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Thursday, February 12, 2015

He can neither read nor write and in him broods already a taste for mindless violence.

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
Blood Meridian is a story about something. I hate to say it, but I honestly don't know what. There's a 'kid' (never gets a name - THANKS, PROUST, FOR SETTING THAT PRECEDENT) who travels around Texas, Mexico, and California in the mid to late 1800s, scalping Indians, pillaging villages, et Cetera, et CeterA, et CeterAa. There are other dudes as well, most of whom are wholly unlikable and pretty awful human beings. The only female characters are whores (LiTrally - prostitutes by profession). Because obviously what other women existed back then?

I just read the Wikipedia entry intro and got this nugget:

"The role of antagonist is gradually filled by Judge Holden, a huge, intellectual man depicted as bald from head to toe and philosophically emblematic of the eternal and all-encompassing nature of war. Although the novel initially generated only lukewarm critical and commercial reception, it has since become highly acclaimed and is widely recognized as McCarthy's masterpiece."

And then I thought to myself, oh REAlly? (Christian voice from Clueless) Because that's SO NOT what I took away. I'm definitely still on the tepid train. I knew there was a judge, I knew he was mostly naked and waggling his privates around, and I knew that it had something to do with war. But I have to say I think that's a Beeeetttt of a stretch, folks. Are you Sure we read the Same book? Maybe there are 2 Blood Meridians. 
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

In case it wasn't clear from the spoiler alert, I hated this book. I know, Grandma Rose, hate is a strong word. If it makes you feel better, I'll say I severely disliked this book. [I did not ESteem this book. I did not greatly adMire this book.] I felt that it lacked any sort of motivating plot, it told a story that felt old to me, and it tried to wallow (unsuccessfully in my opinion) in the gory, grotesque debauchery of war. Maybe that was McCarthy's big ole' ironic political statement there, but I MISSED IT. I've said it before, and I'll say it again, but I'm a pretty smart gal and I've read a LOT of books by now, and if I'm not catching something, you can bet your bottom dollar that the average reader sure as hell isn't catching it either.

That said, here are my thoughts, in no real order:

- Superdumb "Helpful" plot outline chapter headings
Each chapter starts out with this weird abbreviated summary of what's going to happen in the chapter. I found this (a) annoyingly revelatory (b) odd (c) obnoxious (d) ALL OF THE ABOVE. I didn't get it, as a device or as a statement, and I started skipping them because Why would I want to KNow what happens before I've read the Chapter?? Hello, I'm not Laura Morris Stengel, I don't read the last page of a book first. ;)  

- Fragments fragments are no fun fragments aren't for Everyone
McCarthy seems to be a big fan of the 'I'm going to use my poetic license to write weird nasty fragment sentences' and I'm NOT in favor of this. The occasional fragment is fine by me if it has meaning, or if you're making a statement, but I felt like it was just disjointed and lazy. Some of the writing felt Hemingway-esque, but not in a good way. Like it was trying too hard to be cool. 

- Go on, runon, keep on running on [dun dun dun dun Dun dun chachachacha dun dun dun dun DUN cacaCacacaca]
McCarthy is also a big fan of the long sentence that seems to go nowhere and sounds kinda sorta pretty and lovely in the middle and then ends and you're left feeling confused and befuddled. [SORT OF like the sentence I just wrote. Isn't that neat?] Case in point: "His origins are become remote as is his destiny and not again in all the world's turning will there be terrains so wild and barbarous to try whether the stuff of creation may be shaped to man's will or whether his own heart is not another kind of clay." Lost. I got lost in that sentence. Some who wander in sentences ARE lost, McCarthy.

- I'm sorry, No hablo Espanol.
It will come as a sooPrize to NO one that 'classic' novels love to sprinkle in other languages you're just supposed to magically know. There's a lot of this in the old Russian classics, tons of French everywhere (former diplomatic language, so we May give it a pass) and in this novel, McCarthy apparently assumes we speak Spanish. And even if we don't, it's not purely necessary to understand the novel. That's what I have to assume, as he offers no translation for the loads of conversations and interactions that take place en Espanol. Well, guess what, Cormac? This gal doesn't speak Spanish. I speak French! I know some Latin. My Parseltongue is really coming along.

- Who can say the 'n' word?
I'm not going to go in depth here, as this could be quite the rabbit (or Rat) hole. Suffice it to say that I have some not so great feelings about white men using the 'n word' in literature, even if it is temporally appropriate to the historical setting. There's something that makes me squeamish about the decision to capture that period and evoke the sentiment with which the word was used, and I'm not 100% against it, but I think it has to be very carefully and sparingly used. As a general rule, I understand the need to reclaim the word by African-Americans, but am not really for any other perpetuation of the term. Then again, maybe this was supposed to be some sort of meta-opposite-I'm-using-the-word-ironically sort of thing, but AGAIN, I didn't pick up on any of that. I just heard an old white guy writing the 'n word' over and over again in a book that was published within the last three decades.

- Is this your story, Cormac?
 One of the characters in the book says (I think aptly) "a false book is no book at all'. If you've read my blog, you know that I am a big fan of the idea that the best writers find a way to write what they know. [See the Atonement post, On War section linked here for more on this philosophy]. In my opinion, this was not Cormac's story to tell. I don't know anything about him (as a rule, I don't look up authors or books until after I've read them) but I do know that he can't have gone on a scalping escapade in the 1800s if he was writing this book in 1985. This is not to say that I don't think great writers can imagine parts of their fiction, but the whole narrative (ironic or not) felt false to me. I think that's why the lyrical brilliance felt disconnected.

