Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Blood Meridian I

I've read a little of this novel by Cormac McCarthy and am not sure when I'll finish it, since I haven't been reading much lately. Within the American literary world, McCarthy is a unique figure, because he rose to prominence almost completely outside the literary grid: he didn't graduate from college, doesn't teach or do readings and hardly ever gives interviews. For that matter, he isn't interested in the literary fiction of others and doesn't read it. He is now 83 and was not well-known as a writer until he was about 60. I had never heard of him before The Road, which was published in 2006. His path to success is far from the norm today, though it was fairly common fifty or more years ago. In his case he has developed a voice unlike that of any other, and his writing style stands out markedly. He has been dogged and uncompromising in how he goes about writing, and such a procedure has differentiated him from the pack considerably. The Road and Blood Meridian are of the highest caliber in American fiction.

The story has a historical basis and describes the activities of a violent group in the American southwest during the mid-nineteenth century. McCarthy is known for his depictions of violence, but much of his skill resides in his use of language. He attempts to replicate vernacular from actual historical periods and takes a minimalist approach to punctuation, producing fictionalized environments that seem strikingly real while also unfamiliar and strange. His formative years were spent in Tennessee, and apparently he was influenced by William Faulkner, though I think he is a better writer. His emphasis on violence may be off-putting to many readers, but to me he is a renegade who successfully rebels against the prettified version of reality that appears in most fiction. The worldview that emerges in his novels veers towards deep ontological pessimism, which I consider an improvement over the shallow, boredom-inducing depression that crops up in standard bourgeois fiction.

McCarthy's comparative indifference to immediate career advancement and his interest in non-literary subjects have provided him with materials that enrich his works. He likes spending time with scientists and has an office at the Santa Fe Institute. The apocalyptic world described in The Road probably has a basis in the study of nuclear winter, and even if McCarthy lacks the scientific background to understand all of the details, his friends, such as Murray Gell-Mann, can certainly help him out. McCarthy wrote the cover story for the latest edition of Nautilus, and I see that he has interests similar to mine. The article is about the nature of the unconscious, and how it operates independently from language. For most literary people, the world begins and ends with language – even though thoughts and ideas can originate and exist independently from it. I was gratified to see someone besides me say that humans are similar to chipmunks. McCarthy points out that chipmunks have a rudimentary language that they use to describe specific kinds of predators – ground-based or aerial – when one is approaching.

While McCarthy doesn't tend to produce characters who exhibit a high level of sophistication, which is something that I look for in most writers, I am willing to put up with him because he writes so well and his dark vision is hard to find elsewhere – even when it reflects aspects of reality that we ought not ignore. I'll have more to say on this book later.

2 comments:

  1. I started that book years ago but gave up on it before finishing. It reminded me in a way of pornography--you couldn't go more than three or four pages without a killing or some other expression of bloodlust.

    John

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    1. With any luck I won't become dissuaded. I liked The Road partly because of the science fiction element, and this novel doesn't have that. But after reading Énard, I'll take anything with a plot.

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