Saturday, 11 October 2008

Blood Meridian

By Cormac McCarthy

This review is part one of a series of three reviews to be posted in the next few days under the sub-title ‘Apocalyptic Mess’.

Being that I discovered McCarthy early in the year via ‘No Country For Old Men’ and ‘The Road’, and being that I also fostered an appreciation for Western movies in the past six months or so, it seemed fitting to wind up these two interests with a western by Cormac McCarthy (before moving on to my next phase, whatever that is).

I was looking forward to this book, especially because many McCarthy fans (including our comrade ‘Tiger In A Tube’ ) nominated it as his best work.

Here it is: An amoral 14 year old sociopath known only as ‘the kid’ joins a mob of violent scalp-hunters, lead by a sadistic maniac called Glanton and an enigmatic Kurtz-like hairless man known as ‘the judge’ who may or may not exist.

By jesus it was violent. 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 gory.

...those right pilgrims nameless among the stones with their terrible wounds, the viscera spilled from their sides and the naked torsos bristling with arrowshafts. Some by their beards were men but yet wore strange menstrual wounds between their legs and no man’s parts for these had been cut away and hung dark and strange from out of their grinning mouths.

McCarthy dishes up many impossibly long sentences.

They crossed before the sun and vanished one by one and reappeared again and they were black in the sun and they rode out of that vanished sea like burnt phantoms with the legs of the animals kicking up the spume that was not real and they were lost in the sun and lost in the lake and they shimmered and slurred together and separated again and they augmented by planes in lurid avatars and began to coalesce and there began to appear above them in the dawn-broached sky a hellish likeness of their ranks riding huge and inverted and the horses’ legs incredibly elongate trampling down the high thin cirrus and the howling antiwarriors pendant from their mounts immense and chimeric and the high wild cries carrying that flat and barren plan like the cries of souls broke through some misweave in the weft of things into the world below.

And describes a landscape that is alien to me, I think.

They passed through a highland meadow carpeted with wild-flowers, acres of golden groundsel and zinnia and deep purple gentian...

Using words I’ve never heard ( and wiki - thankyou).

Under a gibbous moon horse and rider spanceled to their shadows...


The book is gripping and moving but that’s all I can say in support of it. They're like a band of Ivan Milats lead by Kierkegaard’s evil twin from a parallel universe running around mid 19th Century USA/Mexico brewing their own mini-holocaust by senselessly slaughtering and scalping Mexicans, pilgrims and Injuns. Did I mention how violent it is?

The judge is the best character, even though his soliloquies make little sense, and even though he may not exist (is he the kid's mind's creation? Is he Satan?). He’s a bisexual, a pedophile, he's highly educated, multi-lingual and one of the more sadistic characters of fiction. His habit of making sketches of artefacts (whether they be an old shack or an animal or a child or whatever) before killing/destroying them is a fascinating quirk.

Coming across ancient Indian rock-carvings:

The rocks about in every sheltered place were covered with ancient paintings and the judge was soon among them copying out those certain ones into his book...

...then he rose and with a piece of broken chert he scrappled away one of the designs, leaving no trace of it only a raw place on the stone where it had been.

His only explanation for this is:

Whatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent.

And in relation to his extreme sadism, he offers:

War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him.

But the main chracater is the kid who, in the absence of anything better to do, joins this gang of murderers. We follow the kid’s formative years but when he joins the gang, we actually lose him as a central character for about 150 pages. At first this bugged me, but I realised in the end that it was McCarthy’s greatest literary achievement in the book. By dropping the kid out of the narrative we could watch everything that was happening just as the kid was experiencing it. By the time he's freed from the gang and we’re back into his mind, we understand his trauma and total inability to cooperate with the world. Maybe McCarthy shut us out from his thoughts for 150 pages because he had none. Maybe. For, had he got to figurin' things, maybe he'd make a lousy genocidal maniac. Or maybe McCarthy just wanted us to concentrate on the horror.


I can see why the book is lauded. It’s a massive and profound work. But, I have a problem with it.

Germaine Greer in her brilliant essay, ‘Whitefella Jump Up’ (I don't care what you say or whether you agree with her essay or not... Greer’s concept is brilliant and important) she posits that:

We hate this country because we cannot allow ourselves to love it. We know in our hearts' core that it is not ours.

