Sunday, April 17, 2011

Book Review -- BLOOD MERIDIAN, OR THE EVENING REDNESS IN THE WEST by Cormac McCarthy

I've been wanting to review this novel for months, but haven't been able to get quite around to it. However, this is a book that screams to be read, and is perhaps one of the greatest novels of the 20th century.

There are a number of other reviews of the novel, one by Goodreads, another by The New Canon, a further one by Bibliolotry, and Harold Bloom analyzed the depth of the work in his How to Read and Why. There is almost too much for me to review here, but I'm going to give it my best try.

Also, I'd suggest one look up Blood Meridian's wikipedia entry, although I'd skip the "Plot Summary" segment as it's full of spoilers. And if one's already read both, there's a fascinating article comparing Blood Meridian and another McCarthy novel, The Road at LibraryThing.

People love to hate this book. Why? It is difficult. Possibly the most difficult book you might ever read, barring Tolstoy or The Bible. Its returns are far from obvious. It has been described as an orgy of violence on an epic scale. The book appears to revel in nihilism on the frontier between the United States and Mexico in the mid-19th century. The language is thorough, thick, and difficult to decipher.

But my God, is it beautiful. I only wish I could write in such a profound manner. I find myself desiring it more and more to revisit specific passages just for the dense eloquence of the prose. McCarthy can describe a scene in such a manner that will startle the astute reader.
What is true of one man, said the judge, is true of many. The people who once lived here are called the Anasazi. The old ones. They quit these parts, routed by drought or disease or by wandering bands of marauders, quit these parts ages since and of them there is no memory. They are rumors and ghosts in this land and they are much revered. The tools, the art, the building- these things stand in judgment on the latter races. Yet there is nothing for them to grapple with. The old ones are gone like phantoms and the savages wander these canyons to the sound of ancient laughter. In their crude huts they crouch in darkness and listen to the fear seeping out of the rock. All progressions from a higher to a lower order are marked by ruins and mystery and a residue of nameless rage. So. Here are the dead fathers. Their spirit is entombed in the stone. It lies upon the land with the same weight and the same ubiquity. For whoever makes a shelter of reeds and hides has joined his spirit to the common destiny of creatures and he will subside back into the primal mud with scarcely a cry. But who builds in stone seeks to alter the structure of the universe and so it was with these masons however primitive their works may seem to us.
This is a fantastic example of how McCarthy can wield the English language like a featherweight scalpel and generate an atmosphere of mysticism and darkness, of times long forgotten and lost. My own copy is dogeared at several points where the prose was so evocative, lovely, and profound that I found myself skipping back to those parts simply to read them again. One particular paragraph, perhaps 3/4 of the way toward the end, the characters contemplate the moon, and describe various theories concerning celestial phenomena. McCarthy does not simply report their words, but summarizes it in an almost mythical language that left my jaw dangling open in amazement.
By and by the judge rose and moved away on some obscure mission and after a while someone asked the expriest if it were true that at one time there had been two moons in the sky and the expriest eyed the false moon above them and said that it may well have been so. But certainly the wise high God in his dismay at the proliferation of lunacy on this earth must have wetted a thumb and leaned down out of the abyss and pinched it hissing into extinction. And could he find some alter means by which the birds could mend their paths in the darkness he might have done with this one too.
An earlier passage involved the character known as Judge Holden vindicating the reputation of a specific "black Jackson," a negroid character, by invoking everything from the Bible to Darwin and even giving hints at postmodern and racial theories to come. McCarthy renders this passage in an incredibly stirring manner, perhaps channeling the spirit of the Judge himself, his charm, eloquence, and genius, through his pen. His command of the English language is beyond description.
That dark vexed face. [The judge] studied it and he drew the sergeant forward the better for him to observe and then he began a laborious introduction in spanish. He sketched for the sergeant a problematic career of the man [the negro, Jackson] before them, his hands drafting with a marvelous dexterity the shapes of what varied paths conspired here in the ultimate authority of the extant--as he told them--like strings drawn together through the eye of a ring. He adduced for their consideration references to the children of Ham, the lost tribes of Israelites, certain passages from the Greek poets, anthropological speculations as to the propogation of the races in their dispersion and isolation through the agency of geological cataclysm and an assessment of racial traits with respect to climatic and geological influences. The sergeant listened to this and more with great attention and when the judge was done he stepped forward and held out his hand.

