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.”
His title references a famous eureka moment in the history of science: after years of thought and research, the nineteenth-century German chemist August Kekulé claimed that he hit upon the ring-like structure of the benzene molecule after he dreamed of a snake eating its own tail. McCarthy calls this “the Kekulé Problem” because it’s unclear why the unconscious supplied a non-linguistic solution to the puzzle of the molecule’s configuration. Since the unconscious would have to understand language to grasp the problem in the first place, why wouldn’t it furnish a solution in the same medium? McCarthy generalizes the quandary, asking, “Why is the unconscious so loathe to speak to us? Why the images, metaphors, pictures? Why the dreams, for that matter.”


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