But offers this as a way of overcoming it:

If we climbed out of the recreational vehicle and sat on the ground, we might begin to get the message that we can't afford to hear, the message that, since contact, Aborigines have never stopped transmitting. The land is the source of everything;

I argue that Greer is a writer who speaks in the language of myth. I might write an essay on this one day. In short, my summary of her life’s work is that she talks in an ancient and abstract tongue, and too many attack her because they try to understand her in the context of current affairs, hard news and facts. It’s not what she’s about – or at least, it’s not what she means to me. When Greer said, “The animal kingdom got its revenge,” she was not saying (as the hopelessly stupid Helen Razer insinuated) that the animal kingdom got together and hatched a plan to kill Steve Irwin. She was in fact rising to Irwin’s own mythological ubermensch ‘The Crocodile Hunter’ with words appropriate to that mythical superhero's death. They got their revenge on the Crocodile Hunter, not the husband / father.

Same goes with her use of the words (above) ‘hate’ and ‘land is the source of everything’.

I know what she means. At least I think I do. We are as much a product of the land we inhabit as we are our genetic breeding and our expreiences and circumstance. We store within us all that is abstract and transcedental as well as material in these matters. And yet, we deny it, or at best, try to ignore it, but we cannot escape it.

As such, we are a cocktail of both nature's peril and beauty.

Which brings me back to Blood Meridian. I cannot accept such amorality. It is inferred that both circumstance and land created these monsters, but there was no let up. Glanton cared for a dog. That's all we got. The rest cared for nobody and nothing. They existed trapped in one dimension only - as psychopathic maniacs and had no other traits. A glimpse of camaraderie here, a hint of self-awareness there, all to be eradicated a minute later. It’s not good enough to say: “As long as they were employed to slaughter injuns, they couldn’t afford another dimension”, because, hell, even Ivan Milat may have liked ice-cream or Bon Jovi or something.

In a way, they act on the Greer model – they tear up the country that is not theirs by slaughtering the people that are its custodians, but unlike the Greer model, there is no redemption or lesson, nothing to reflect upon, no message in the dirt or the wildflowers, no second to sigh at a sunset or admire the guile of the wolf or the resilience of the quarrey.

The nearest I’ll come to saying something religious is to concede that there is something in the dirt upon which we are raised that melds to us. Human nature is inextricably linked with nature full stop. Physics, biology, geology are siblings to philosophy, art and human experience.

Maybe that's why my tolerance of religion and new-age spiritualism is ZERO, and why I find it all to be abhorrent, childish nonsense. Because it assumes we belong to Jesus, or the Lord, or to some other sentient designer such as the new-age cosmos with its reliance on fate, destiny, 'meant to happen' fucking garbage junk philosophy, and that souls or spirits exist on higher plains extraneous to the planet on which we are rooted to... all these beliefs, whether they be Christian, Islamic or Wiccan remove us from the land, from our experience, from our instinct and most importantly, from the magic that is life. They are trying to relocate us to a place that cannot and does not exist.

We cannot help but belong to the land - the laws governing our existance insist on this and the human mind on some transcedental level knows it and works with it. The same laws apply to all of us and we offer varying results and interpretations back. Blood Meridian lacks this. Just like the Old Testament, it peddles an absolute that's beyond our potential. It describes an implausible humanity, so detatched from the land and the laws of existance that it fails to inspire any form of reminisce. It is unrecognisable as coming from Earth. It is not our story.

But it was cracking entertainment.

B Minus.

Glossary just from the extracts above (fairdinkum, every page had some word I didn't know).

Midden: Dunghill or refuge heap.

Fontanel: One of the spaces, covered by membrane, between the bones of the fetal or young skull.

Viscera: The organs in the cavities of the body, esp. those in the abdominal cavity.

Spume: Foam, froth, or scum.

Weft: A woven fabric or garment

Groundsel: Any composite plant of the genus Senecio, esp. S. vulgaris, a common weed having clusters of small yellow disk flowers without rays.

Zinnia: Any of several composite plants of the genus Zinnia, native to Mexico and adjacent areas, esp. the widely cultivated species Z. elegans, having variously colored, many-rayed flower heads.

Gentian: any of several plants of the genera Gentiana, Gentianella, and Gentianopsis, having usually blue, or sometimes yellow, white, or red, flowers, as the fringed gentian of North America.

Gibbous: (of a heavenly body) Convex at both edges, as the moon when more than half full.

Spancel: a noosed rope with which to hobble an animal, esp. a horse or cow. In his case, he has made a verb of it.

Chert: A compact rock consisting essentially of microcrystalline quartz


Apologies to Tiger In A Tube because this is the second novel listed in his Top Eleven of which I've had ill words to say. But he'll forgive me because us Richmond supporters, in the lack of success, only have dignity left.


Andy Pants said...