Jackson ignored him. He looked the judge.

What did you tell him, Holden?
The story follows the career of the Kid, a nameless protagonist who is a cynical stereotype of a Western antihero in the vein of Clint Eastwood's nameless protagonist in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. But instead of being a weakness, it is a strength. The Kid is an empty, vacuous person because he is meant to embody the reader. He is a both spectator and participant in the rampant violence, rapine, brutality, and slaughter that his gang of lawless scalp-hunters engage in.

We don't truly read the book to follow the actions and behavior of the Kid. We find ourselves reading it for one person and one person only: JUDGE HOLDEN. The Kid exists for us to live through vicariously, a mute and helpless witness to the profundity that is the Judge. This is somewhat supported by the use of the second-person at the opening of the book, describing The Kid's origins:
Night of your birth. Thirty-three. The Leonids they were called. God how the stars did fall. I looked for blackness, holes in the heavens. The Dipper stove.
The Judge might be human, but then again he might be something more. The man is a merciless killer, enormous, pale, hairless, a mutant perhaps. And brilliant. Whether or not he is an official judge is not important--the fact that, functionally, he passes judgment and sentence upon everything he comes across is far more significant. In his own words, things in this world exist with his consent. Those that do not, he destroys pitilessly. Life, to him, is cheap. But he is a brilliant man, steeped in all manner of lore, whether scientific, mathematical, historical, theological, or philosophical. But his knowledge makes him an implacable enemy. He is inevitable as the tide--when he has chosen to kill, nothing can stop him. And it might be possible that he is incapable of being killed.

The relationship between the Kid and the Judge is a fascinating one. The Judge is very much aware of the Kid, and as time passes and the Kid gradually comes to reject the brutality of his existence, the Judge and he become antagonists. The Judge exists to both uplift and subjugate those who surround him. He is not the leader of Glanton's gang, and indeed, is more of a vizier or a chaplain. His knowledge and wisdom paradoxically seeks to enlighten his fellow men, while simultaneously his wickedness and cruelty exists only to utilize them as he best sees fit. Though Glanton leads, he serves the Judge's purposes. The Judge embodies the horrific reality of the modern age--he is evidence that knowledge and wisdom do not demand that humanity become merciful and just. The Judge exists in a world where morals and ethics are man-made creations, and he is free to accept or reject them at will. Whether or not other humans consciously exist is not of his concern. From his perspective, he is the center of the universe, just as all of us perceive ourselves as the cosmic navel. The Judge differs from us by embracing that perception consciously, all the while aware that he is truly not the universe's center but caring little, because reality is what he makes it. Nietzschean philosophy and Existentialism coalesce within a character as viciously manipulative as Shakespeare's Iago (from Othello), as aloof and mocking as Edward (from King Lear), as brilliantly perceptive and reflective as Hamlet, and as strangely sympathetic as Milton's Satan (from Paradise Lost). Through Judge Holden, McCarthy has done the impossible--he has created a character that is as dynamic, moving, and indeed terrifying as Shakespeare's greatest.

