Sunday, February 24, 2013

Blood Meridian

For good stretches of the book, I was convinced that I wouldn't think that much more of Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian than his more recent The Road.  Yet the key difference is also what made Road such a disappointment, that McCarthy actually had something to say with Meridian.

Let's start with the maddening similarities first, however.  I began to think that the author would perhaps be a better short story or novella writer, because he spends most of his time with a fairly numbing travel narrative format with both books, and random acts of violence that in pretty much every instance just kind of happen.  In Road it's a fairly routine and uninspired take on dystopian fiction, where some of us seem to take for granted that the future will see humanity degenerate to barbarism...or the very conditions depicted in Meridian, just because we've somehow lost everything we'd built for ourselves over the last hundred years or so (although when put that way it's certainly a humbling thought).  In Meridian, the narrative depends on McCarthy's ability to keep pretty straight descriptions of the shifting landscape interesting...and he doesn't, really.

It's the characters who make the difference, and how they're used.  Meridian has been called a classic of modern literature, and it's very much a classic in a classical sense.  It's probably as close as anyone will get to the spirit of Herman Melville's Moby Dick, which seeks to depict humanity in its most basic form, which as both authors decide is pretty barbaric.  Like Melville, McCarthy chooses as the lead character someone other than the most interesting one, who is identified almost exclusively simply as "the kid," becoming something different only in the final pages (and then it's just an upgrade to "the man").  The Ahab of Meridian is similarly known mostly as "the judge," although he's addressed on a few occasions as Holden, and so commentary can address him as such, even if the book makes him so much familiar as an abstract bogeyman, a bald killer who believes that war is a perfect expression of the human condition, and who appears and behaves in mysterious ways throughout the story, and whose last appearance is the same kind of aberrantly jubilant behavior as his introduction, because otherwise he's stoic and functional, like everything around him, even though he always stands out from the elements.

It's the use of the elements that makes Meridian so much more effective than Road, where the elements are defined by the degenerate people who struggle to survive mostly by indiscriminately murdering pretty much everyone around them, sometimes Indians mostly to support a version of an ordinary narrative structure other than a trip to California (and back again).  It's the anti-Western, not romantic in the least sense, and if this is truly what it was like in that time (mostly 1850s), then I don't know how anyone could be proud of that era, because it's horrifyingly inhuman.  Probably McCarthy exaggerates as much as the Western genre does, but reading Meridian you really start to wonder.

The book is written as if it's a direct translation of the opinions and perspectives of the day, which takes a little getting used to, because it's certainly not a part of the modern movement to rehabilitate the image of Indians in America, and not only that, but a lot of grammar rules are ignored.

If you can get past all that, you'll find something that has something to say, and that's what any truly great book ought to do.

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