The excerpts you chose read like they were written by a hyper-active seventh grader with a brand new thesaurus.

squib said...

I haven't read this and I don't think I will as one of your excerpts there just turned my stomach. But to be honest I'm not sure what you're getting at

They're implausible because they're not connected somehow with the land? You cannot accept such amoral one-dimension-ess? I don't know. I saw Nigerian writer Chris Albani talking on the telly the other day about his experiences in prison. He described how there was a young kid in prison, taken in lieu of someone else. The guards nailed his penis to a table and left him to die (it took 3 days). Could we understand this better if the guards all went for some icecream? I'm not so sure

Perseus said...

Yes, implausible because they have no 'nature'. They are automatons. Too fictional. I argue that like the land, we ebb and flow, we wax and wane, we rise and fall. These characters didn't.

Even the Nigerian guards may have believed in their own righteousness, or may have admired their leader.

McCarthy's characters believed in nothing.

And yeah, there's a fair few of those stomach turning passages. It was quite sadistic.

Andy: The whole book is like that. A dictionary is almost compulsory.

Melba said...

I've got a copy of this on the bookshelf, sitting there unread. I will read it, but I need to build up to it, sandwich it in between some light and joy.

I find it hard to enjoy anything (book/movie) where there is not even one character who I can admire and/or relate to. Sounds like there is nothing in this novel for me. EXCEPT for the glorious prose. Some writers use unheard of words and it presents very pretentiously, as if they had indeed used a thesaurus (and this author may well have) but from the excepts you chose Perseus, the words for me sing, they are beautiful. Even the gory, violent bits.

On the Greer essay Whitefella, for me one of the most profound comments was that we are also scared of this land, of its interior. We have built our cities along the coastlines, facing out to the sea, which is somehow preferable to the fearful inner land, which is dry and deadly and so strange to us.

On your comments re religion/god - I feel our spirituality has to be linked to the earth and nature. People who believe in god say that nature is proof of god's greatness and existence. I say nature is proof the the greatness of nature.

Awesome review. Thanks.

ps I've ordered True Grit from the US. Eagerly awaiting. Also ordered about 5 others from my "hard to find in Aus" list.

Perseus said...

I agree melba, with the one disclaimer that on the notion of 'spirituality'. I can accept 'spirit' colloquially, "She sang with great spirit," and "my spirits are high", but not 'spirituality' in the way it's understood, and perhaps the way you used it. I don't think we spiritually connect with anything - I simply feel that we are nature. Spirituality infers there's more than the sum of the Universe's parts, whereas I find solace in that we are the sum of the Universe's parts. I don't believe we exist beyond the natural order. To assume we have a 'spirit' that's somehow above and beyond the natural order is hubris, or wishful thinking, and leads one to suppose there's a design, fate, and maybe a God.

Perseus said...

Now I'm just thinking out loud and talking to nobody in particular, but it's my blog so nyer.

A native flower. See, its DNA gives it its shape and it grows and behaves in a certain way dependant upon the lay of the land from which it spurts.

A person. DNA gives him his shape. He is distinctly human. He looks a little like his parents. His behaviours will be largely dependant upon the society in which he moves and the land upon which he grazes.

That concept locks into Greer's position.

Blood Meridian defies that position.

Melba said...

I agree with you re "spirituality." Perhaps it was the wrong word to use, but I meant it in the way you describe, not as an essence that is connected to a higher order. What would the word be? I was having this very conversation with my daughter this morning. What is it that makes us different from all the other animals? What is the intangiible thing that, in addition to biology and physiology,is the bit that makes us us? Is it soul? (religious overtones?)

Damn those religionists. They have taken all the good words and left us with nothing to define what I mean.

In your second example with native flower and human - are you saying there is nothing different there, other than DNA and a response to the shaping of the environment?

Can't we think there is something else, which is an intrinsic and unique part of each person, that is separate to the DNA and effects of "nurture"?

Perseus said...

Well, yes. Humanity.

Perseus said...

Oh! Consciousness and sub-consciousness. Throw them in, too. My 'connection to the land' is a sub-conscious notion in any case.

No doubt though, a possum also has sub-conscious relationships to things as well.

But we have humanity, and he has possumity.

Melba said...

Humanity and possumity. Thanks for making that clear for me.

I like it.

Tiger in a Tube said...

Again, a cracking review that made me want to go back and read the book. A B isn't bad. :)

The real character in BM - for all the spellbinding, proto-hannibal lectoring we see with the Judge - is the land. They move over the land and destroy/rape it. The injun aren't humans, they are animals. McCarthy uses the land as a character in all his books and in that respect he and Tim Winton are similar.

