Saturday, January 03, 2009

BOOK REVIEW - Cormac McCarthy - Blood Meridian

It's a rare occasion when I gave up on reading a book, the last one that I remember was 'Gravitys Rainbow' by Thomas Pynchon. These elite few have now been joined by 'Blood Meridian' by Cormac Mc Carthy. I had early premonitions, all would not be well. This is a fearsomely eloquent book, visionary and written to within an inch of superlative, with every sentence cured and honed. But that is where it becomes more than a little wearisome. Its effect on me was comparable to that of reading E. Annie Proux for the first time. You are immediately struck by the writing style and distinct authorial voice, which does stand out as unusual. This ended up being my main problem with McCarthy, the author stands out far too much on the page, getting in the way of my fully absorbing the narrative and character. As the pages turned I found myself becoming more and more exasperated. The people inhabiting 'Blood Meridian are indistinct or nameless, the central character through whom we view the story is only ever referred to as 'the kid'. The storyline, if one could say it possessed such a thing, is a sort of odyssey across the US/Mexican frontier in the 19th century Wild West. But this is a West that is really wild, is truly lawless and out of control. No chapter remains unmarked by yet more vengeful violence spilling out in richly coloured prose. As heads are decapitated, McCarthy describes them to an almost comic level of detail e.g.

"Two thick ropes of dark blood and two slender rose like snakes from the stump of his neck and arched hissing into the fire. The head rolled to the left and came to rest at the ex priests feet where it lay aghast...The fire steamed and blackened and a gray cloud of smoke rose and the columnar arches of blood slowly subsided until the neck bubbled gently like a stew and then that too was stilled. He was sat as before save headless, drenched in blood, the cigarillo still between his fingers, leaning toward the dark and soaking grotto in the flames where his life had gone."

By any standards that is a superb piece of descriptive writing, however gruesome the subject matter. But that doesn't make up for a lack in the novel of any sense of progression. By the umpteenth grotesque death incident, I was a little tired of these macabre peaks in the storyline that appeared to be its only form of dramatic incident. I wasn't the least bit interested in persevering with it any further than the 122 pages of its 337 pages.

I guess this says as much about me, and my expectations of a novel, as it does about Cormac McCarthy. Previously I've not found myself unable to surrender to a books mood ,to be swept along by the invention and thrust of its prose. Though I have to say, I do have less tolerance for fiction in general these days. This is especially so if novelists are too knowingly clever by half, or who tease and test my patience. I'm increasingly less impressed by innovative, boundary breaking narratives that take you nowhere, and literary stylists, well they'll be the death of me. What is so gripping about pages of incorrectly punctuated prose and dialogue all muddled up? What does a novel gain from this charade? James Joyce has a lot to answer for. The fact that I've abandoned 'Blood Meridian' for CJ Samson's new Shardlake novel 'Revelation' speaks volumes. Give me a richly detailed historical murder mystery/detective novel any day, than something that's been critically lauded. Perhaps its symptomatic of my age that I value more the tried and trusted verities of fiction- vividly written, believable characters, with an interesting absorbing storyline brilliantly executed. Pulitzer Prize winner he may be, but Cormac McCarthy left me out in a rather 'bloody' cold.

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