James Dorson, Counternarrative Possibilities: Virgin Land, Homeland, and Cormac McCarthy’s Westerns (Frankfurt am Main: Campus, 2016), 308 pp.
In his lucidly written and intricately constructed study, James Dorson argues that by focusing on “the people and communities trampled by the processes of modernity,” Cormac McCarthy’s “fiction is able to call those processes into question” (14). Dorson’s study therefore makes a genuinely interesting case for understanding McCarthy’s work not in the American literary tradition of replacing social conflicts with metaphysical struggles, but for approaching his novels as socially and politically acutely aware texts. Dorson reads the four novels of McCarthy’s ‘southwestern phase’ (i. e., Blood Meridian and The Border Trilogy) as challenges to both the political complacency that resulted from postmodern fiction’s retreat into ironic self-awareness and self-referentiality as well as to the neo-liberal appropriations of America’s exceptionalist mythologies.
Dorson’s thesis is that McCarthy’s novels, while not necessarily classifiable as social or political realism per se, are also not merely metaphysical allegories dissevered from social concerns. In a rather innovative gesture, Dorson additionally argues against a critical consensus which understands the politics of McCarthy’s westerns primarily in the context of a revisionist project which is concerned with historicizing, critiquing, and deconstructing American mythologies of the virgin land, the frontier, the American Adam, and the homeland. Dorson identifies the established critical receptions of these four novels—Blood Meridian as a revisionist western and The Border Trilogy as a postmodern pastiche that ironically plays with the conventions of the genre—as products of competing discourses within American Studies. These discourses either unintentionally reproduce American myths by ostensibly criticizing them (i. e., the so-called “Myth and Symbol School” of Percy Miller, F. O. Matthiessen, Leo Marx, R. W. B. Lewis, and Henry Nash Smith) or they downplay the cultural longing for national myths by regarding them as ideologies in need of deconstruction (i. e., the New Americanists represented by Richard Sloktin, Sacvan Bercovitch, Amy Kaplan, Donald Pease, and Stephanie LeMenager). Whereas the “Myth and Symbol School” was “often blind to the limitations of its interventions” (81), the New Americanist’s mission to “break the irrational power of myth and narrative” often fails to “redress the affective needs that enabled those myths and narratives to become so powerful in the first place” (103).
In response to these discourses, Dorson concludes that readings of McCarthy that overemphasize the mythological aspects of his westerns usually ignore the social dimensions of these texts, while readings that understand McCarthy as participating in a postmodern dismantling of master-narratives often fail to recognize the extent to which the novels still display sympathy and even nostalgia for the very myths they abolish. Against both approaches (i. e., metaphysical mythogenesis and post-structuralist revisionism), Dorson positions the concept of the ‘counternarrative.’ He defines a counternarrative as “a story that succeeds as narrative at the same time as it reveals how it succeeds” (14).
By synthesizing concepts and claims articulated in an impressive array of theoretical texts which include, but are not limited to, the writings of Adorno, Barthes, Kermode, Jameson, White as well as Bourdieu and Foucault, Dorson argues that instead “of being naturalized, counternarrative myths have to content themselves with being volatile artificial myths, ready to combust the instant they have outlived their purpose” (72). This definition of counternarratives leads Dorson to two inferences: first, that “the way forward for radical democratic politics today would neither be to abandon nor reinstate narrative closure, but to produce a negative closure” and, second, that the “very form of the literary counternarrative becomes a model for a new social imaginary” (72).
At times Dorson’s attempt to establish counternarratives as a viable alternative to both self-affirming hegemonic master-narratives and the allegedly self-consuming efforts to deconstruct these narratives, cannot extract itself entirely from a tendency in many studies of post-postmodern / neo-realist / new sincerity fiction to construct a hyperbolic version of postmodern metafiction as inherently anti-realistic, ironically self-aware, and resistant to closure. This version of postmodern fiction seems to loom much larger in critical discourses than in actual literary productions. More often than not postmodern metafiction can already be understood as a kind of self-aware realism rather than as a mere rejection of the necessity for narrative. As a paradigmatic text of postmodern American metafiction, John Barth’s short story “Lost in the Funhouse” (1968), for example, not only deconstructs the conventions of literary realism, it also rejuvenates them. Indeed, metafiction in its postmodern form already fulfills many of the criteria Dorson establishes for counternarratives.
