Friday 18 November 2011

Blood Meridian

Some people apparently keep a notebook of every book they read. This seems a little OCDish to me, but I have several tendencies in that direction anyway so let’s go for it. For the next year, or however long, here are all the books I’ve read/will read. Plus you get the added benefit of my pearls of wisdom. These won't be reviews as such, just stuff I noticed or thought about while reading.

So it's probably best not to expect any searing insights. I did A-Level English Lit., and my understanding really hasn’t progressed all that much since. I have fairly obvious pretensions in that direction (really, just read anything else I’ve written here and you’ll get that), but I often get the feeling that I’m missing a whole lot of stuff as well.

Plus having a kid really cuts into the time you can spare for, well, anything. So this little exercise will hopefully provide a bit of an incentive for me to read more and think more, instead of just wasting time on the Chive. Prepare yourself to be astounded at the depth of my ignorance.

Cormac McCarthy, 1985
(November 2011)

Christ a-fucking-live but this is a violent book.

I read The Road a few years back, and Cormac McCarthy’s writing always reminds me a bit of Philip Roth and Robert Twigger. Twigger, for those of you who don’t know, wrote Angry White Pyjamas, a book about the intensive one-year aikido course taken by the Tokyo riot police. One of his most telling observations is that, because there’s simply no let up in the punishment, no pause for rest or recovery, pretty quickly concerns about technique and skill go out the window and the whole course becomes an ongoing exercise in pain management.

McCarthy’s better than Roth in this respect, but the experience of reading either can be akin to getting repeatedly smashed in the face with a breeze-block wall of text. Paragraphs really shouldn’t be longer than a page. At least McCarthy leavens this with quite stunning lyricism and beauty. I sometimes feel that Roth could dispense with plot and character altogether and just type AAARGH I AM ANGRY 30,000 times, occasionally throwing in a reference to Newark (which is an anagram of wanker, appropriately enough).

I’m not always sure what McCarthy’s absence of punctuation is meant to achieve. Especially in the case of speech marks and apostrophes, the absence of which feels like a stylistic tic for its own sake. The sparse use of commas certainly does affect the flow of your reading; you often have to re-read a sentence a couple of times, mentally inserting your own punctuation, in order to understand its meaning.

Then there’s the vocabulary. I like to think I’m pretty well read and well educated. I’m no great shakes, but the size of my lexicon is certainly well above average (hello, ladies). Yet maybe one word in twenty I had no idea about. Often you can trust that the author will eventually give you enough context to work it out, but not here. You can then either read with a dictionary beside you and refer to it 5 times a page, or let it all wash over you and hope that it’s just for colour and won’t impede understanding. Being a lazy sod I obviously chose the latter, which meant that the ending was even more uncertain than otherwise because I didn’t know that a ‘jake’ was a toilet. Coupled with the minimal punctuation, and despite the short chapters, this is a slow read.

None of this is necessarily a complaint. The book is truly beautiful, and deserves and probably rewards being lingered over. Corrupt, grotesquely violent, and with a gaping moral abhorrence at its core in the singular shape of the Judge. It’s not an easy read in terms of either style or content, but I suspect it’s one that will be worth returning to in the future when I have the patience, and the stomach, for it.


  1. Sounds like a book I'd enjoy,written in a way that I can appreciate :)

  2. Yeah, I reckon it'd be a good fit. You really do need to set aside the time and space for it though. Not an easy read by any means.

  3. I have barely read a book in the past few years. They are so expensive in Australia (and in Japan around the same price) plus I hate lugging them around. Plus every time I go to the bookshop, there is so much shit to shift though to find a decent read. Looking forward to more reviews so I can find some decent stuff.

  4. The 'lugging' question puts me in a real bind. A kindle or equivalent would make so much sense in terms of both economy and lifestyle. For once in my life I could justify getting a new toy for a better reason than just wanting a new toy. But I really can't give up on books as objects. It's verging on a fetish, if I'm being honest.

    You know about Project Gutenberg, right? That was always great for my commute in the UK, catch up on all those classics you know you should have read but never did.

    Now though I've deleted all the ebook apps from my phone. In theory I should be using that time for the flashcard ones instead...

  5. Books are the best, non-sexual, fetish (non-sexual, I'd hope). I'd like to say I have close friends who don't read, and don't know two cultures, except I don't. That makes me something.

    "Christ a-fucking-live but this is a violent book." I am hanging one chapter before finishing, even though I know how it ends. It makes 'The Road' look tame, despite the cannibalism: both have cannibalism, but 'Blood Meridian' adds gratuity and an even longer list of indecencies. Say what you want, but he can write; yet I will never read another of his books.

    Meant to read it for ages. Thanks, I think, for reminding me to do so.

    1. I have friends who read more, and friends who read less. I have no friends who are are proud of not reading. I've seen some people say they 'don't read books' as though it were a good thing. It's not, really it isn't.

      Anyway, for all that this book's truly barbaric, I don't think it actually is gratuitous. Somehow, it all feels perfectly justified (as a work, not the characters, obviously).

      The Road's ending actually felt a little flat, to be honest, almost deus ex machina. This doesn't. I get what you mean about not reading any more of his book, though. This one's more than enough.