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Blood Meridian (original 1985; edition 2022)
by Cormac McCarthy
Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy (Author) (1985)
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The set-up is simple- The “Kid” is fourteen, when he flees Tennessee, hops a flatboat down the Mississippi and ends up in Texas. He soon hooks up with a group of ruthless, scalp-hunters and from then on, nothing is simple anymore, just a steady diet of bloody carnage. A razor-sharp indictment of Manifest Destiny. I could have shared many more quotes from this apocalyptic western tale but I felt a taste was enough. McCarthy’s prose is jaw-dropping and his vocabulary is dazzling, which is probably the only reason certain readers may continue this violent narrative. This was a reread for me and I got so much more out of it, this time around. I also think the “Judge” is one of the best and most memorable villains in literature. A masterpiece.
I wanted to read a Western. I should have spat at the ground and rode on. There was nothing to see here but a vast desert of nihilism, confusion and revulsion. Ugly wasted of time.
The characters in this novel spend a great deal of time traveling through a barren wasteland. I felt like I was traveling with them. Not because I was immersed, but because my barren wasteland was the book.
So there's no plot to speak of: fine, this is supposed to be capital-L Literature. But there are also no real characters... except The Judge, who you will think is brilliant if you've never met some college kid who overdosed on Nietzsche.
Here's Nietzsche saying it all:
So what does this glorious prose revolve around, if not plot or characters?
One: descriptions of barren wasteland. A few of these—a few—were almost enough to sell me on the brilliance of the whole work. But halfway in I started wondering why I didn't just open an encyclopedia to "flora/fauna" and get right to it. McCarthy's strolling through Texas to prepare for this: "and the man passed by catclaw and the man traveled by blackbrush and whitebrush and the man walked by guajillo and the man walked past huisache." I'd add "and the man planned to write words like catclaw and guajillo and huisache around a billion times in his next novel" but to mention people have intentions before they've gone out and Enacted Them Like Men™ would already be too much "interiority" for the style here.
Two: violence. Now, my complaint is not that it was too much. I watched Martyrs (2008) in a dark room alone and went to sleep after. My complaint is that even with
If the game is to just blandly state fucked up things with little insight or elaboration, it's not that difficult: boom,
Are you shocked or bored?
If you love the tone that the book starts with, the rest of the book sure is full of sentences that carry on that tone. That seems to be the bulk of the 'achievement.' I don't find the lack of punctuation "pretentious" or particularly hard to follow. I think it works, but I find myself laughing at demonstrations like this showing it can artificially make anything seem fake-deep:
Monica said, Oh my god, Chandler. I can’t believe it.
Chandler said, I know.
You gave my father a lap dance.
Chandler said, why do they put so much steam in there.
Ross stood up. Because otherwise they’d have to call it the room room.
A few paragraphs were beautiful enough they could almost carry the whole thing. If only there were less wasteland between. Dipping into Faulkner has solidified my opinion that most of what's worth praising here is what was lifted there. And I will admit I'm reactively down-rating because this is the quintessential Reddit recommendation, since barely articulated violence and no attempt at emotional insight is what it takes to make literature "manly" or something.
It's been so weird trying to put my finger on why this landed so flat for me, because I can't quite pin it down, but I know (from many discussions) I'm not the only one that feels the same way. I love "maximalist prose," but in all the ways that count this feels so thin to me. I don't want to be trite and say that it takes more to create a maximalist prose style than leaving out commas and writing "(sentence clause) and (clause) and (clause) and (clause) and (clause)," but it does feel like that when I skim paragraphs like these: "The horse screamed and reared and the Apache struggled to keep his seat and drew his sword and found himself staring into the black lemniscate that was the paired bores of Glanton’s doublerifle . . . The Apache wrenched his pony’s head around and when Glanton spun to look at his men he found them frozen in deadlock with the savages, they and their arms wired into a construction taut and fragile as those puzzles wherein the placement of each piece is predicated upon every other and they in turn so that none can move for bringing down the structure entire . . .
