Review: Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

August 8, 2014 9:15 am

Cormac McCarthy is known for three things above all others:

  1. Choppy, simple sentences punctuated with the occasional flowing, complex sentence about war and its relationship with the human soul.
  2. Characters that straddle the line between ultrarealistic and horrifying,
  3. His obsession with the American West and how it relates to man’s inhumanity to man.

All these things are apparent in his 1985 novel Blood Meridian. I’ve been told that when this book is brought up in university discussions it’s not uncommon for the same points to come up again and again; violence, the Judge and McCarthy’s writing style all feature heavily, but for my review I want to expand on these slightly and discuss the narrative too. Of course, I’m getting ahead of myself. I’ve talked about what I’m going to do and I haven’t started doing it. Meanwhile, you the reader are left with one burning question – does he even like it?

blood_meridian_book_cover_by_fish_man-d3lnjwfThe answer would have to be an unconfident ‘kinda’ for whilst I think that the work has a lot going for it, I just can’t seem to enjoy it as a novel. The reason for this – and perhaps I’m risking angering some readers right now – is that it’s just too long. Now, please don’t misunderstand me – I like long novels as long as they’re well plotted. The problem with Blood Meridian is that, to me, there’s just too much meandering between points and no real drive to get me to finish it beyond my own need to finish it. Because of this, when I read it I found myself stopping at points and going to read something else – an Allen Ginsberg poem, an article by Hunter S. Thompson, Toradora! Fanfiction – because i was, for lack of a better word, bored. There was no end in sight. No goal, nothing but endless violence for 354 pages. Without that goal – well I’m going to be honest with you – when reading this I felt like I was watching an anime filler arc a lot of the time. This is particularly strange because whilst McCarthy isn’t known as a big plotter, this is the novel that this problem has affected the most – even when reading Suttree I was still able to keep my attention fixed on the novel and away from other things.

If you are familiar with McCarthy’s work you may conclude that I disprove of the violence in the book. Let me put you straight; I don’t care about it. As mentioned before, McCarthy’s novels are known to feature characters that are violent and horrifying. In this novel (and I think in general) the characters are both. The acts of violence that the characters in McCarthy’s novels inflict on one another are savage and brutal, but at the same time they’re not too far-fetched. It’s McCarthy’s agency to show an ultrarealistic viewpoint of the world, and so not including the violence that plagued the period he writes about would only leave him open to criticism. He would be reinforcing the “honourable John Wayne cowboy” stereotype of the old West and therefore whilst some of the violence in the novel does shock me, it doesn’t surprise me. Leaving it out would make the novel all the weaker for it. 

Much has been said on McCarthy’s answer to Death; many interpretations of the character focus on the idea that he somehow represents God, Satan or any number of philosophical, religious or fictional characters. My interpretation of Judge Holden is that he is a representation of mankind – a kind of collective father of the child that is humanity; McCarthy says of the kid ‘the child is the father of the man’. I make this assumption not only because of the actions that the judge takes in the novel – many of which are only more pronounced reflections of what the other characters are doing – as well as the knowledge that he shows throughout the novel. The judge is not a divine creature; he does not talk of matters theological. He speaks in scientific, rational terms and whilst he is aware of the power of belief, he tries to use its trappings to create a religion of man and the thing that man has done since the beginning: War.

4375316416_aa20ccede5_zIf I wanted to make a bold, risky statement I could say that McCarthy is trying to suggest that Man is somehow moving away from the natural world in commune with the divine. Or perhaps there is no divine; it is a man-made phenomenon and the God that human beings have created is a reflection of themselves. Not the kind, loving creature from any holy book, but in fact something like Judge Holden. Obviously this is just my opinion and this theory would depend on your interpretation of the final page (which I do think implies a sort of dualistic nature to Holden.) I believe it is equally as important when discussing the Judge to take on board everything he says just as much as what he does; he may be many things but I don’t think Judge Holden is a liar.

The final thing to consider when trying to work out whether or not you should read a Cormac McCarthy novel is whether or not you will like the writing style. His is quite possibly the most minimalistic writing since Raymond Carver. McCarthy eschews all but the most basic of punctuation in fear of ‘cluttering up the page’ and instead relies on his word choice alone. He’s also known to make emphatic use of sentence fragments. It’s a very beautiful writing style that reads a lot like poetry but is extremely frustrating if you’re used to something a bit more florid or perhaps something with a semi-colon or two in it.

Although there can be no doubt that there is definitely something great about McCarthy’s Blood Meridian it is not for everyone. There is an immense amount of violence in the novel that may put off some readers, as well as very little in terms of plot. However, at the same time there can be no doubt that McCarthy is in love with language, and it shows. Feel free to read Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, but be aware that it is not a book for those whose main draw is always the story. It’s not a good introduction to the type of writing that he does, but it is perhaps the zenith of the work that he has done so far.

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