Cormac McCarthy, one of the most extraordinary prose writers of our time, spends his days in an office at the Santa Fe Institute, where he types his novels on an Olivetti. As The Chronicle of Higher Education reports, his involvement at the scientific research institute has deepened: McCarthy copy-edited one of his colleagues’ books. “He made me promise he could excise all exclamation points and semicolons, both of which he said have no place in literature,” says Lawrence M. Krauss, whose 2011 book Quantum Man, a biography of Richard Feynman, got the McCarthy treatment.
I started thinking about the equally extraordinary Richard Feynman and his memoir, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, whose title would suffer at least one obvious chop if McCarthy got his hands on it. McCarthy loves dialogue without much attribution or explanation, and his furious-yet-controlled prose—"He was sat before the fire naked save for his breeches and his hands rested palm down upon his knees"—as well as his propensity for extraordinary violence are a far cry from Feynman's excitable, jocular tone: "He didn't know I didn't know, and I didn't know what he said, and he didn't know what I said. But it was OK! It was great! It works!"
ALL THE PRETTY DISBELIEVERS
OR THE EVENING MERRIMENT IN MR. FEYNMAN'S QUARTERS
1. The Child Fixes Radios by Thinking.
See the child. He is eleven or twelve, he sets up a lab in the house. It is nothing more than a wooden packing box into which he has set shelves, and he has a heater wherein he stokes hogfat and cooks french-fried potatoes day upon day. He also possesses a storage battery and a lamp bank.
The lamp bank he builds with sockets he screws down to a wooden base. When the bulbs were in series, all half-lit, they would glow. Sublime, splendid.
He lights up the bulbs and drives burnished iridescent daggers into the naysayers who come upon his lamp bank. The dead lie by the lamp bank in a great pool of their communal blood. It has set up into a sort of pudding crisscrossed with wires from the storage battery. It has seeped into the floorboards and in between the grooves of the child’s boots. The child surveys the blood and the room and the long slow land around him.
This is great, says the child, and it’s a seller’s market and those lamp banks are only the beginning. Now it’s time to try my hand at radios. He sheathes his dagger bloodred and silvery and walks into the world and is black in the low-set sun, the shadow of evil stretching ever onward behind him.
It was okay, he foams. It was great. It works.
Image: wwnorton.com (sepia effect added)