He steadied the animal’s head to show it but it jerked loose and slung the broken ear about so that blood sprayed the riders. Horseblood or any blood a tremor ran that perilous architecture and the ponies stood rigid and quivering in the reddened sunrise and the desert under them hummed like a snaredrum. The tensile properties of this unratified truce were abused to the utmost of their enduring when the judge stood slightly in the saddle and raised his arm and spoke out a greeting beyond them."
There's an example of the tedium here that didn't work for me. Here's an example of the kind of writing that did:
"They caught up [on sleep] and set out each day in the dark before the day yet was and they ate cold meat and biscuit and made no fire. The sun rose on a column already ragged these six days out. Among their clothes there was small agreement and among their hats less. The little painted horses stepped shifty and truculent and a vicious snarl of flies fought constantly in the bed of the gamewagon. The dust the party raised was quickly dispersed and lost in the immensity of that landscape and there was no dust other for the pale sutler who pursued them drives unseen and his lean horse and his lean cart leave no track upon such ground or any ground. By a thousand fires in the iron blue dusk he keeps his commissary and he's a wry and grinning tradesman good to follow every campaign or hound men from their holes in just those whited regions where they've gone to hide from God.
They rode on and the sun in the east flushed pale streaks of light and then a deeper run of color like blood seeping up in sudden reaches flaring planewise and where the earth drained up into the sky at the edge of creation the top of the sun rose out of nothing like the head of a great red phallus until it cleared the unseen rim and sat squat and pulsing and malevolent behind them. The shadows of the smallest stones lay like pencil lines across the sand and the shapes of the men and their mounts advanced elongate before them like strands of the night from which they’d ridden, like tentacles to bind them to the darkness yet to come.”
I just didn't find enough of the latter here to make up for the former. When everything is written in the same epic, Biblical dramatic tone, whether it's dead babies on trees or a horse getting a mosquito bite, it lessens the impact of reading the book compared to catching an admittedly brilliant excerpt like this one.
This latest book is his most important, for it puts in perspective the Faulknerian language and unprovoked violence running through the previous works, which were often viewed as exercises in style or studies of evil. ''Blood Meridian'' makes it clear that all along Mr. McCarthy has asked us to witness evil not in order to understand it but to affirm its inexplicable reality; his elaborate language invents a world hinged between the real and surreal, jolting us out of complacency.
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Wikipedia in English (3)
Based on incidents that took place in the southwestern United States and Mexico around 1850, this novel chronicles the crimes of a band of desperados, with a particular focus on one, "the kid," a boy of fourteen.
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Melvil Decimal System (DDC)813.54 — Literature English (North America) American fiction 20th Century 1945-1999
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An edition of this book was published by Recorded Books.
I am learning not to conflate "must read" with "will enjoy" with books on the 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list. After finishing Blood Meridian, I read several reviews and watched a two-part MOOC from Yale discussing what a great book this was. Maybe that is true, in the same way it's true of The Sound and the Fury. Maybe not all great books are accessible to all readers. Interesting perhaps, but great only in the eyes of editors and English professors. The Yale video contained a comment I found to be true, that some readers found the persistent violence in this book boring. It wasn't the violence which bored me, it was the monotonous descriptions of riding through the wasteland of northern Mexico.
Blood Meridian is the story of a boy known only as "the kid" who runs away from home at fourteen and falls in with a marauding gang of men killing Indians for money in the mid-1800s. Although the kid meets many memorable characters and participates in unforgettable scenes, the novel lacks a plot worth elaborating or a discernible theme. Likely this is deliberate, and I appreciate the way McCarthy uses language and style to confound the reader as to what the novel is about. But I want to feel - after reading a book - that what happened made sense, that the outcome is justified, whether deserved or not. Blood Meridian fails to even present a clear outcome. The reader is left to infer what happened in the final scene, and also to grasp for a meaning. If that was McCarthy's intention, he has done a masterful job in the same way that Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" is a triumph of technique. If you include McCarthy on your reading list, I recommend reading All the Pretty Horses. Save this one for an academic setting where the goal is analysis, not enjoyment. ( )