In my last post, I described some of my doubts about Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian. Before I started the book, I had been told it was a “masterpiece,” and now that I’m finished, I’m struggling to decide what I think about this. On the one hand, the book didn’t satisfy me to the extent I thought it would; on the other, I concede that it still may deserve the title.
When I really like a book, it’s easy for me to simply “know” that it deserves to be considered great. While I was reading Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson, I felt profound exhilaration and delight, a feeling has not faded with later re-readings. And it’s clear that many people have felt this way about Blood Meridian. See, for instance, this attempt by six artists to illustrate every single page of the novel.
However, even though I personally wasn’t won over by Blood Meridian, and much preferred McCarthy’s later novel, The Road, I can imagine two possible standards under which I would still accord it the status of a “masterpiece.”
The first standard I’m going to call “internal consistency.” Blood Meridian has an incredible feeling of self-sufficiency, of an author’s vision carried out with no foreign matter allowed in. Even the individual sentences have this quality, many of them designed to stand alone, if necessary, as complete vistas or vignettes. A sentence I quoted in my previous post seems designed to tell an entire story in itself:
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 goal for this standard of greatness, it seems, is to go as far in a particular literary direction as it is possible to go. Just as Gravity’s Rainbow often seems intent on being as confusing and idea-studded as possible, or just as Ulysses sets out to be a total replication of the city of Dublin, Blood Meridian has the feeling of a novel attempting to out-Western all other Westerns.
Does the typical Western have few female characters? Well, the ultimate Western, therefore, should have none. Does the typical Western focus as much on setting and environment as its characters’ personal hopes and long-term aspirations? Well, in that case Blood Meridian will give full depth and agency to its setting, while not even providing its protagonist with a name. Does the Western echo with the horrors of the American frontier? Then this Western will portray its American characters as the most inhuman and terrible creatures possible.
Does this pursuit of purity limit such novels’ ability to tell a good story? Well, so be it.
However, I can see another standard for calling a book a masterpiece: its ability to speak to what we call “real life.” Part of the impact of reading a novel like Their Eyes Were Watching God, for instance, is asking oneself a question like, “How much am I like Janie Crawford?” Part of the power of reading Great Expectations is recognising one’s own illusions and self-deceptions in Pip.
This is not to muddle the difference between fiction and reality. Rather, in a great work of fiction, we get the chance to see our own life illuminated by giant forms. Filtered through a writer’s vision of the world, we see that world afresh.
At least to this reader, Blood Meridian’s very purity and singularity makes it less satisfying when considered by this second standard of greatness. Instead, I experience it from a distance, like overhearing a television in another room. Whether this is because there’s no coherent protagonist to filter the story through, or because its monochromatic horror ultimately feels contrived (question: why does the Kid’s mother have to die in childbirth? Answer: Just to keep everything sufficiently bleak), or a mixture of these, I don’t know.
As I read, I can see that McCarthy takes it all very seriously, but I’m not sure how I am supposed to. Even though his great villain, the Judge, says a lot of important-sounding things, what these statements are supposed to signify is often obscure, even in a poetic sense.
To me, McCarthy’s The Road really is a masterpiece. It presents a future world I’ve never lived in, but which seems completely meaningful and compelling. Its horrors all make awful sense, as does its agonies of survival and impossible hope. On both levels of masterpiece-ness, it felt an awe-inspiring success.
But Blood Meridian left me uncompelled.