As part of my preparations for my PhD Comprehensive Exams, I read Cormac McCarthy’s famous Blood Meridian. I was excited: a professor who I admire had told me that the novel was “a masterpiece.” However, I finished the book with provoked and mixed feelings.
On the fifth of December they rode out north in the cold darkness before daybreak carrying with them a contract signed by the governor of the state of Sonora for the furnishing of Apache scalps.
The story of Blood Meridian concerns the Glanton gang, depicted by McCarthy as a team of American guns who are hired in 1848 by a Mexican governor to hunt down Native Americans. They roam about the Mexican and American frontier, suffering with the weather, committing horrifying acts, and eventually go on the rampage against their former employers. Within the gang, two characters, the Kid and the Judge, seem the focus of McCarthy’s vision: the Judge, we slowly learn, is a terrible monster, close to omniscient, and possibly immortal.
McCarthy’s prose style is arresting and seems to beg for imitation.
With darkness one soul rose wondrously from among the new slain dead and stole away in the moonlight.
If you’ve spent any time in the American creative writing world, you’ve surely encountered male writers doing their best to adopt this style. What is it that attracts them so?
The crumpled butcherpaper mountains lay in sharp shadowfold under the long blue dusk and in the middle distance the glazed bed of a dry lake lay shimmering like the mare imbrium and herds of deer were moving north in the last of the twilight, harried over the plain by wolves who were themselves the color of the desert floor.
There is something a-personal about this style. It has no interest in aspirations, doubts, personal motivations. It is concerned with the wilderness, with destruction and violence, and with the nature of God. It achieves some of its effects by a deliberatively primitive grammar, a redundancy of conjunctions and prepositional phrases which recalls the more simple syntax of the Old Testament. And it seems to love, in its very intricacy and invention, its vision of these men and their world.
As they rode that night upon the mesa they saw come toward them much like their own image a party of riders pierced out of the darkness by the intermittent flare of the dry lightning to the north.
The narrator seems delighted by the explosive outpouring of “dark arterial blood;” he appears pleased to call the Apaches “savages” or the possessions of homeless people “strange chattels.” A luminous exhilaration looms over the most awful parts of the novel. In their moments of greatest monstrosity, Glanton and his men seem the closest they’ve ever been to the “distant pandemonium of the sun.” Only when all human ties have been abandoned do the characters edge towards union with the absolute tragedy that is the natural universe.
However, the style is so impersonal that it prevents the reader relating to any of the characters in the book as actual people. No character has desires, not even sexual ones (unless they have already been drinking, then they rampage). No character seems to have a psyche in the normal sense, or an underlayer of consciousness, or a motivation tied to his personal history. The setting of the novel, too, is so outrageously bleak that it at times ventures into self-parody.
Even if Mexico in 1848 really was the parched, alien, abandoned hell-landscape that McCarthy describes, the characters also spend time in San Diego and San Francisco and New Orleans, and yet the narrator has little interest in describing such places. The narrator seems to suffer from an attention-surplus disorder: he pulls back from any town’s noise and bustle.
God and monsters: these are the two interests of Blood Meridian. Anything between that, anything in the middle range of the human–such as friendship, or professional pride, or trade, or cynicism, or shyness–the style barely depicts.
This is perhaps why the novel is almost void of female characters. The weather has more agency than women in this book.
I’ve only read the novel once, so I could be forgetting a scene or two, but as I recall, there is only one moment where a woman makes an actual choice or decision, and this is near the end where a “dark little dwarf of a whore” takes the Kid’s arm and leads him upstairs to have sex with him. That’s it. That’s the entirety of the novel’s portrayal of female characters.
It seems then, in the vision of Blood Meridian, that women are simply a component of the middling “human” level of existence, a sort of false reality which must be escaped, outraged, avoided. Only then can real things happen.
Perhaps I’ve explained my ambivalence for this novel. But I haven’t yet answered the question I started with: is it a masterpiece? In my next post, I’m going to attempt to offer two different ways of answering the question.