Tuesday, August 23, 2011

What I'm Reading: Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

My 'ambivalence' to Texas  (I'm being charitable) since I moved here three years ago is well documented. For a while now I've been thinking that I should read some of the literature relating to or coming from the Lone Star state as a route to understanding it better, and who knows, even cultivating some sympathy for it. Instead, in taking on Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian you might argue that I found confirmation of my existing prejudice.

Here in Austin, we're in the grip of an unprecedented spell of 100 degree-plus days. Tomorrow we will equal the record for number of 100 degree-plus days in a calendar year (sixty-nine), with a month of summer still remaining. Most of these 100 degree days have been consecutive -  the thermometer hovers around 105 every afternoon. In this regard then Blood Meridian made perfect sense of Austin for me. Much of its three hundred and fifty pages are dedicated to magnificent descriptions of a landscape and climate that is utterly inhospitable, fit for neither man nor beast. The first half of the book takes place on the Texas-Mexico border and is filled with descriptive passages of a great barren emptiness in which no-one thrives and only scavengers survive. I don't mean to imply that Austin is full of scavengers, but certainly as an enterprise, you can see the city is flawed (Or at least, I can. Lots of people love it, apparently).

Blood Meridian is as difficult a book as I've read in a long time. I expected this - it's one reason I've put off reading McCarthy for so long, and for much the same reason I've long avoided picking-up Faulkner (with whom McCarthy is most frequently compared). I'm certainly not averse to difficult authors, but you have to be ready for them. You can't take this stuff lightly.

I was a hundred and eighty pages into Meridian before it stopped feeling like heavy lifting and clicked into gear for me. That being said, it's a book of such density that I don't imagine for a moment I've wrought from it even half of what's in there. I'm reminded of the Lars von Trier film, Breaking the Waves, which felt like literature to me when I saw it, and which I hoped to understand more fully through a second viewing. Problem is, I found the film so harrowing that I've been unable to return to it ever since.

Blood Meridian is famous for its brutality. Apparently there's a film adaptation in the works, and you can imagine Hollywood having a field day with the violence, with all the decapitation and exploding innards. One doubts that you'll get any understanding of the fact that the violence here is anything but gratuitous.  What the book offers instead, is an indelible imagining of the American frontier a hundred and fifty years ago, told in a powerful, brilliantly stylized language. As a side-note, I wonder if perhaps this is the kind of effect Hemingway was after in attempting to convey the Castilian people in his Spanish Civil War novel For Whom The Bell Tolls? 

Regardless, I do feel I have a more powerful (albeit, far from complete) idea of Texas now, and recognize something of what lies beneath the buildings and streets and freeways of Austin.

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From Blood Meridian:

'They found the scouts hanging head downward from the limbs of a fireblacked paloverde tree. They were skewered through the cords of their heels with sharpened shuttles of green wood and they hung gray and naked above the dead ashes of the coals where they'd been roasted until their heads had charred and their brains bubbled in their skulls and steam sang from their noseholes.  Their tongues were drawn out and held with sharpened sticks thrust through them and they had been docked of their ears and their torsos were sliced open with flints until the entrails hung down on their chests. Some of the men pushed forward with their knives and cut the bodies down and they left them there in the ashes.'

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