This past week, the novelist Cormac McCarthy published the first nonfiction piece of his career, a three-thousand-word essay titled “The Kekulé Problem,” in the popular science magazine Nautilus. It is studded with suggestive details about the anatomy of the human larynx, what happens to dolphins under anesthesia, and the origins of the click sounds in Khoisan languages, all marshalled to illuminate aspects of a profound pair of questions: Why did human language originate, and how is it related to the unconscious mind?
Five years ago, I interviewed McCarthy for Newsweek at the Santa Fe Institute, a theoretical-research center where he is a trustee and has spent a considerable portion of the last two decades. The institute is devoted to understanding the fundamental principles of complex systems at a variety of scales, from cell biology to human societies. McCarthy’s essay emerged from conversations with its current president, David Krakauer, a computational biologist, and from exchanges with many others colleagues and scientists there over the years. Our conversation took place in its library, where we were surrounded by nearly eight thousand books with titles like “Applied Chaos Theory” and “A History of Algorithms.” These sorts of subjects, and the scientists who study them, have long interested McCarthy more than anything happening in contemporary fiction. When I asked him why he never reads new novels, he looked as if I wanted to know why someone would not drink from a pool of muddy water. “They’re not readable,” he said.
McCarthy’s nonfiction, to judge from our only example, is recognizably his, with folksy locutions and no-nonsense sentence fragments and even, at points, the vaguely biblical grandiloquence of his earlier novels: “The simple understanding that one thing can be another is at the root of all things of our doing,” he writes. Language, he says, “crossed mountains and oceans as if they weren’t there.”
Read more at The New Yorker.