Friday, January 7, 2011

Blood Meridian

I promised this blog would be about lots of things, so I'm going to get off the heavier topics and talk about something entirely unrelated, Cormac McCarthy's insanely brilliant novel, Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West. This isn't a new novel, it was published in 1985, but I read it for the first time a few months ago, and it might be the most carefully and brilliantly written piece of literature I have read since Joyce's Ulysses. It is a dark, fatalistic and, if were more inclined to religious belief, terrifying portrayal of judgment on the sins of man.

Like all of McCarthy (or at least what I have read) it is concerned primarily with sin, violence, death and judgment. I read a quote of McCarthy's once (which I can't find now) where he said something to the effect of, "If you're not writing about matters of life and death I don't know why you'd bother. Proust and stuff like that, I just don't get." (I don't happen to agree with him, as I think that giving equal weight to the last moments of life as is given to all the moments that precede them is not  particularly useful.) The quote, however, gives you a sense of his focus.

A recent viewing of The Road, based on another excellent novel of his, got me thinking about this quote again, since the only significant way in which the film deviates from the novel is in the marginally increased role they give the sole female character. This is partially the result of the demands of Hollywood economics, as it allowed them to give in the trailer the impression that the not unattractive Charlize Theron has a larger role in the film than she actually does. Thinking over the three pieces of McCarthy's I've read over the last year;  The Road, No Country for Old Men and Blood Meridian, (two of which have been made into movies) I realized that women play almost no role in any of these stories. Theron's character in the film is even more despicable (she abandons, through suicide, her son and husband after a nuclear apocalypse) than I recall the portrayal in the book, but it may just be the outstanding way she played the character in the film. No Country is the only one of the three that has an even somewhat sympathetic female character, the sweet, but background, wife of the sheriff. It seems to me, in his... I hesitate to use the word, obsession with death, McCarthy seems to have lost the ability to understand, or at least portray, the female of the species. Without sounding too much like a undergraduate thesis, women, as the half of the species that produce new life, nourish it and care for it, have no place in McCarthy's world of men, instruments of death whose role is too hunt, murder and make war.

But I digress, as all great writers have their faults (Proust devoted several thousand pages in Remembrance of Things Past exclusively to trying to understand a mere three women and failed utterly). The brilliance of McCarthy's work lies, like with all great writers, in his ability to say things we all know in a novel way, such as this description of the relationship between the abandoned father and son in The Road, "Each the others world entire." Or, in the even rarer case, to say something in a way so profoundly new that you aren't sure if you understood that subject at all before you read his lines, such as here, a much grimmer take on the father-son relationship:

"... the judge raised both hands for silence. Wait now, he said. For there's a rider to the tale. There was a young bride waiting for that traveler with whose bones we are acquainted and she bore in her womb a son who was the traveler's son. Now this son whose father's existence in this world is historical and speculative even before the son has entered it is in a bad way. All this life he carries before him the idol of perfection to which he can never attain. The father dead has euchred the son out of his patrimony. For it is the death of the father to which the son is entitled and to which he is heir, more so than his goods. He will not hear of the small mean ways that tempered the man in life. He will not see him struggling in follies of his own devising. No. The world which he inherits bears him false witness. He is broken before a frozen god and he will never find his way." -Blood Meridian

A classic trope; the son who is unable to live up to the greatness of his father's example, but the twist of the knife is the father's death before the son's birth, robbing the son of his right to see his father's faults, forever leaving him to struggle towards the unreachable goal of manly perfection. In the tragedy of the posthumous birth McCarthy chooses to focus on the one thing a first thought would expect the boy to miss least, his father's faults, and illustrates how that will in fact be the thing which will haunt him most.The brilliance of the insight, combined with the unique twists of language, is the reason McCarthy is likely the greatest living writer in English.

As for the rest of the book, (if all of this cheeriness has convinced you to read it) is the tale of the Kid, a young man who signs on with a rogue ex-Civil War outfit who prowl the plains of the southwest hunting and butchering Apaches for the ransom on their scalps. The scenes of the most brutal rape and murder are rendered in McCarthy's unforgiving prose. Along the way, the outfit is joined by the Judge, who is at the same time god and the devil, a satyr and man's desire to dominate and possess all life on earth, and who is the final arbiter of the sins of the outfit, and by extension, the sins of all mankind. It is not a happy book.

That said, it demonstrates a greater command of the English language than any work I have read outside of Joyce, Henry Miller, Faulkner and Shakespeare. Despite the fact that  I disagree almost entirely with his world view, McCarthy is truly a master of the art.


  1. Uber. I just started listening to The Road on CD. I stopped due to the amazing A short history of Nearly Everything but will get back to it soon.

  2. Yeah, The Road is good. That was actually the first McCarthy I read, and then No Country and Blood Meridian. It wasn't until I got to Blood Meridian that I started to really see what all the fuss was about. In the past couple decades he's gotten sparser and even starker, which wouldn't have seemed possible... the musings of a man pushing 80.

  3. I think the profundity of the judge's parable goes beyond the obvious, as he relates it to the 'aboriginals' who find themselves ignorant of their antecedents, in whose ruins the Glanton gang has camped. After he tells the tale, he alludes to the connection: that the apaches they are hunting themselves worship these obviously superior builders who made an empire, even as the indians they hunt do not know of these peoples because they are long dead. I agree, however, that his is a view I don't share, though stylistically this book will ruin you for most everything else, affect or no.