Monday, May 12, 2008

Blood Meridian

Recently I read an article in the NY Times that listed the best works of American fiction during the last twenty-five years. They compiled their list by surveying one hundred and twenty-five prominent authors, editors, and critics. The first thing that jumped out at me was the dominance of a few individuals--Don Delillo, Thomas Pynchon, Cormac McCarthy, and Phillip Roth have apparently wrote almost all our great novels. The second thing that jumped out at me was the realization that I didn't know who any of these people were. If I was to maintain my street cred at the used book store, I needed to get reading fast. Because Cormac McCarthy wrote No Country For Old Men, I started with his ominously titled Blood Meridian.

Ambivalence (am-ˈbi-və-lən(t)s): simultaneous and contradictory attitudes or feelings (as attraction and repulsion) toward an object, person, or action. That one word captures my attitude towards Blood Meridian. There were so many aspects of the writing that just rubbed me the wrong way, yet somehow it worked. In spite of the difficulties, or perhaps in part because of them, the characters and the story have stuck to me.

The vocabulary was obnoxious. Instead of creating vivid descriptions, McCarthy's pedantic use of words renders his sentences virtually opaque. It is obvious that he did exhaustive research for this book (nicely done, sir), but that hard work need not be used to distance the reader.

The grammar squashed any clarity the vocabulary might have missed; I frequently had to reread sentences due to confusion caused by lack of punctuation. To say "grammatically incorrect" is misleading because one gets the impression that the author is trying, just coming up short. McCarthy's violence toward punctuation is palpable, mirroring the violence in this macabre allegory. There might not have been any commas.

Recognizing that I am not poetically inclined, I still think it safe to say that there were way too many damn similes in this book. I wouldn't be surprised if there was an average of a simile per page. This overuse of similes is annoying and unnecessary like this sentence.

The total impression of these writing techniques is arrogance. The hurdles the reader must jump through to enjoy this book are insulting because they are not necessary. The subject matter is not that difficult to understand. It's a Western for God's sake. The author seems to acknowledge this point by having a central character, The Judge, speak in obtuse language and then explain why it was necessary. The explanation that specific words are required because no other word quite fits doesn't hold water.

So, you must think I hate this book. And I do. Yet, in some ways I love it too. For one, the single best scene I have ever read comes thundering across these pages during a Comanche attack (To be fair, I should aknowledge that this passage would lose its power were it conveyed with standard punctuation). Also, at times I found that I was able to drop into a zone and somehow swim comfortably with the difficult text. At these times I felt witness to mythical battles amid raw and ancient lands. My best explanation is to compare this reading experience to reading Shakespeare: the first ten minutes are wasted as you battle the arcane words, but after a time you find yourself in that world.

Be prepared to enter an epic poem. Many others have compared it to biblical verse. I think this is because the text is elusive and resists logical understanding, yet the impact is there; the reader feels the meaning more clearly than his mind can grasp it. I would recommend this book to people who enjoyed Mulholland Drive. The mystery and other-worldliness can be exasperating, but the works gain a foothold by putting you off-balance with these same characteristics. Check it out and let me know what you think.

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