On Vladimir Nabokov’s Laughter in the Dark and Cormac McCarthy’s The Orchard Keeper
I spent much of my childhood using rotting apples to knock unripe apples from the trees in my grandmother’s backyard. My cousins and I—sixteen of us, in all—would surround that trio of gray-barked ancients, bare-chested, redolent of grass clippings and chlorine. Our shots were full of undirected vitriol and prepubescent purpose. Only rarely would we succeed in grounding an unripe specimen. For the most part, our worm-pocked specimens sailed wide, arcing into a blue I remember being bluer than it was. Childhood, if one is fortunate, is defined by the most hopeless sort of hope. I remember mine both fondly and with the most awful, unmitigated sort of ache.
Cormac McCarthy’s The Orchard Keeper, the second work I read this week, is a novel about preservation. The town in which it all takes place—the fictional Red Branch, a small Appalachian town in Tennessee—is dying. By the end of the novel, it is dead. In the pages in-between, a bootlegger strangles to death a homicidal hitchhiker, storing his corpse in a pit. The son of this corpse seeks revenge, only to find himself under the tutelage of his father’s killer. The owner of the acres upon which this all takes place conceals the evidence of this crime, forestalling justice—so-called justice, at least—until years later. By the time he is brought in, Red Branch is, for all intents and purposes, no more. They catch Arthur Ownby at a general store, obtaining supplies for a farm now razed. They put to rest the memory of what Red Branch was, what their town might have been. Ownby’s apples are left to rot.
Of the McCarthy novels I’ve read, The Orchard Keeper is probably my least favorite. It’s not owing to any poetic deficiency on its author’s behalf, though. Even in this, the first of his published novels, he’s at home in the Faulkner-esque myth-making he’ll perfect in later entries in his oeuvre. From “phantom dogs lamenting their own demise” to a “dog still standing there like some atavistic symbol or brute herald of all questions ever pressed upon humanity,” his world is one he imbues, word for word, with an apocalyptic significance unmatched by any other writer—and that’s including Faulkner. Instead, the thing that makes The Orchard Keeper pale in comparison to his later works is its engine, which simply lacks the horsepower (pun intended) of a story like Blood Meridian, or even The Road. Keeping something alive is a desperate act, but it’s also a quiet one. Making something live—giving something life—is something else.
By contrast, the first novel I read this week, Nabokov’s Laughter in the Dark, is a story of self-destruction. Albinus is a happily-married, middle-aged father; Margot is the young, aspiring actress with whom he falls in love. After leaving his wife, Albinus plunges ever deeper into despair. His daughter dies; his wife leaves him; Margot falls in love with a twenty-something cartoonist named Axel, Albinus’s diametric opposite. In the end, he is blinded, whereupon the novel’s irony reaches its peak. A cinematographer, a man uniquely attuned to the visible, he is cast into a purgatorial dark, tortured by the overheard dalliances of Margot and her younger lover. Every choice he’s made has led him farther from comfort, closer to annihilation. And still he makes these choices. Still he goes on, deeper and deeper into the pit he himself has dug. Margot herself calls him “a liar, a coward, and a fool”—and it’s called for. He is. And it’s a testament to Nabokov’s writing that we root for him nevertheless.
One type of novel—one that centers upon self-destruction, one upon preservation—is not inherently better than the other. But I know which kind of novel I’d like to write. I think we live at a time in which doom is everywhere, and still we choose to create it for ourselves. I think the world is ending, and still we seek to manufacture our own destruction. McCarthy’s first novel is about holding on; Nabokov’s precursor to his more (in)famous Lolita is about letting go. Or, more strongly: it’s about climbing to the top of a cliff at night. And then closing your eyes. And then taking a step, and waiting for the air to catch you. Or for someone to be waiting at the bottom, their arms outstretched.