Sunday, October 05, 2008

Blood Meridian

I had to admit something about fiction: I'm not a very rigorous reader. I'll sit down and hash out a philosophy book closely and carefully, working as hard as I can at it, but not so with fiction. So while I love reading something monstrous by Heidegger, I'm not sure I'll ever get around to reading Beckett.

Part of this must have something to do with a lack of experience. After having read a half dozen or so of the major works of philosophy, I now have a feel for structure, for the movement of text. I see Nietzsche in a whole new light these days; when I first began reading, all I saw was the polemical fireworks.

Maybe all I've ever needed with fiction was someone to introduce me to the more serious stuff, to give me a running start at it. Cormac McCarthy has certainly built himself a reputation, garnering high praise from the likes of the canon's most fearsome defender, Harold Bloom. Maybe McCarthy's vaguely Nietzschean fireworks will be a path into "literature" for me.

So, Blood Meridian. The tale tracks a group of roughnecks along the Texas/Mexico border as they gather and sell Indian scalps. Make no mistake, this books reputation for violence is well earned; the posse rampages across the landscape, slaughtering even those they are working for.

The ostensible protagonist is simply known as the kid. The story begins with him, but soon enough he fades into the background, largely being replaced by the judge. If you've read the book or seen the movie No Country, then you have a small hint of who the judge is in Anton Chigurh - a force of nature. The characters do not repeat each other, however; Chigurh is more of an unthinking force of nature, while the judge outright revels in evil.

My praise for the book: there are several passages that were so extraordinarily fine, so evocative, that I couldn't help but compare them to some passages in Lord of the Rings. These passages appeared on a fairly regular basis, as well. Instead of blathering on, I'll offer a few of them up.

Here, the group is camped in a rocky desert area. The judge, who is all things to all men, has been examining some of the rocks in the area. Punctuation is intact, just so's you know. McCarthy has his own way of ordering the world.

"In the afternoon he sat in the compound breaking ore samples with a hammer, the feldspar rich in red oxide of cooper and native nuggets in whose organic lobations he purported to read news of the earth's origins, holding an extemporary lecture in geology to a small gathering who nodded and spat. A few would quote him scripture to confound his ordering up of eons out of the ancient chaos and other apostate supposings. The judge smiled.

Books lie, he said.

God don't lie.

No, said the judge. He does not. And these are his words.

He held up a chunk of rock.

He speaks in stones and trees, the bones of things.

The squatters in their rags nodded amount themselves and where soon reckoning him correct, this man of learning, in all his speculations, and this the judge encouraged until they were right new proselytes of the new order whereupon he laughed at them for fools."

The bones of things? Ordering up of eons? So, so good. This is the judge at work: he nothing is true unless he says it is, nothing is allowed to exist without his permission.

My other favourite passage takes place as the group is hunted by a band of Indians. The group here is out of ammunition and food; they are chased like dogs. They encounter the judge, and he offers them salvation by showing them how to make explosive powder. Just before this, the group marches across particularily rugged ground.

"The malpais. It was a maze. Ye'd run out upon a little promontory and ye'd be balked by the steep crevasses, you wouldnt dare to jump them. Sharp black glass the edges and sharp the flinty rocks below. We led the horses with ever care and still they were bleedin about their hooves. Our boots was cut to pieces. Clamberin over those old caved and rimpled plates you could see well enough how things had gone in that place, rocks melted and set up all wrinkled like a pudding, the earth stove through to the molten core of her. Where for aught any man knows the locality of hell. For the earth is a globe in the void and truth there's no up nor down to it and there's men in this company besides myself seen little cloven hoofprints in the stone clever as a little doe in her going but what little doe ever trod molten rock? I'd not go behind scripture but it may be that there has been sinners so notorious evil that the fires coughed em up again and I could well see in the long ago how it was devils with their pitchforks had traversed that fiery vomit for to salage back those souls that had by misadventure been spewed up from their damnation onto the outer shelves of the world. Aye. It's a notion, no more. But someplace in the scheme of things of things this world must touch the other. And something put them little hooflet markings in the lava flow for I seen them there myself."

No sics there, you understand. It is passages like these where the utter uncanniness of McCarthy's world shines through. I must admit, I shivered when I read this; this single paragraph matches anything I've read elsewhere for horror.

It is a terribly rich book. Ultra violence mixed with uncanny magical realism mixed with wonderful turns of phrase. What with the The Road move coming out, this one will probably be next. We'll see.

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