Sunday, August 30, 2009

Blood Meridian

Cormac McCarthy has achieved no small amount of acclaim in recent years thanks to the publication (and Oprahfication) of his bleak post-apocalyptic fable The Road and the film adaptation of No Country For Old Men which, coming pretty much back to back, alerted many readers (myself included) to the works of a man considered by many (myself included) to be one of the greatest American writers of the last 50 years.

Prior to his latter-day success, though, McCarthy had been gathering notices and acclaims for decades, knocking out great book after great book. One of the best regarded of McCarthy's masterpieces (that's how good the guy is; he offers up a selection of masterpieces) is his enigmatically titled 1985 Western (of sorts) Blood Meridian.

It is the 1840s, and The Kid is a young boy who runs away from his dreary home life and ends up as part of a group of U.S. Army soldiers who are making they way into Mexico, where they are promptly slaughtered by Comanche. In a bid to survive, The Kid joins up with the Glanton gang, a free-lance group of Indian fighters who travel the countryside killing Indians and scalping them.

A premise that seems almost quaint in its evocation of old-school Western traditions; a young boy searching for adventure, tragedy strikes early in his adventures, Injuns versus Americans, all seem to hearken back to the founding myths of the American West. McCarthy uses the familiarity of his audience to subvert this ideas by painting the American West not so much as a grand adventure for boys to play around with, but as a bleak and unforgiving existence in which violence begets nothing but violence in a land which, as one character says, is itself crazy, and which drives its people crazy as well.

It seems natural to categorise Blood Meridian is a revisionist Western since it posits that it was the White man that was so brutal in the days of the West and not, as traditional foundation myths would have us believe, the Injuns, but the book is almost post-revisionist since, rather than taking the line that it was just the Whites that visited brutality upon a people that didn't deserve it, McCarthy shows that the Injuns were just as brutal and violent as the Whites. McCarthy upends all pre-conceived notions of the West as a clearly defined struggle between people, defining it instead as an existential battlefield in which no one, not even The Kid, who is supposedly the hero of the book, could be considered 'good'.

Blood Meridian reads like a Nick Cave song sounds. McCarthy's language evokes images of a land forever claret red under an uncaring sun, and of violence so commonplace as to lose all meaning. Violence is a subject that McCarthy has covered in depth in a lot of his subsequent work, particularly in the form of Anton Chigurh in No Country For Old Men, but that is a mere three-minute pop song compared to the symphony of death and pain that makes up much of Blood Meridian. You can't go more than 10 pages it would seem before encountering some new atrocity.

I'm not by any means a squeamish person, I've a fairly strong stomach when it comes to violence and gore, but I reached a point in Blood Meridian where, after reading about a particularly violent encounter in which the 'heroes' attacked an Indian village, I found myself profoundly sickened by what I had read, and had to put the book down for twenty minutes whilst I composed myself. Now, the event itself, whilst horrific, is not necessarily the worst thing I've ever read or seen, but the genius of McCarthy's writing is his ability to describe something so sparsely that his readers have to fill in the spaces themselves. This rather impressionistic approach, feeding us just the right amount of information to give us a sense of what's going on without actually telling us what is going on, lets us use our imagination, and the more violence you've seen or read about, the more easily you will be able to fill the spaces in the text with violence of the most lurid and sickening variety.

Anton Chigurh may have become the iconic figure of McCarthy's writing thanks to Javier Bardem, but if anyone manages to get Blood Meridian made into a film (many have tried, most notably Ridley Scott, and currently Todd Field, writer-director of In The Bedroom and Little Children, is having a go at it) I feel that the character of The Judge, who is the book's defining character and greatest antagonist, would surely replace him as the truest embodiment of evil and cruelty in the world. A fat, pale, hairless man, The Judge is first introduced to us when he walks into a church and accuses the preacher of being a sexual deviant, at which point he incites the gathered crowd to kill the preacher. Mere minutes later, we learn that he has never met the man before, and has no knowledge of whether or not he is a sexual deviant.

The Judge is a chaotic force in the novel, one that comes along and destroys everything in his path, seemingly for no reason other than that is what he does. He takes an interest in nature, often cataloging different species of plants, but only because he feels that plants and animals don't have the right to exist until he says its okay for them to do so. He represents everything that is malignant and terrible about humanity and he is filled with an arrogance and a lust for destruction that is insatiable.

Blood Meridian is a dense and epic book that has shades of the great works of classical fiction, from Milton to Melville, and his broad vistas encompass not only the birth of a nation, but also the darkest sides of mankind. It's, quite simply, one of the most important books of the twentieth century.