Concordantly, Dorson ultimately derives his concept of counternarratives primarily from careful, nuanced, and insightful readings of academic debates rather than from a corpus of literary texts that can be classified according to the categories thus developed. The theoretical section of this study can therefore be regarded as an ambitious, knowledgeable, and multifaceted meta-critical discourse that yields interesting and relevant insights into major theoretical tendencies within the field of American Studies since the 1950s. At the same time, the study’s principle interest in self-reflexive questions concerning the critical taxonomies and underwriting ideologies of American Studies as an academic discipline result in a relatively removed engagement with the cultural artifacts (specifically, literary texts) which are actually at the center of these debates.
Because the meta-critical considerations take up almost half of the study’s length before the text moves somewhat abruptly into the major analytical section titled “Cormac McCarthy‘s Westerns,” a structural inconsistency of Counternarrative Possibilities becomes noticeable: Neither the writings of Cormac McCarthy nor the (revisionist) Western genre are discussed much less even mentioned in the entire first part of the study. While a theoretical section does not necessarily have to pre-structure the subsequent analyses of a study’s primary materials, it still could serve as a means of guiding the reader and arguing for the ways in which the larger theoretical concerns are connected to the specific corpus. Dorson certainly establishes an analytical framework that is complex, convincing, and vibrant. Yet, at one point during this compelling journey through narratology, postmodern historiography, the social functions of fiction, the differences between counternarratives and deconstruction, American mythologies, the ideological history of American Studies, and the post-9/11 construction of a homeland narrative by neo-conservative policies, the fact that one is reading a book on the writings of Cormac McCarthy becomes so peripheral to the arguments, that the second part of the study seems like a surprise.
Although the transition from the abstract to the concrete is the basic structure of most literary analyses, Counternarrative Possibilities stages this transition almost as a rupture. Maybe this rupture can be construed as a comment on the conventionality of academic narratives, but at times it also dilutes the analytical thrust of the study. Does an analysis of McCarthy’s novels of the 1980s and 1990s actually profit from an extended excursion into post-9/11 domestic politics, the homeland myth, the war on terror, and the “American Exceptionalism” critique that emerged in U.S. academia in the early 2000s? And if the homeland myth indeed is understood as a constitutive element of McCarthy’s pre-9/11 oeuvre, the conceptual resonances could have been anticipated in the theoretical section more explicitly, thereby softening the rigid separation of theory and analysis that determines the structure of the study.
In the three chapters dedicated to thematic close readings of Blood Meridian, the concepts examined in the study’s theoretical section (i. e., counternarratives, the Virgin Land Myth, the Homeland Myth, paradigm shifts within American Studies) occasionally infuse the analysis of the novel, but they do not seem central to the actual interpretation. Instead, the analysis focuses on aspects of violence and law (esp. via Walter Benjamin and Jacques Derrida) as well as on the novel’s “aesthetic coldness” (177), i. e., an aesthetic strategy of depicting horrors and atrocities without validating them through representation. Taken on its own, the comprehensive reading of Blood Meridian is thoroughly convincing and closes significant gaps in critical examinations of the text (for example, the fact that the character of Judge Holden had previously not been discussed as a representation of the law).
Dorson’s subsequent engagement with The Border Trilogy (All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing and Cities of the Plains) continues with the practice of careful close reading successfully implemented in the previous section. The overarching thesis of this analytical section is that the trilogy “seeks to recuperate narrative meaning from the epistemological ashes of [Blood Meridian]” (270). In Dorson’s readings, the three novels not only indicate a focal shift in McCarthy’s writings “from national mythology […] to structures and institutions” (261), but also ground “their readers in the absolute of global capitalism” (265). The analysis therefore advocates an understanding of The Border Trilogy as socially and politically invested texts that move beyond the allegorical deconstruction of American mythologies by providing “a counternarrative to the American romance with capitalism” (266).
In its entirety, James Dorson’s Counternarrative Possibilities develops two absorbing argumentative strands: An extremely informed and informative examination of the politics of criticism as well as the criticism of politics that have shaped American Studies since the second half of the twentieth century; and a well-argued re-examination of McCarthy’s western novels in light of recent political and cultural developments in the United States. While the study could have profited from a more explicit and explicating case for the connection between these two approaches, Counternarrative Possibilities nevertheless provides the reader with an impressive array of insights, ideas, and positions which undoubtably invite and encourage further debate.
Jan D. Kucharzewski (Osnabrück)