miles of pipe and a quarter million valves. The women sat on stools and monitored the dials in front of them while uranium atoms raced the tracks in the calutrons. Measuring them a hundred thousand times each second. The magnets that propelled them were seven feet in diameter and the windings were of solid silver fabricated from fiteen thousands tons of it borrowed from the US Treasury because all the copper had already gone into the war effort. An older woman told her that the first day with the women all at their stations and having no least notion what any of this was about the engineers had thrown the consecutive switches and an enormous dynamo hum filled the hall and hairpins in their hundreds shot from the women’s heads and crossed the room like hornets.

That last sentence is exquisitely crafted. A tremendously vivid scene realized in fifty eight words assembled fluidly without any interrupting punctuation.


Oiler had cut away the latching mechanism and the door stood open. He was just inside the plane crouched against the bulkhead. He gestured with his head and Western pulled up in the door and Oiler shone his light down the aircraft aisle. The people sitting in their seats, their hair floating. Their mouths open, their eyes devoid of speculation. The workbasket was sitting on the floor inside the door and Western reached and got the other divelight and pulled himself into the plane.

He kicked his way slowly down the aisle above the seats, his tanks dragging overhead. The faces of the dead inches away. Everything that could float was against the ceiling. Pencils, cushions, styrofoam coffeecups. Sheets of paper with the ink draining off into hieroglyphic smears. A tightening claustrophobia. He doubled under and got himself turned around and made his way back.

This excerpt alone contains a few hallmarks of Cormac’s style. A great trust in periods, a sparing use of commas. Trust in the word and to string together a sequence of actions.

In bulkhead there is a hint of his preference for describing objects and parts of things with a vocabulary so precise that it often delves into the technical.

Perhaps in workbasket and certainly in coffeecups there is evidence of his distrust of dashes and all other weird little marks that blot the page up.

When describing a scene, he often drops the predicate from sentences that don’t need it. He simply names what is in the scene.

Sheets of paper with the ink draining off into hieroglyphic smears.

Instead of:

There were sheets of paper with the ink draining off into hieroglyphic smears.

Which adds needless clutter at the start of the sentence.

He could tweak the phrase to give it official Sentence status, but this comes at the cost of giving undue focus to a contrived subject:

From sheets of paper, ink drained off into hieroglyphic smears.


Hieroglyphic smears formed from the ink draining off sheets of paper.

Cormac bypasses the problem altogether by asserting that writing in complete sentences is not necessary. These phrases don’t need subjects, so they don’t need to be sentences.