Lugubrious and Repetitive

Reviewing Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men in today’s New York Times, reviewer Michiko Kakutani laments that the novel’s “lugubrious passages…gain ascendency as the book progresses.”

And Kakutani knows from ascendant lugubriousness. Six days earlier, the Pulitzer-winning critic labeled John Irving’s latest work, Until I Find You, “bloated and lugubrious.” Media Mob reader Peter Van Allen writes in to point out the recurring pattern: Besides McCarthy and Irving, Kakutani has applied the “lugubrious” label to Graham Swift, Don DeLillo, Mark Helprin, J.M. Coetzee and many more.

“Who will point out to Kakutani that she’s overused ‘lugubrious’?” Van Allen writes.

Consider it done. A quick search turns up 41 instances of “lugubrious,” “lugubriously,” or “lugubriousness” in Kakutani’s work–about two a year, on average. At her peak, in 1998, she was using it approximately every two months. Other targets of the term have included Philip Roth, A.S. Byatt, Zola and John Kerry.

Her favorite victim appears to be Tim O’Brien. In 1994, criticizing his Lake of the Woods, Kakutani declared that it “it devolves into a painful collection of portentous clichés reminiscent of his lugubrious 1985 novel, The Nuclear Age.” Four years later, she declared that the narrator of O’Brien’s Tomcat in Love was “reminiscent of the tedious, long-winded hero of Mr. O’Brien’s lugubrious 1985 novel The Nuclear Age.” Four more years, and it was Mr. O’Brien’s July, July claiming its own “lugubrious.”

It’s not Kakutani’s only lexical rut–nor even her first in the L’s. In a widely read 2002 New York magazine piece, Matt Gross noted her overreliance on “limn.”

Kakutani also describes those “lugubrious” McCarthy passages as “reminiscent of the most pretentious sections of earlier McCarthy novels.” That’s the third time she’s called something “pretentious” since June 14.

–Gabriel Sherman