The violence in the book has been labeled both "gratuitous" and "meaningless." I'd have to disagree. Yes, the book is full of massacre, slaughter, and murder. But it is certainly not meaningless. It is certainly not a plot vehicle, as violence usually becomes in many novels. Violence serves no purpose other than to be violence. But that's where its meaning is revealed. The violence is not symbolic of anything (except perhaps itself), but it is most certainly an integral part of the human condition. Glanton's gang exists in a Hobbesian nightmare world where might makes right and the weak suffer. Glanton's gang are always aware that there might be a stronger group of killers over the next hill. They do not exist in a vacuum. They are brutal and paranoid. One cannot help but imagine periods throughout history, from the Vietnam War to the Crusades and even further back when life might have been just as cheap. Indeed, Mexico is a feudal state throughout the novel, existing in an incredibly primitive and medieval world that is hundreds of years and thousands of miles removed from the "civilized" world of the cities to the north and east. The lawlessness of the frontier, the absence of borders, and the ease with which the strong may crush and ravage the helpless is reminiscent of a reality that we, in our quiet, comfortable, conformist, and consumerist lives are loath to remember existed for most of human existence, and indeed persists up unto this very day in parts of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan, not to mention sub-Saharan Africa. The marauding horsemen that pound over the hills to slaughter the inhabitants of a small town in order to present the scalps to their own Mexican provincial governor (and claim they were Apache) are no different from the Mongol, Cimmerian, Hunnic, or Viking raiders that massacred unarmed noncombatants and warriors alike.

The violence is reality. A reality that people do not like to think about, but they should, and indeed they must. Those who do not appreciate this book for the inexplicable beauty of the language and the graphic horrors of human suffering and cruelty committed and experienced by the characters do not appreciate the comfort and safety in which they live their current bougeois existences.

This is an important book. It is not a celebration of the Mexican, Native American, or U.S. American spirits. It does not paint anyone as suffering from injustice or oppression except the townsfolk, who are often far from innocent themselves. Indeed, everyone is a predator, prey, or a scavenger, on some level, in the socially Darwinian universe that McCarthy crafts so eloquently. This book has no flaws that I could hope to even begin to reveal. If the prose is too dense for the reader, it is no fault of the book, but rather the reader who is not yet capable of reaching the text. If I had attempted to read this book ten years ago, I would never have made it past the third chapter. I had to spend several years reading voraciously and experiencing literature beyond the confines of post-Tolkien fantasy writers. At my current state, I can read the book and even a year later, I cannot help but sit back and ponder its profundity.

One of my close friends in graduate school, and an English Literature student, wrote to me about Blood Meridian. He said:
Blood Meridian is, IMO, the latest in the line of the great American novels, fully a descendant of Moby-Dick, Last of the Mohicans, As I Lay Dying, and Invisible Man. Moreover, it taps into the support/disavowal of colonialism binary that greats like Haggard and Conrad made their careers with. The violence is spectacular and repugnant, the characters loathsome and fascinating; Judge Holden is more creature than man, a concept made reality; in his words, he is the prima donna of a violent dance. He is both the culmination and argument against the logic that painted the Age of Reason, his words chilling to the bone:

The judge placed his hands on the ground. he looked at his inquisitor. This is my claim, he said. And yet everywhere upon it are pockets of autonomous life. Autonomous. In order for it to be mine nothing must be permitted to occur upon it save by my dispensation.

In a sense, he's the Great Scientist and the West is his laboratory.
Fascinating. My friend goes on to say:

Another element of the book that I found particularly satisfying was the tone of the narrative; the prose style is unparalleled but, more than that, there was a cinematic quality that felt like it was lifted straight out of a western film. When McCarthy talks of the Kid's initial traveling out West, you get a sense of great motion, rather Conan-like, where he journeys through strange towns, encountering even stranger people. When McCarthy speaks of the Kid fighting men from many different lands and feeling ill at ease among their strange languages, you get this wonderful sense of exoticism, of the sort of back room activities that you could sense in Casablanca or Raiders of the Lost Ark. Moreover, his descriptions of the landscape and the Glanton gang progress through it serves as a perfect prose companion to the sort of traveling scenes you would see in a Ford or Sergio Leone film.

I know we've talked about English, especially as it relates to Orwellian notions of its usage, and I feel that McCarthy's prose style is definitively American. It's bizarre, long winded, Neo-Biblical, lyrical at times. Absolutely amazing.
Definitively American is absolutely right. The weight of the Biblical is heavy on McCarthy's prose, and hearkens back to the importance of faith to the Puritan settlers and the elevation of the Bible as American legendarium.

