Jackson Foshay is a teacher, writer, and generally excellent dude. In fact, Matt spends a lot of time trying not to think about the ways that Jackson out-mans him. Jackson is 24, and he grew up on a ranch – probably wrangling cattle – in Central California. At UCLA, he wrote short fiction and performed in a rap group called Infinite Influence. They once performed a neighborhood show backed by a full instrumental band, and that shit got shut down by the cops. Checkmate.
Jackson and I were talking tonight about Cormac McCarthy and Thom Jones, two of the most consistently dark writers out there. These guys find the depths of human misery and set up shop. I was complaining about that a bit – that sometimes, it feels like they’ve got a thumb on the scales, that they refuse to allow anything good to happen. (Jones especially – I loved some of the stories in The Pugilist at Rest, Cold Snap, and Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine, but my god does he beat the shit out of his characters.) Anyway, Jackson had a really interesting response; I’ll let him share it.
When we were having this conversation, I started to feel self-concious of my love of McCarthy, the way he sucks you down into the arcane and labrynthine mire of human struggle. I was nearing the tail end of Suttree, a story of a fisherman in Knoxville, Tennessee who undergoes a brutal series of vagaries. Every spark of hope is met with a disproportionately crushing doom: a mudslide buries the love interest, the plucky vagrant ends up back in jail, and everyone dies alone and destitute. I finished the book last week feeling quite drained.
But I’m sure I’ll be back to McCarthy soon enough. His power lies in his language. Even though McCarthy’s stories can be relentlessly cruel, the writing itself expresses a deep belief in the power of words. His books, especially the stellar Blood Meridian, can certainly leave me feeling all types of dark and moody, but the depth and quality of expression leave me inspired just as often. The redemption in his writing isn’t found in the character arc or plot, but instead in the profoundly beautiful prose.
It’s not just about the display of technical skill. That is moving in its own right, but McCarthy (and his long line of precedents, from Dostoevsky to Goya to Poe) imbues me with a sense that if he can capture the darkness powerfully enough, face the abyss and wrangle it onto the page (or canvas, then he will have done enough. It’s not like we will ever be free of our evils and demons. But to face them fully, and not shy away, takes a certain bravery that will always draw me back to such art. It confirms my belief in the power of the written word.
What are your thoughts on this?
Love it! And I agree – there’s something about seeing darkness depicted skillfully that can make it feel…well, lighter.
I think I have a similar take on McCarthy, too. For most of us, life isn’t as unrelentingly hellish as he makes out. But it can be pretty damn rough, and McCarthy’s fictional netherworlds remind me that there’s nothing shameful or unusual about my suffering. It’s just part of the whole deal, however much I try to pretend that it needn’t be.
I’ve noticed something else about reading McCarthy, too: when I shadow his characters through their ordeals, I don’t feel the need to pretend. They’re navigating painful journeys as best they can, and in a very real sense, I’m right there with them. They’re modeling courage, pluck, resilience, whatever – and somehow, I feel enlarged and ennobled.
I think there is a certain relief to seeing pain and depravity unadorned without any attempts to reason it away. It reminds me of the type of laugh people have when I jokingly reveal an unattractive part of myself. This laugh never struck me as condescending or pitiful, but rather grateful to have another person down in the pit, mucking about. In our time, rife as it is with the preachings of the church of self-improvement (which spreads its word not in pamphlets or bound books, but in lacy-fonted, center-aligned Instagram quotes, the new chief format for narcissistic natterings), our desire to constantly better ourselves only deepens guilt over personal fault and weakness. It’s bad enough to feel like shit, why should we feel like shit for feeling like shit? Literature like McCarthy’s can be away to escape this bleak spiral.
To go back to Suttree, I have to note the gratitude I felt when encountering a current of genuine humor running throughout the novel. Moreso than any of his other books that I’ve read. One of the main characters, Gene Harrogate, a hapless, gangly, criminal trickster, is introduced to us right after his arrest for breaking into a farmer’s garden and screwing the watermelons. Literally. For the rest of the story, McCarthy takes it as a personal challenge to find the most elaborate way to describe Harrogate as a bona-fide melon fucker. It’s a hoot.
Do you find that you seek out different emotional experiences in different mediums? For example, I tend to listen to upbeat and energetic music, while with literature I’m drawn to the dire and dismal. Is there something about the nature of literature, in its form, conventions, limitations, that suits darker themes?
Harrogate sounds awesome. Reminds me of Portnoy, fucking his family’s dinner.
I don’t listen to much music, but it doesn’t have much to do with mood or theme – it’s much more about a distinction between active and passive experience. Basically, reading lets me control the tempo; if I’m bored, or if I think the author is drifting into pretense (or nonsense), my eyes can skim ahead to something that’s more engaging. With music, the tools for adjusting my experience are much more blunt; you can’t listen while you’re fast-forwarding.
Your reading is much more mood- or theme-dependent, it seems. Why do you think that is?
The distinction for me lies between exterior and interior, rather than active and passive. Music, even when I’m listening on my own, is an essentially social art form. It’s based on the collaboration of different people and styles, created to generate interaction: dancing, talking, singing. Engaging and music brings out my social behaviors, desires for acceptance, humor, agreement, celebration, and energy. When I listen, I am of the people. And as it always does in social situations, my interior, couched alongside solitude and doubt, withdraws.
Reading, devoid of any social expectations or demands, gives the quietude necessary to drawing out my interior self, which goes too often shunned. So when I go to read, I can let the constrained anxieties and broodings out to breathe. Perhaps that’s why I look for books that will mirror those elements.
Given just how many of the great works of literature are so dire in theme and content, I suspect that the chance to solicit the unvoiced darkness is an opportunity that both writers and readers relish. But, as great writers have so often demonstrated, exploring this darkness isn’t as baleful as it may seem. In the right hands, it can be genuinely nourishing.