Monday, May 15, 2017
Blood Meridian or the Bailing out in the West
This is a short bit on my giving up on McCarthy's masterpiece by consensus
My history with Cormac McCarthy is short but sharp. There was a time, brief but intense, when I seriously considered doing a PhD covering McCarthy's fiction. The first I read of his was No Country for Old Men back in 2005, just after graduating university for the first time, and from then, I gobbled up most of his major works. I considered All the Pretty Horses to be one of my all time favourite novels, though I haven't read it in a decade. I wound down my glut of McCarthy by finishing with Blood Meridian, though I never completed the novel. I remember quite clearly, around 2006 or 2007, sitting in the waiting room to get laser eye surgery. I had Blood Meridian in my hand. After the surgery, I couldn't read for a long time, and the distance between us, between the novel and I, between McCarthy and I, grew exponentially. I didn't realize how much of a gulf had opened until this week when I tried to read Blood Meridian for what I think is the last time. I struggled through 60 pages before deciding to concede. What happened? Where did my love for McCarthy go?
McCarthy's prose in Blood Meridian is as gorgeous and as biblical as I remembered it being, so it wasn't an aesthetic problem. Certainly, my tastes in aesthetics have been veering closer to the abstract while still rooted in narrative—hence my vocal adoration of Elfriede Jelinek—so McCarthy's sparse, polysyndetic language worked for me. I don't think anybody has ever written about the sun as beautifully or as evocatively as McCarthy; to this day, I can remember a line from All the Pretty Horses about the sun, sitting bloated and bloodred angry on the horizon, and how malevolent the sun feels in his fiction. Even typing all this makes me yearn to try Blood Meridian again. Yet, I think of how inert my experience with the novel was during the past couple days.
Perhaps the problem is one of masculinity. McCarthy is a very masculinist writer: his casts are mostly men, white men, white men taciturn and emotionally closed off. Interiority is something often absent in McCarthy's work as his characterization derives more from action—not as in, drama, but as in gestures, movements, words. Many beautiful sequences in his novels detail men working on things, manipulating things with hands. Consider the sequence in No Country for Old Men when Llewelyn buys a shotgun, saws it, and prepares for Anton Chigurh imminent arrival at the motel. Here, McCarthy uses his careful use of polysyndeton to quicken the pace and bring focus directly to Llewelyn's relationship to the gun, to the waiting, to the act of working with his hands. McCarthy's self reliant men, operating in a long discourse of American culture, stretching back to Emerson and Thoreau, take their fate in their own hands, literally and figuratively. The problem is manifold for me: I'm not as terribly interested in the plight of the emotionally remote white man who is unable or unwilling to voice their feelings in a productive manner. Where Blood Meridian and earlier texts seemed to revel in the glory and mystery of this mythic man, this archetype, at least No Country and All the Pretty Horses were loudly critical of this type of masculinity. Perhaps we can apply a spectrum to McCarthy's oeuvre: ending before Blood Meridian, we have an uncritical exaltation of masculinity, while the novel represents the shift towards undoing all the myth and majesty of the discourse in which McCarthy is working.
My exhaustion with McCarthy isn't so much with the work itself, but more an indication of my shifting tastes. My blog is an excellent archive of how my interests and likes have changed along the axis of time. When at one point, I loved Richard Ford enough to name my blog after one of his novels, I can't imagine anymore wanting to spend time in his world, his nebbish world of missed connections and Puritanical reservation. Similarly, I thought at one point Don Winslow to be a great writer when now I have no interest in his works. Looking back on what I had opined were my favourite novels, I listed Richard Ford, Bret Easton Ellis, Michael Crichton, Douglas Coupland, etc etc etc. Perhaps those are still great artists with great works to their name (I sincerely doubt Ford's The Lay of the Land stands the test of time), but I've moved away from them. I can't even say I moved onto better or more diverse things (though I have read more and from more diverse people). But these writers mired in the same masculine White Guy discourse makes me yawn.
This isn't to say all White Guys are boring (most are tho) but that the subject of masculinity doesn't appeal to me anymore. My own shifting gender identity has played a part in this along with my distance from the commonly accepted tenets of masculinity (sports, cars, etc). Hitherto suspicious or disdainful, I am now holistically apathetic to upholding any form of masculinity which feeds into patriarchy. I couldn't care less what men do as long as they keep it to themselves and check their privilege. Thus, all these Great White Men writers, with their phallic obsessions, their myopic focus on gestures and actions coded manly (consider the almost erotic sensuality of McCarthy describing hunting of animals), it no longer appeals to me.
Even in The Road, I think his worst novel, the undoing of toxic masculinity by celebrating the loving affectionate bond between man and son (wholly jettisoning any Oedipal replacement anxiety) is undermined by the repetitive robotic fascination with manly pursuits (though I still retain a fond memory of the infamous baby on a spit scene!). I won't ask McCarthy or any of these Great White Dudes to write something else. Why bother, when there are endless quantities of other books I can read which don't fetishize masculinity in the same way?
Again, this isn't a criticism of McCarthy's writing or interests. I still love his prose and think many of his novels are terrific. It's just simply my taste has shifted, and not unilaterally either. Tastes are nebulous and almost protoplasmic in their malleability. Perhaps I'm just not at the right stage in my life to read Blood Meridian. Perhaps in a year or two, I'll yearn for McCarthy. For now, I officially abandon the novel and redirect my energies elsewhere.