Monday, 10 September 2012

Books: Why Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian is one of the most over-rated books of the 20th Century

Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian is one of those books that I have been aware of for years: it always seems to crop up on those “bestest ever books in the world ever” lists that every magazine and newspaper in the world seems to do these days. I quite liked McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, and The Road is a perfect tale of post-apocalyptic desperation, with just enough warmth and hope to keep you hooked. This book failed to keep me hooked, and at about the half-way mark it felt like a slow trudging trawl through thick mud.

Blood Meridian is an epic Western set in the mid-1800s in the American south and Mexico. The narrative follows “the kid”, a brutally violent teenage boy who commits murderous acts without flinching. Though he is the protagonist of the story, we learn very little of “the Kid’s” previous life before we join him meandering from one murderous gang of scalp-hunters to the next. We know that his mother died in childbirth and that his father lives in Texas. We only get to know “the kid” through his actions: we never have access to his thoughts or feelings. It’s difficult to call “the kid” a protagonist. Although I think he’s meant to be, he comes across as such a complete and utter dick that there is no possible way that anyone apart from the most ardent of sociopaths could possibly relate to him. This might explain why Blood Meridian was such a trial to read: the narrative is essentially that of the traditional ‘hero’s journey’, only Blood Meridian has no hero: it is simply the epic journey of a dick.

Perhaps the most interesting character in the story is Judge Holden, referred to throughout the novel as simply “the judge”. He is the only character in the novel that is well-educated. He often preaches about Gnostic notions of fatalism, and believes that through careful cataloguing and observation it is possible not only to understand the world, but also to conquer it. He is a strange character because he seems at points to be an incredibly sensitive character: he draws; he meditates; he considers the big questions in life. But, “the Judge”, like “the Kid”, has a penchant for murder and brutality. It is not mindless however, as he has thought deeply about the nature of violence, believing that man’s natural state is that of war.

I felt that in writing Blood Meridian, McCarthy revelled in creating needlessly violent and disturbing imagery – at first this was quite shocking, but when every other road was lined with the skulls of dead babies; or the rotting corpses of dead babies; or had babies hanging from trees, or having their heads smashed in during one of the novel’s many massacres, it got a bit tiresome. When another man had his eyes gouged out; was decapitated; impaled; scalped; bludgeoned with a medieval mace; stabbed in the eye with a beer bottle; or beaten beyond recognition, the descriptions were so graphic and gratuitous that they verged on the pornographic. It felt as though McCarthy tried so desperately to create disturbing and shocking images that it quickly became puerile and adolescent. It reminded me of one of those insanely violent videogames that are just so silly in their violence that it is impossible to find it truly shocking. Used sparingly, these images of extreme inhumanity could have been incredibly poignant and moving, but instead they are normalised within the novel and lose their impact quite quickly.

As well as being stupidly violent, Blood Meridian was sickeningly macho. Every character was a man’s man: violent cowboys who liked to fight and drink and ride around on horses. It seemed that every single time one of them spoke, they would have to spit and wipe their mouth, usually before, during and after each segment of dialogue. To keep myself entertained, I kept trying guess how long it would be before someone spat and wiped their mouth – it happened surprising frequently.

I think what annoyed me more than anything else in this book was the sheer effort that it took to read some of McCarthy’s sentences. I’ve read some pretty challenging stuff in my time, but sentences like this just took the piss:

“A legion of horribles, hundreds in number, half naked or clad in costumes attic or biblical or wardrobed out of a fevered dream with the skins of animals and silk finery and pieces of uniform still tracked with the blood of prior owners, coats of slain dragoons, frogged and braided cavalry jackets, one in a stovepipe hat and one with an umbrella and one in white stockings and a bloodstained weddingveil and some in headgear of cranefeathers or rawhide helmets that bore the horns of bull or buffalo and one in a pigeontailed coat worn backwards and otherwise naked and one in the armor of a spanish conquistador, the breastplate and pauldrons deeply dented with old blows of mace or saber done in another country by men whose very bones were dust and many with their braids spliced up with the hair of other beasts until they trailed upon the ground and their horses’ ears and tails worked with bits of brightly colored cloth and one whose horse’s whole head was painted crimson red and all the horsemen’s faces gaudy and grotesque with daubings like a company of mounted clowns, death hilarious, all howling in a barbarous tongue and riding down upon them like a horde from a hell more horrible yet than the brimstone land of Christian reckoning, screeching and yammering and clothed in smoke like those vaporous beings in regions beyond right knowing where the eye wanders and the lip jerks and drools.”

And breathe.

I love cumulative syntax if done properly, but 245 words is unnecessarily long for a sentence. It may make grammatical sense, and it may conjure up some interesting imagery, but is it well-written, was it necessary, did it add to the story? The answer, for me at least, is a resounding no. I wish that this was the only example of an unnecessarily long exercise in creative writing, but the book is littered with descriptions like this on every other page. It gets quite trying, and is quickly rendered redundant by its own pomposity. It is almost as though McCarthy is desperately screaming to his readers: “this is literature!”

Perhaps I’m being unfair to Blood Meridian, and I’m sure people will tell me that I didn’t get it, or that it should be read metaphorically. Indeed, the one element of the novel that I found intriguing was the landscape itself: meticulously crafted, and always pointing towards some prophetic fallacy. McCarthy’s ability to evoke an all-encompassing sense of bleakness and hopelessness come to the fore when writing about the world that surround his characters: this was true in No Country for Old Men, and was the main feature of The Road. In Blood Meridian he writes of a landscape "whose true geology was not stone but fear. The thunder moved up from the southwest and lightning lit the desert all about them, blue and barren, great clanging reaches ordered out of the absolute night like some demon kingdom summoned up or changeling land that come the day would leave them neither trace nor smoke nor ruin more than any troubling dream." I might not have enjoyed how McCarthy told the story, but I certainly enjoyed his landscapes.

This article was published with the (editorialised) title 'Why Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian Is The Most Overrated Novel Of The 20th Century' on Sabotage Times.

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