Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Book Review: Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

Truly one of the most difficult novels I've ever read...

It has has been said that Shakespeare could never be just a single person as the sheer number of different words used in his works so vastly surpasses the vocabulary of even the most intelligent and verbose in society, it is just not possible to have that breadth of language housed in one brain.

Now I'm not always the sharpest tack in the room but I would say that I have an above average vocabulary and yet during numerous sections of this work I was sent scrambling for a dictionary half a dozen times or more PER PAGE.  Eventually it became such a task to review the language therein that I gave up and merely used the general context of the sentences to discern what was actually being said.  While frustrating, particularly for a novel written in the past thirty years (I would give some leeway to novels a century or greater ago as then we're talking about a vastly different lexicon from which the writers were pulling) it does not detract from the overall weight of the novel.  I wish McCarthy used more plain and direct language and didn't try to string a dozen or more metaphors together in an attempt to create a mood or describe a scene--it could have been a better and even more striking work for it (don't let anyone tell you this is a "perfect" work...its not.  But it is nearly as good a piece of fiction from the past 50 years that I've read).

The novel itself is based on some historical figures and events in the American Southwest during the late 1840s.  There are two primary characters here represented first by "the kid" whose violent upbringing eventually leads him to join up with the Glanton Gang.  The Glanton Gang itself was a real group of scalphunters lead by John Joel Glanton who was hired initially to exterminate a band of Apaches (bringing back their scalps as evidence) but turned rapidly to killing and scalping virtually everyone in their path in order to drive their income.  The second primary character is "the Judge" who is a character without much of a background but still fully formed.

Judge Holden becomes the driving force and most interesting part of the novel--is he the devil?  is he "the kid"'s alternate personality? what is he after?  why is he hairless?  is it he who keeps abducting and killing the children the group encounters?  McCarthy never gives the reader the answer but certainly provides enough detail for you to make your own conclusions.  The Judge has been rated by some as one of the most memorable characters in literature and I would agree.  While I may forget some of the details of the plot of this book moving forward or how the kid got involved in the first place, once you read Blood Meridian you will never, ever forget the Judge and will constantly circle back to him when you encounter antagonists in other works.

Blood Meridian is certainly not going to be for everyone.  Beyond the difficult language and complete lack of punctuation outside of sentence ending periods, McCarthy infuses the book with more violence than any novel I have ever read.  If you've seen No Country for Old Men or The Road then you may have a sense of McCarthy's violence as these are both based upon his prior works.  Even still, both of these films pale in comparison to the violence contained here.  Ridley Scott (who directed the recent film, The Counselor which was a McCarthy screenplay) has said that if he directed a film version of Blood Meridian that it would be rated NC-17 at the least and may not be filmable at all.  I tend to agree with him as the amount of blood and gore present is beyond what I have ever read before.  Not that it is unrealistic...on the contrary, it is probably VERY realistic given what we are dealing with.  The crushing of a baby's skull, the sodomizing of a injured opponent, the mutilation of a dead body, the scalping of a live body, and on and on and on...its not fun stuff...but if you turn to ask yourself "Is this real?" and you find yourself answering that yes, things likely were (and even more frighteningly, still are) this way.  It is stomach churningly brutal in its depictions.  And no one gets off looking good here.  The Americans, the Mexicans, the Indians, everyone here is capable of such levels of depravity and violence you "think" you are reading of a different world.  An example of such a depiction is here:

When Glanton and his chiefs swung back through the village people were running out under the horses' hooves and the horses were plunging and some of the men were moving on foot among the huts with torches and dragging the victims out, slathered and dripping with blood, hacking at the dying and decapitating those who knelt for mercy.  There were in camp a number of Mexican slaves and these ran forth calling out in spanish and were brained or shot and one of the Delawares emerged from the smoke with a naked infant dangling in each hand and squatted at a ring of midden stones and swung them by the heels each in turn and bashed their heads against the stones so that the brains burst forth through the fontanel in a bloody spew and humans on fire came shrieking forth like berserkers and the riders hacked them down with their enormous knives and a young woman ran up and embraced the bloodied forefeet of Glanton's warhorse.

Yup, that's what you're in for on a consistent basis.  That and more, over and over.  But that's partly what McCarthy and the Judge are getting at...that humanity has been, is and always will be a violent, ugly, brutal species and those who pretend otherwise are not "true dancers".  Whether that is true or not isn't the point, instead McCarthy is showing us what is often at the human core--what is at your and my core if we're honest and what we'll pass on to the next generation.  In fact McCarthy, in perhaps his most direct message to the reader begins the work with three epigraphs one of which is the following:
Clark, who led last year’s expedition to the Afar region of northern Ethiopia, and UC Berkeley colleague Tim D. White, also said that a re-examination of a 300,000-year-old fossil skull found in the same region earlier shows evidence of having been scalped 

This quotation taken from the Yuma Daily Sun in the early 1900s regarding the discovery of an early hominid skull in Africa that displayed signs of having been scalped itself.  Violence and war of the most horrific sorts has been with us, literally, since the beginning of time.  If you can take it, read this book, it will stay with you till the Judge comes to take you as well.

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