Monday, July 28, 2008

Blood Meridian: the Jacqui's Room Notes

In which I describe things you should not let your children read.*

I cannot be funny about this one. I tried. I wrote haiku instructions for a 1850s borderland scalp hunters. I compiled a page by page body count (into the tens of thousands by page 30). I even tried falling back on my trusty Little People. Everything I tried cheapened the horror of Blood Meridian, and to do so seems dishonest. Because this book is nothing if not full of horror. Why?

1. The story: "The Kid" is a teen runaway who falls in with a marauding gang of scalp-hunters who roam the Mexican-American border in 1849-50, collecting the scalps of Native Americans to trade for gold. They kill everyone they meet, in sleep-disturbingly brutal and graphic ways.

2. The language. Despite the subject matter, McCarthy's prose rolls on, sparse, matter of fact, and relentless. Its have-to-stop-and-read-it-again poetry stands in stark contrast to the violence and cruelty it describes. Observe:

"An ancient walled presidio composed wholly of mud, a tall mud church and mud watchtowers and all of it rainwashed and lumpy and sloughing into a soft decay. The advent of the riders bruited by scurvid curs that howled woundedly and slank among the crumbling walls" (p.97).

As a reader, it is haunting. As a writer, it is fascinating. McCarthy does not change his tone when the actions in the book grow chaotic and gory, which forces the reader to decipher, to read every word and, thus, to experience every blood splatter.

3. What McCarthy doesn't write is more powerful even than what he writes. He gives his characters zero emotional reaction on the page, which leaves it all to the reader. And in the end (this is sort of a spoiler), he doesn't even describe the final death, just the horrified reactions of those who see the aftermath. This implies that the scene outstrips even the utterly unbelievable terror we have already witnessed, and leaves our imaginations and fears to reconstruct what happened. I love this manipulation.

4. The facts. The book is based on a journal, which, while of questionable reliability, is certainly historically accurate. So we can't blow off what's within as the sick imaginings of a psychopath who happens to write beautifully. In the epilogue, unnamed characters dig holes in the ground, ignoring the scattered bones of those who went before. Presumably, they are laying fence. I was confused as to why, until I realized McCarthy is reminding us that Blood Meridian, and a thousand stories like it, are what built the foundations of the American Southwest.

So, no, I can't be funny, and I can't exactly recommend it. I have started a new list in Cormac McCarthy's honor: Brilliant Books You Shouldn't Read. I am priding myself on not saddling you with any of the 100 horrible images running through my brain. And now, in order to keep myself from having nightmares, I am going to watch this a few hundred times and giggle with childish anticipation.

* Because I know all of your children beg to visit Jacqui's Room.
** And there is so much stunningly beautiful language that I had a hard time choosing what quote to gift to you above.


J. Thorp said...

Hmmm. I'm not good at leaving that sort of thing behind. Maybe Leaves of Grass is a wise choice ... By the way, I love the new category of books!

Jacqui said...

Yeah, me neither, obviously. But the writing is undeniably exquisite. Hard call.

Mary Witzl said...

The other day I volunteered at a book stall for a charity, and one of Cormac McCarthy's books was there -- I can't remember which. A woman came along and snatched it up. She said she was addicted to his prose and had read almost all his other books over and over. Honestly, I have tried The Road and I could not get through it. But you make this sound compelling, and I think that I will have to try again.

Jacqui said...

Mary, it is compelling. And horrifying. But truly beautifully written.

Celia said...

This is great!