Monday, June 27, 2011

Blood Meridian

Cormac McCarthy is one of those writers I’ve always heard other people praising but never really had a strong urge to read, as much as anything because I’ve never felt that compelled by the Old West as a setting for fiction. Still, as often as people talk about how much they like his work I was bound to get around to it at some point.

I’m sure I don’t have to tell anyone that Blood Meridian is intensely violent, constantly upping the ante on how grotesque it can get (and it starts roughly). For the most part this was effective and gripping: I don’t generally like narratives with a strong picaresque element, but in this case the repetition didn’t seem gratuitous (even though it is, of course, all about gratuitous violence). It walks a very fine line of nearly becoming a self-parody, overdone with depravity in the way that William Faulkner’s Sanctuary is overdone, and a few times it may cross that line not because of the particulars of a given scene but just because of how relentlessly repetitive the violence is.

One of the more interesting aspects of the novel’s structure is McCarthy’s use of chapter headings: in the mode of a 19th-century novel he begins each chapter with a series of fragments that outline the events that will occur. This parody of form isn’t so intriguing on its own; but, when you start reading the actual chapters and comparing them to the outline, you can see interesting issues emerge. The language of the outline is often very different from that in the text, for example, as if produced by two different narrators: in many cases you wouldn’t know what landscape the characters were in if the outline didn’t identify it, and particular characters (especially the Judge) give speeches that are summed up in technical language in the outline. Additionally, very brief and seemingly insignificant events or described landscapes appear in the outline as equal in importance to major ones. As a result of these features, the outlines don’t really tell you much but lend the appearance of bureaucratic order to the chaos of the novel’s endless violence.

Although there is a terrible beauty to many of the images of the novel, the novel does not offer much in terms of redemption for the reader. The front of my copy advertises it as a “classic American novel of regeneration through violence.” I have no idea what that is supposed to mean: there is nothing in the way of regeneration or epiphany here, not even a belated feeling that there was something good that was missed. The world is rotten all the way down—a grim outlook, but one compellingly framed.

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