Lest anyone think it's getting to be all Susan McClary all the time around here, with her "feminist" this and "alternative" that, I present you with my most recent read: Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, otherwise known as "the most grotesquely violent novel I have ever read." That's right: this book is way more violent than Part 4 of Bolaño's 2666, which I wrote about a few weeks ago. Ironically, I had taken issue with Bolaño's chosen point of view: we are only privy to the evidence of "The Crimes," rather than witnessing them first-hand. Anybody picking up Blood Meridian can certainly rest easy in that regard: most of the legion atrocities committed in this book are related in brutal, bullet-by-bullet detail - although, to call them "crimes" would be to ignore the fundamental moral vacuum that dwells at the heart of McCarthy's border country. Blood Meridian takes the romanticized, sepia-toned mythos of the Wild West, the legends about men escaping restrictive over-civilization and achieving a freedom to live in rough but rewarding brotherhood, and systematically destroys it in an avalanche of casual scalpings, gurgling pools of blood, and trees full of murdered babies hung by their jaws. Its bounty-hunting characters, far from the charismatic outlaws of folk legend, are blood-blackened butchers, completely lacking in the notion of any higher virtue than to survive as long as possible at the expense of anyone and everyone else. The times, far from being simpler, are fraught with war, exposure, and bare desperation. Almost every time I picked the book up, I encountered multiple passages that inspired me to make revolted noises out loud - and then, much to his chagrin, to share said passages with David as he tried to concentrate on something else. One night, as we walked the dog and I recounted the part about the man dragging himself through the desert after having the soles of his feet cut off, David asked, reasonably enough: "So...is it good?" and I found, a little to my surprise, that I unhesitatingly answered "Yes."
What redeems this morass of gore-soaked treachery? It's easy to praise the beauty of McCarthy's writing, which most often struck me as breathtaking and only occasionally crossed the line into overwrought. Passages like the following, unfolding in a rumbling, biblically-inflected cadence that reminded me of Peter Carey's True History of the Kelly Gang, went a long way to keeping me reading whenever I was tempted to stop:
The sun rose on a column already ragged these six days out. Among their clothes there was small agreement and among their hats less. The little painted horses stepped shifty and truculent and a vicious snarl of flies fought constantly in the bed of the gamewagon. The dust the party raised was quickly dispersed and lost in the immensity of that landscape and there was no dust other for the pale sutler who pursued them drives unseen and his lean horse and his lean cart leave no track upon such ground or any ground. By a thousand fires in the iron blue dusk he keeps his commissary and he's a wry and grinning tradesman good to follow every campaign or hound men from their holes in just those whited regions where they've gone to hide from God.
All the creatures that had been at vigil with him in the night were gone and about him lay only the strange coral shapes of fulgerite in their scorched furrows fused out of the sand where ball lightning had run upon the ground in the night hissing and stinking of sulphur.
Seated tailorwise in the eye of that cratered waste he watched the world tend away at the edges to a shimmering surmise that ringed the desert round.
Amazing stuff. But, as one LibraryThing reviewer asked, are we supposed to wade through three hundred pages of unredeemed murder because of a few literary flourishes? If this were all the novel offered, even I (and I love a gorgeous writing style) would have to agree. But I think McCarthy is doing so much more. I think he's interrogating the nature of evil, and asking questions about action and intention which I'm still mulling over.
On one level, there is the Grecian inevitability about the books's narrative arc: the Mexican government, which has been colonizing Indian land that the Apaches have been defending, offers a bounty on Apache scalps. McCarthy makes the valid point that from this decision, the entire descent into chaos is unstoppable: the bounty hunters, a troupe of desperate and brutal Americans exiled from their own country, are given a hero's welcome, but they soon progress from battling the aggressive Apaches, to slaughtering peaceful Indian tribes in their encampments, to butchering and scalping the Mexicans themselves, to (eventually) murdering each other. After all, one scalp is indistinguishable from another. By the time the Chihuahuan coffers are bankrupted and the bounty rescinded, the entire citizenry is living in fear and a band of voracious killers is set loose upon the land, to survive however they can. Considering that there will always be a class of the absolutely desperate, every step in this descent is predictable to the point of inevitability: the Chihuahuan government brings about its own destruction in setting the bounty to begin with.
Most of the members of the bounty-hunting band, though, are operating on that basic level of survival: their brutalities are committed because in their experience, there is no other way. Either they have never been exposed to any different notion, or it's been beaten out of them by experience. Between the eleven-year-old kid who runs away from the shack of his alcoholic father, and the scarred and hardened product of Van Dieman's Land with his necklace of human ears, these men are products of the world in which they live - a world which allows no margin for hesitation. I think one of the functions of the extreme violence in the novel is to stress that McCarthy isn't apologizing for these men. The reader is constantly reminded what brutal, treacherous, repulsive people they are. The fact that they are unthinking products of their environment coexists with their actions, to some extent explaining but never excusing them.
Contrasted with all other members of the band, McCarthy gives us the larger-than-life figure of Judge Holden: educated and almost preternaturally skilled, he speaks five languages and is an accomplished draftsman, knowledgeable about art, botany, philosophy, and chemistry, facile with conversation and gifted with money. In other words, it's obvious that the judge, out of all the members of the band, chooses the life of utter brutality he's living - and furthermore, it's obvious that he enjoys it. The first time we meet him, Judge Holden walks into a revivalist's tent and exposes the preacher for a fraud: wanted in five counties, the judge says, the man's a pedophile and a thief. After whipping the rough crowd into a murderous mob, the judge walks away. A few pages later, we learn that he had never heard of the preacher before in his life; that all of his accusations were completely fabricated, and that the impulse spurring him to craft his lies was not one of passion or revenge, but of pure, undirected malice. This is a fair introduction to Holden: he's the spirit of darkest nihilism made flesh, a sharp-witted sadist who delights in control - of people, of situations, of information. He believes himself the rightful master of any person or landscape he encounters, and he delights in proving his sovereignty. And the question I pondered throughout all this was: is the judge worse than the other members of the band?
It's not like the acts performed by Holden are measurably worse than those performed by the rest of the gang. Every member in it actively seeks out and commits terrible violence, and the judge is no different. Does his bare enjoyment of the life he's living make him into more of a monster than the other characters? Something in my gut believes that yes, the judge is creepier and darker than the other gang members because of his nihilistic delight, because of his own conviction that he is an immortal god among men and that murder is his right. But something else in me believes that intention doesn't really matter here, that what matters are the actions of the characters, and that they are all equally heinous in that regard, the judge no more than the others. Because if I claim that the judge is worse, wouldn't I be implying that the others are better? And does it really make a remorseless mercenary "better" if he's murdering and maiming in order to earn a few bucks and some swallows of whiskey, rather than because he believes himself some kind of immortal war-god bringing men to a final reckoning? Furthermore, is it even valid to make this kind of moral distinction about a world itself devoid of even the most basic morality? I don't have the answers, but I'm indebted to McCarthy for bringing up, not for the first time, these very interesting questions.
(Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West was my sixth and final book for the What's in a Name Challenge, representing the "time of day" category.)