Monday, May 10, 2010


Many years ago, my grandmother was talking with my mom about a book she had brought with her on a visit. She said that she had been careful to not leave it out where we kids could read it, warning, "The language was so bad, I could hardly stand to finish it!"

This has become a favorite saying of my family since then. While it's amusing, I have to admit that I can sympathize with her feeling. Certain books can feel painful to get through, but once you reach a certain point, your desire to finish outweighs your discomfort of reading additional pages.

"Blood Meridian" is definitely the best example yet of a book that I could hardly stand to finish. It is a pretty extraordinary book, with a very raw, compelling language, a pulsing plot, and amazing, surreal characters. It is also the most graphic, disturbing, disgusting thing I have read in ages. I felt physically ill while reading the book - not in one or two scenes, but every couple of pages.

If nothing else, "Blood Meridian" has shown me that I'm not nearly as desensitized as I thought I was. I thought I'd gotten past the point where violence in fiction can bother me. I play GTA, I watch Dexter, and while there's a certain automatic reaction to violent images, it no longer really sticks with me. Not so much with this book, and isn't that interesting? It has no pictures, no audio, no immersion, and yet it haunts my thoughts in a way that other art cannot.

I think part of this is the overall art of the book. It takes a while to get used to the language; it's one of those things that breaks almost every rule that you learn about writing, and yet becomes much stronger for it. The language is raw, minimalist, wind-stripped... it perfectly matches the desolate and desperate Western desert where the book takes place. It feels like you're inside someone's head, hearing their jumbled, mumbled, half-panicked thoughts at the horror they see around them. There's a strong immediacy in the writing that brings you right up close to and in contact with the action, not viewing it distilled through a traditional detached narrator.


As I try to analyze why the book disturbed me so much, I think that only part of it was the actual gore, which admittedly is quite shocking. We're treated to elaborate and detailed descriptions of scalpings, how body parts were peeled away from one another, what fluids went where, and so on. But what makes this truly disturbing is the sense of evil malice that lies behind it. I usually hesitate to use the word "evil," but it's hard to think of any other term to describe the men in this book. Some of them seem to have abandoned morality, caring nothing for human life. One seems to have moved beyond that, actively delighting in the infliction of suffering.

I refer, of course, to the Judge, one of the most mesmerizing characters I've come across. In his very first appearance someone identifies him as the Devil, and the evidence in the rest of the book continues to support that assertion. I'm not sure if he actually is the Devil, but he bears the hallmarks. He's kind of a blend of Milton's Satan and Dante's Satan, if that makes sense - like the former, he loves independence, and seeks to create a world without God; like the latter, he's filled with lies, responsible for the bad things in the world, and is stuck in Hell.

Anyways, it's interesting that the Judge is practically the only well-spoken individual in the whole book. Listening to him is like listening to the Serpent. Everyone else is quiet, cussing, highly casual in their speech, while the Judge declaims, cajoles, and exposits.

All the characters were well-written, though. The Kid is an enigma who we slowly get to know through his actions, even though we never get inside his head. Tobin the expriest is great, although I was never sure exactly what we were supposed to make of him. Glanton is nearly the Judge's match, but very immediate; his actions are just as awful, but only focused on what's directly in front of him, without the Judge's wider-ranging cruelty. All the desperate men in the gang of vigilantes are also compelling, and surprisingly well differentiated given how little time is devoted to each.

The first part of the book was especially devastating. McCarthy casts the Kid in the deep end, unloading trial after trial on him, much (keeping the Biblical theme here) like Job. Every time that I thought the Kid had escaped from misery and the story might become more enjoyable, he was plunged back into violence, even worse than before and worse than I could imagine. This pattern is finally broken after the massacre of a rogue invasion force from the U S Army, but what replaces it is even worse. The Kid becomes part of the devastation, an agent of the kind of chaos that previously oppressed him.


This book kind of messed me up. I suppose it's nominally a Western, but it reads and feels like a horror book to me. I can't say that I'm glad I read it, but it is an amazing book, and I'm glad that it's over now.

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