Interesting in your take on the amorality of the characters. I agree w/ Squib in that this sort of behaviour has happened in the past (Nazi Germany), so I can't agree with your comment " . .peddling an absolute that's beyond our potential." It is within our (human) potential, given a harsh environment/landscape.

Imagine the Judge as Coach of the Richmond Footy Club. I can see parts of the Wayne Carey leadership model in the Judge . .maybe.

No comparison between the boy and Mattie from True Grit?

And the baby-killing scenes in McCarthy's book I think are pure cheap arse shock. Sometime the best horror is the stuff you don't see.

Perseus said...

"No comparison between the boy and Mattie from True Grit"

Nope, because Mattie had a purpose. The kid didn't.

Look for my next review for a comment on Nazis and Absolutes, which will be Part 2 of my 'Apocalyptic Mess' series (currently not available at all good book stores).

Tim Winton has weird eyes.

Anonymous said...

As a North American Indian having lived in a devastated land where we are simply waiting for the genocide to end and we are then fully gone, the story makes sense. Except we cant talk about it. Cant complain about it. Have to bless America like everybody else about it. Damn, but it feels different when you know it is yours. Greer I think understands. But this hurts that you know it is yours because you know that you have lost it forever and that there is a genocide going on to make it fully somebody elses and they will not let up until we say, it was never ours but that will be the day. So people have to laugh at us and get all political and say, you are just an american or canadian and here everybody is equal. Yes. But it is still ours.

The Holocaust, far from making us become silent in front of its horror has made us understand more fully the horror that was practiced on us. Greer is right.

Perseus said...

Wow - just found this comment. Thanks for the input, which is possibly the most relevant comment anyone has made on any of my blogs.

Did you read Blood Meridian yourself? If so, how did you react to it?

Nathaniel said...

I disagree that "it is inferred that both circumstance and land created these monsters..." I found the point of BM to be precisely the opposite: the monsters are the (conveniently elided) American circumstance. The function of BM's violence is therefore radically ethical: we must witness, and if we look away, we're choosing the antiseptic version about how the west was won. I would say, then, that McCarthy writes in response to an estrangement from history. These wrongs cannot be rectified, but readers can monitor in the present their own reactions, lest we ignore the circumstances of existence (aversion) or we again commit atrocities (pleasure).

Perseus said...

Are you American? If so, please be aware that saying 'antiseptic' in that context made me laugh out loud ... because we Australians call you lot seppos, which is short for septic tanks (yanks), so 'antiseptic' suddenly became very funny in the context you placed it. If you know what I mean. Hell, I don't even know what I mean.

Anyway, I see your point, but, I didn't interpret the book that way.

Well, I saw some of your point. Not too sure what this bit meant:

"lest we ignore the circumstances of existence (aversion) or we again commit atrocities (pleasure)."

Though I don't want to devalue your argument (sunburn) or your opinions (fish-fingers).

Anonymous said...

About BM... I just finished watching "Meeting at the end of the world". A one camera job by Werner Herzog that focussed primarily on the people of antarctica while promising not to film penguins (he did anyway but the penguin was a solitary suicidal sort so I imagine it could have been a german). Anyway to get back to the point- much as Perseus' review of Dawkins that deserved the B+ but not the lament about the one that was forced away- in this Herzog movie filled with all of these truly mad characters is a diver. the diver's take on the creatures of the antarctic ocean with which he was acquainted reminded me of BM. How each sea creature was in reality and on closer inspection truly refined monsters. He reasoned that our ancestors had emerged from the oceans to populate land mainly because the sea was filled with dreadful and ghastly monsters. The urge to populate was driven by fear.

Perseus said...

Haven't seen it but I shall track it down eveningson.

The diver is right, I reckon.

Anonymous said...

Werner Herzog can be really boring. Especially when it comes to midgets.

I had intended to get Grizzly Man but knowing the guy gets killed by the grizzlies, even though not in the course of the movie, kind of spoiled the thing for me. I am not into that sort of veritee. So I got his latest about Antarctica. I found it great. A- maybe even A (I deducted a half point for his comment about Indians at the beginning and the way he played off the lone ranger against the Indian-Lone ranger was fiction... Indian with headdress was a parody but Indians do wear headdresses.... you godda see it to understand.and I was being an affronted minority with serious suspicions about Germans anyway)
I am swiss now and my wife's family, being well educated, all speak english of course and her brothers sound exactly like Werner. A pointless aside I know. But there is a penguin guy --in the movie that was to have no penguins.. who is really cool. But you have to see the movie.