Thursday, October 21, 2010

Contemporary Series Part 1: Blood Meridian

I cannot believe I let so much time slip by between posts.  To make up for it, I want to begin a series of posts about contemporary novels.  In an earlier blog, I mentioned in the comments section that there are some contemporary novels that I think should and will be added to our list of "Classic Literature."  If we do not allow for this, Classic Literature is obsolescent and in danger of being forgotten and/or dismissed.  Great literature is still being produced today, and yet we tend to venerate only the novels written 100+ years ago as "Classic."  With time, some of the 20th century authors like James Joyce and T.S. Eliot have been added to the list, which is relatively recent.  However, there are some living authors whose works I think deserve to join the ranks of Classic Literature.

I want to start with Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian (1985).  McCarthy has a very distinctive style, which is both unusual and fascinating.  He does not adhere to traditional sentence structure or grammatical rules; much of his writing is composed in sentence fragments.  By cutting out excess words in this way, he leaves readers with pure description, enabling them to see, hear, and smell everything in the scene without distraction.

Blood Meridian is particularly notable for its graphic violence.  This book is not for the faint of heart, and I hesitate to blindly recommend it to all readers because it is so powerfully graphic.  Some of the scenes in the novel are almost unimaginably gruesome, and if I listed them off to you, you might be horrified.  However, the genius of this book is the juxtaposition of this kind of brutal violence with some of the most beautifully written prose I have ever read.  I read several passages of the novel out loud so I could hear the marvelous ebb and flow of the descriptive words and the rhythm it creates.  His writing is just breath-taking, and it almost feels like Romantic poetry.  And yet the subject of the description is often very raw and disturbing.  The balance he thus creates in Blood Meridian between these contrasts is extraordinarily commendable.

When I finished reading the novel, I was unsure how I felt about it.  How could I use the words, "I liked it," to describe a story so brutal and heart-wrenching?  During my reading, I wasn't smiling or chuckling, nor was I wishing I could be a part of the story with the characters.  I don't plan on rereading this one over and over, nor can I even bring myself to list it as one of my favorite books of all time.  Yet I was undeniably moved.  McCarthy brought me to experience this unsettling contrast with emotions and thoughts I've never entertained.    For all of these reasons - its uniqueness, its brilliance, its disturbing content - I think Blood Meridian should definitely be considered a work of Classic Literature.

I would love to hear your thoughts about this novel.  I can imagine that it would produce different experiences for everyone.  If you are interested in reading more about this book, The Literate Man has a great review of it, which you can find here.


IngridLola said...

I felt much the same way when I read this book. Very disturbing. The "roughness" of his writing somehow adds to the disturbing factor. I liked the sort of anti-sentimentalism of it.
I have a question for you, why did you think his writing was like Romantic poetry? I don't know if I quite see the connection but I'm interested in why you would say that.

Patrick (at The Literate Man) said...

Great review. And thanks for the shout out to TLM.

It's funny that everyone seems to feel the same way about Blood Meridian, don't you think? I mean, there are radically divergent reviews of almost every contemporary piece of literature out there from Eat Pray Love (don't get me started) to Freedom, but everyone says the same thing about Blood Meridian - I didn't like the violence, but it's a work of genius.

I'm no expert on cinema, but I think there's a modern school of Mexican cinema that is similarly ultra-realistic with respect to the violence of the every day world. The only film that comes to mind right now is Amores Perros--it was very hard to watch, as you can imagine.

Amy said...

@IngridLola - By Romantic poetry, I mean the period of Romanticism, in which the focus of the artist was portraying emotion. I'll give you a couple examples so you can see what I mean.

1. "How these things end. In confusion and curses and blood. They drank on and the wind blew in the streets and the stars that had been overhead lay low in the west and these young men fell afoul of others and words were said that could not be put right again..."

This passage just sounds like poetry to me. I feel like you could easily break it into lines, and there is no excess language to distract you from ideas like "confusion and curses and blood."

2. "They moved on and the stars jostled and arced across the firmament and died beyond the inkblack mountains. They came to know the nightskies well. Western eyes that read more geometric constructions than those names given by the ancients."

Once again, I think that more than plot and characters, (which are the focus of novels), it is the emotion that comes out of these lines, which I consider to be the effect of Romantic poetry. These descriptions are given primarily to portray a feeling, not to construct a traditional sense of plot, although a plot emerges in effect.

What do you think? How would you classify this kind of writing? "Romantic poetry" may be a bit of a stretch.

Amy said...

@Patrick - It is strange that most reviews seem to say about the same thing, because I would have guessed this to be a book that would produce extremely varied reactions. And I'm sure some people must dislike it for its graphic content and unorthodox sentence structure, right? Someone, somewhere, must be turned off by that. It's too risky of a writing style for everyone to agree, but maybe it just speaks of his genius that it can come off so successfully to audiences.

And no worries; I won't defend Eat Pray Love as a piece of Contemporary Classic Literature. I think that the majority of contemporary lit would not fall under this category, (in my mind at least), which is why I want to pull out the exceptions.

Thanks for your comments, both of you! I really enjoying hearing other people's thoughts!

IngridLola said...

Amy, thanks for the explanation! I definitely understand what you are getting at.

I think it's important to point out the emotion in these passages, but I don't think I would go so far as to equate them with Romantic poetry. I feel like, at least in my experience, Romanticism is (generally) more optimistic, individualistic, focusing on creativity and movement. The feeling I got from Blood Meridian was stagnant, pessimistic, the-world's-going-to-hell kind of thing. Characters are more likely to take what they want from the world than giving themselves to it. A great example of this is the Judge and his sketchbook. He finds beautiful and interesting things, sketches them, then destroys them so he is the only own who "owns" them. This is pretty much the opposite of creativity. What an intriguing concept! This idea paired with the setting of the American West and all the implications that brings with it is what makes this novel so stunning.

Anyway, as you can tell from this comment I'm no scholar, haha. But hopefully you can understand what I'm trying to say, and why I wouldn't necessarily call McCarthy's writing Romantic.

IngridLola said...

Also, here's someone that completely hates Cormac McCarthy -
He doesn't specifically talk about Blood Meridian, but yeah ... even though I generally like Cormac McCarthy's writing, I think this article makes some good points, haha.

Amy said...

I think you're right about the general mode of Romantic poetry. I was just struck by the emotion in the words and the poetry of the sentence structure, so I called it Romantic poetry. However, the emotion is specifically dark and melancholy, which may take it away from Romanticism. Nevertheless, I still think many passages in the book sound more like poetry than typical novel writing, and I imagine you'd agree with that. I enjoy the feedback!

IngridLola said...

I definitely agree. Thanks for your responses!