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.
...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...
...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 (dictionary.com 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.
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.