McCarthy's done something amazing with this book. It is probably one of the most important pieces of American literature in the 20th century. I daresay, it's better than Crime and Punishment.

Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West by Cormac McCarthy
Style A+
Substance A+
Overall A++

11 comments:

Brian Murphy said...

Wow, okay, you've convinced me that I must read this, and soon.

Actually, my mind was made up as soon as I finished No Country for Old Men. I've read that and The Road, and I agree, no one writes like McCarthy.

Dave Cesarano said...

I never read The Road or No Country, but they're both on my lists. Regardless, I can't compare. All I know is that this book isn't the easiest thing to get through, but my God, is it worth it. The excerpts I've quoted, I've done so because I honestly think they're slices of incredibly beautiful American prose that hearkens back to a slice of American mythopoeic legendarium (to steal a term often used for Tolkien and his illustrious ilk). The West is to the American what King Arthur is to the Briton, and McCarthy really brings that out in his novel.

Lagomorph Rex said...

I've got to argue with that Dave.

To me, 'the west' and 'westerns' are nothing really.. nor is the Civil War.. That could be because my families not been here that long.. But those events don't really speak to me on any specific level.

After waiting through the interminably long 'No Country for old men' for Tommy lee Jones to put a bullet(or three) into Anton Chigurh, I was well, Pissed off when it didn't happen. It just shocks me that the Coens also directed The Big Lebowski and O' Brother where art thou?. Thats not to say I didn't find the new True Grit entertaining.

Badmike said...

A fine novel, but honestly I enjoyed "All the Pretty Horses" and "Suttree" much more. Along with "Child of God" and "Outer Dark", "Blood Meridian" is the kind of novel that while acknowledging it's brilliance I would be loath to ever return to it for a re-read due to it's repugnant subject matter. Also, it suffers from the same flaw as The Crossing and No Country for Old Men in that it just peters out at the end (far better had it ended with the image of the judge dancing in the saloon).

The funny thing is before "Pretty Horses" there were a lot of scholars out there afraid McCarthy would never be more than a cult writer and never get his due because of long breaks between books and extreme subject matter...due to the success of his writing and movies based on his books now he has no chance of lapsing into obscurity.

Dave Cesarano said...

@Lagomorph Rex: Hey, man, you got a quibble, bring it on, let's discuss it! I hope nobody who reads my blog is afraid to discuss anything with me.

My ancestors showed up between 1900 and 1920, so I've little familial contact with the West myself. However, watching Western movies and getting a feel for the presence of the Western in mid-century mainstream American awareness, it always seemed to me that it was a sort of quasi-mythic heroic age. Gunslingers were like samurai, or perhaps cowboys were like Greek warrior-heroes. There's a certain Nietzschean "first man" mentality, the sort of thing Nietzsche worshiped in the ancient Greek heroes of The Iliad and The Odyssey. A kind of je ne sais quois.

If you don't feel it, I don't think less of you for it. I think, in the past forty years, that mythopoeic aspect of the West has dwindled, gradually, in the American awareness.

@Badmike: Dunno if you read fantasy at all, but I find R. Scott Bakker's The Prince of Nothing trilogy and George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series to be probably more graphic and violent.

I didn't see it as petering out at the end. The last moments, if I recall, are the judge killing the Kid (or raping him?) in the outhouse, then dancing like a naked bear. It's been a while since I read the book, but that seemed incredibly poignant to me--extremely meaningful and symbolic. I'm just a historian, so my education in literary theory and criticism is informal and piecemeal, therefore lacking, I'd say, so I can't really explain well what I get from the conclusion of the novel, except to say that it's pretty powerful to me.

Lagomorph Rex said...

I suppose you are right. Even if it isn't on a personal level, it seems to be on the national cultural level still quite important.

of course, having the misfortune to live in the South.. the Civil War and then the exploits of the former confederate raiders like Quantrell.. are of course still quite important here. So maybe part of my reticence to pay it any mind is just a rejection of the region I live in more than anything.