- Who needs quotation marks? I DO. 
Cormac apparently thinks it's cool not to use quotation marks. I know I've slipped into calling him Cormac, which feels a bit informal. This is probably because there's a Cormac who works at the IT and data section for the national branch of my company and I heard about him for years before I met him (cool, not particularly amazing, but pleasant) so the name is very amusingly infamous to me. AAAAnd back to the topic at hand. The whole book is written without quotes, so sections read like this one:

What do you want to do?
I dont know. Lead him awhile. See how he does.
He aint goin to do.
I know it.
We could ride and tie.
You might just keep ridin.
I might anyway.

I supPose there is an argument to be made for this somehow loosening the flow of dialogue, or playing with the style of conversation, oR blah blah blah INSERT HOITYTOITYREASONING HERE but I just found it Really Really Annoying. I felt like I was tripping over the pages, and I could never remember who was talking when, and eventually I just stopped caring entirely. 

- Pretty, but GROSS
If this book had an epithet, this is what I would choose. Much of the book's language is stylistically beautiful, but also just grotesque. Again, aPParently we were supposed to KNow this grotesquery was IRONICAL but even if it is, it's still an unpleasant reading experience for people like me. Here's an example - in this case, someone has just been bitten by a vicious vampire bat. 
"Sproule was clawing at his neck and he was gibbering hysterically and when he saw the kid standing there looking down at him he held out to him his bloodied hands as if in accusation and then clapped them to his ears and cried out what it seemed he himself would not hear, a howl of such outrage as to stitch a caesura in the pulsebeat of the world."

- I'm sorry is Tabernacled a verb now? I must politely disagree.
My sisters and I have a very bad habit of scribbling notes in our programs on the somewhat rare occasions we attend church. During the Christmas sermon this past year, the pastor seemed to decide that 'tabernacled' was a verb, and that it was a KEY word in the sermon. The sister on my right started to aggressively scribble "NOT A VERB NOT A VERB NOT A VERB" each time it resurfaced, and hilariously, the sister on my left pointed it out separately a few minutes later. At this point, I don't really care if it is a verb. I don't like it. So there! Guess who also thinks it's a verb? That's right, you guessed it - CORMAC!

"Whether in my book or not, every man is tabernacled in every other and he in exchange and so on in an endless complexity of being and witness to the uttermost edge of the world." No. No man is tabernacled. NOT A VERB NOT A VERB NOT A VERB. 

Here are what I will admit are a few nice turns of phrase:
  • "The shadows of the smallest stones lay like pencil lines across the sand and the shapes of the men and their mounts advanced elongate before them like strands of the night from which they'd ridden, like tentacles to bind them to the darkness yet to come." I haven't read a book with such great desert scenes since Dune, and it made me nostalgic for some makers and spice.
  • "Tethered to the polestar they rode the Dipper round while Orion rose in the southwest like a great electric kite." Orion is my favorite constellation. My mom pointed it out to me a long time ago, and it still pleases me that when I get out of my car after work and I look up at the sky, I see the same Orion she sees nearly 500 miles away. 
  • "That night they sat at the fire like ghosts in their dusty beards and clothing, rapt, pyrolatrous."
  • "The bear had carried off their kinsman like some fabled storybook beast and the land had swallowed them up beyond all ransom or reprieve."
  • "A lobeshaped moon rose over the black shapes of the mountains dimming out the eastern stars and along the nearby ridge the white blooms of flowering yuccas moved in the wind and in the night bats came from some nether part of the world to stand on leather wings like dark satanic hummingbirds and feed at the mouths of those flowers." Ok, I'll admit, this sentence is lovely. It also reminds me of Carlsbad caverns in New Mexico, when the bats all emerge at dusk and circle hypnotically above the entrance and then flee to Texas and forage for their feast. 
You're never too old to learn new words! Besides, this book should be useful for SomeFink!

anchorite - a religious recluse

pilotbread (aka hardtack) - hard dry bread or biscuit, used for sustenance in the absence of perishable foods [OH I GET IT, LEMBAS BREAD. why didn't you just say so?]

bungstarter - a wooden mallet used for opening the bung (or stopper) of a cask

bloodbat - bats whose primary food source is blood (shameless excuse to put up a picture - SCARY, right?)

holocaust - so obviously I knew this was a word, but I never thought of it as a lower-case 'h' word. here's that definition: destruction or slaughter on a mass scale, especially caused by fire or nuclear war. from the Greek, holokauston - 'holos' 'whole' + 'kaustos' 'burn'

panicgrass - large grasses native throughout the tropical regions of the world, typically 1-3 meters tall; so named for the 'panicle' shape their flowers make

tatterdemalion - a person dressed in ragged clothing; a ragamuffin; worn to shreds [I love this word. I want this word to be a part of every day. Now, how to incorporate it...] [in trying to search for an image, I found that RagaMuffin is apparently a cat breed. And now this, for your viewing pleasure:

Lexie, the RagaMuffin cat queen from the internets  of lore 

I hope you enjoy that photo as much as I did. Also, that is apparently her name, not my decision to name her after my oldest sister ;) haghaghaghahghaggha. 

I leave you with this last nugget from good ole' Cormac. 

"There is hardly in the world a waste so barren but some creature will not cry out at night, yet here one was and they listened to their breathing in the dark and the cold and they listened to the systole of the rubymeated hearts that hung within them."

I like it most particularly because it reminds me of the Sylvia Plath line -"I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am."

Listen to the bragging systole of your rubymeated hearts, and take pleasure in the fact that you are, you are, you are! 

Love and snowflakes! I'm off to The Inquisitive Case of the Rabbit at Twilight - NAILED it that time, I'm sure of it. 

1 comment:

  1. I loved reading your blog post about the classics and really enjoyed that you used a photo of my beautiful silver RagaMuffin, Lexie. If you would like to visit more gorgeous class tabby RagaMuffins, head on over and visit Kaerik RagaMuffins at www.kaerikrags.com