Over the past weeks, I’ve been wallowing in a trough of poor fiction. You know how it goes. You get stuck reading a book (or five) that you feel you must finish, but — past the point of no return, which is about half way through for me — the book becomes more effort than entertainment. I get terribly worried during such periods. I find myself listening to podcasts over breakfast instead of reading, and then I wonder if I’ll ever find a captivating book again. Well, I’ve kept myself going through this latest pall by the thought that, on the table next to my bed, is a copy of No Country for Old Men, by Cormac McCarthy. Having trudged through a couple of so-so books, I’ve now devoured my reward.
In case you haven’t heard of him, McCarthy is a ‘recluse’. (This is a word used by the media to describe a person who won’t come out to play when they ring the doorbell.) He’s a southern American writer in his early seventies, and if I had to name the ten best writers I’ve read, McCarthy would be included. His style is bizarrely similar to Hemingway and Faulkner (I say ‘bizarrely’ because Faulkner and Hemingway are almost polar opposites in their styles; as they used to tell each other, rather bitchily).
Anyway, I didn’t write this post to sing McCarthy’s praises, because there are enough people doing that. I wanted to share with you that feeling of ‘pseudo-plagiarism’. If plagiarism is the appropriation of another’s work without permission or derivation, pseudo-plagiarism is when one of your own ideas (that you’ve come up with independently) appears, by coincidence, in another’s work. It’s a bit like the eye, which has evolved not just once but several times, in a number of unrelated species. (As an aside, I always snigger a little when I read that believers in Intelligent Design cite the eye as an example of a mechanism so perfect that it could not have evolved; in fact, the eye has a number of features that suggests its designer screwed up, one of which being the placement of blood vessels between light and light receptors on the retina.)
…Anyway, the villain in McCarthy’s novel is a psychopath. In my novel, Flashback, the killer is a psychopath. So far so ordinary. But McCarthy’s villain is given to spouting monologues on the nature of chance before he kills his victims. Er, so does mine. McCarthy’s villain offers freedom to a victim if the victim can correctly judge the outcome of a coin toss. Check, mine too. McCarthy’s villain is constantly referred to as a ghost. My villain’s codename is Ghost. Both villains are southern American. OK, so the overlap isn’t total, but it was shock to read the coin-tossing scene after I’d noted the earlier similarities.
Could this mean that my book will be as good as No Country for Old Men? I doubt it. NCFOM is a work of genius. McCarthy has clearly been hanging around a crossroads at midnght, waiting for the Devil.
Hell, I might do the same.