Though, 'Goin' south' with Jack Nicholson has to be one of the best westerns ever..

James C. said...

Dave, thanks for the great read. Having read both Blood Meridian and The Road I was personally struck with the optimistic and moving tone of the latter and the absolute nihilism of the former.

That may sound crazy (the optimism part). That the father and son in The Road chose to carry the light of civilization with them despite the results of its spectacular demise confronting them relentlessly for every second of every day seemed to be the whole point.

I seem to recall reading at the time of The Road's publication an observation that McCarthy's work was getting bleaker and more apocalyptic. I didn't get it. I seriously wondered if the author of the comment had even read Blood Meridian or No Country for Old Men. The irony to me was that in describing a bleak apocalypse in The Road, McCarthy had actually told one of his most moving and optimistic stories. I'd be curious to hear your thoughts.

Badmike said...

James hits the nail on the head better than I did. The absolute Nihilism that runs through some of McCarthy's works (particularly the three I mentioned) is very off-putting to me. Honestly, and oddly, I think McCarthy does humor very, very well. Suttree and All The Pretty Horses, while not laugh-riots by any stretch, do have instances of humor (sometimes dark) that I wish he had included in some of his bleaker masterpieces to contrast some of the more awful goings on. The part of Suttree where the guy names his daughters after terms found in a medical book (resulting in some pretty funny names) still makes me smile, and he has a lot of subtle traces of humor there and there that makes me think he does this sort of thing very well. Also, the characters of Child of God, Outer Dark, and Blood Meridian are repulsive, violent psychopaths who I have no regard for; this can make a memorable character or novel, but if I don't care about the character, I'm not invested.
Your example of Martin's and Bakker's books (and I am a big fan of Abercrombie, who if anything is far more extreme than either of those) makes sense, they are very violent, but these three writers all have characters you can sympathize with and (even if they fail) you can kind of root for. Some of McCarthy's books, I'm rooting for everyone to die in a tornado. Others (The Road, Suttree, All the Pretty Horses) there is something admirable in the main characters and you want to see it rewarded (even if it doesn't happen). But this may be more of a personal taste than anything. Certainly it is a great book.
The ending I think was an epilogue that was kind of a dream like thing that doesn't really connect to the story, it's been awhile since I read it. I think he also uses this sort of ending in Country For Old Men and The Crossing.

Dave Cesarano said...

@Lagomorph Rex: Never saw Goin' South, so I guess it's time to add it onto my "to see" list. Hang in there.

@James: Ah, nihilism. It's actually something I love in books. I guess the Greek concept of catharsis runs strongly through my understanding of stuff that has "bad endings." It's one of the reasons I love James Ellroy's noir. I am not certain if I can really describe what I find appealing in it. A lot of the nihilistic fiction I've read makes me think, and that could be part of it.

@badmike: De gvstibvs non est dispvtandvm. I've not read McCarthy's other books, but frankly, I found the Judge to be absolutely fascinating and was always waiting to see what he'd do next. I didn't identify with him. I think we're supposed to identify with the Kid, which is why his character is so amorphous and ill-defined until later.

I'll compare it to a book that I don't particularly enjoy but still see as being incredibly important--Catcher in the Rye. There's nothing about Holden Caulfield that I can identify with. I find the character tedious, reprehensible, and annoying. But Holden is more than a character, he's a symbolic stand-in for every male pre-teen/early teenager with all the angst that comes with the age.

I don't believe we actually need to be able to enjoy a book in order to appreciate it. But enjoyment certainly helps! Nevertheless, enjoyment is often a product of taste. If you find Blood Meridian to run counter to your tastes, that's fine, but I feel it is important to recognize it's literary merit and appreciate it nonetheless.

Badmike said...

Your point is taken. I didn't particularly like any of the characters of Tartt's "The Secret History", but nevertheless it was a fantastic book.

ZenGaucho said...

The Judge and the Kid are the same person.