Sunday, February 11, 2007

McCarthyisms #7

When Blood Meridian was published Caryn James wrote in the NYT that "While it is hard to get through it, it is hard to ignore it."

For the first eighty pages or so I was inclined to agree with fellow Harry Potter-hater Harold Bloom's opinion that McCarthy's novel stands as one of the greatest literary achievements of our age, but then I started to get a bit bogged down. Up until then I had been enthusiastically telling people that here at last was an author writing in English that I could unequivocally admire, but at around the half-way stage I started to empathise with the critics that had ruled this book more pretentious than portentous. McCarthy does however heave up the drama of his epic in the final third...only to deliver an ending that is on the half-empty side of ambiguous.

More on that in a later post. Meanwhile, it is worth saying outright that, faults and all, Blood Meridian is still a whole lot better than the best novels written on this side of the world in the past 25 years (such as Coetzee's Disgrace.) "Hit and miss verbiage" it may be, but the hits outnumber the misses significantly.

These then are the things that McCarthy is VERY good at representing:

1) Animals, especially canines

"By evening they had acquired a retinue of half a dozen wolves of varying size and color that trotted behind them singlefile and watched over their own shoulders to see that each should follow in his own place."

"Now wolves had come to follow them, great pale lobos with yellow eyes that trotted neat of foot or squatted in the shimmering heat to watch them where they made their noon halt."

2) Lunge /parry/riposte-style dialogue, always without quotation marks

"Kindly fell on hard times aint ye son? he said.
I Just aint fell on no good ones."

3) Dialect

"Aint that the drizzlin shits, he said."

4) All manner of unpleasantnesses

"The idiot was small and misshapen and his face was smeared with faeces and he sat peering at them with dull hostility silently chewing a turd."

"Later when the lamps were lit the heads in the soft glare of the uplight assumed the look of tragic masks and within a few days they would become mottled white and altogether leprous with the droppings of the birds that roosted upon them."

"They were skewered through the cords of their heels with sharpened shuttles of green wood and they hung grey and naked above the dead ashes of the coals where they'd been roasted until their heads had charred and the brains bubbled in the skulls and steam sang from their noseholes."

5) Distant electrical storms and other atmospheric effects

"All night sheetlightning quaked sourceless to the west beyond the midnight thunderheads, making a bluish day of the distant desert, the mountains on the sudden skyline stark and black and livid like a land of some other order out there whose true geology was not stone but fear."

"Tandem storms were blowing down-country from the north and the thunder trundled away in the distance and the air was cold and smelled of wet stone."

"About him lay only the strange coral shapes of fulgurite in their scorched furrows fused out of the sand where ball lightning had run upon the ground in the night hissing and stinking of sulphur."

"That night they could see the fire of the Mexicans reflected in the sky to the east beyond the curve of the earth."

6) Serendipitous first impressions of new townships

"Already it is twilight down in the Laredito. Bats fly forth from their roostings in courthouse and tower and circle the quarter. The air is full of the smell of burning charcoal. Children and dogs squat by the mud stoops and gamecocks flap and settle in the branches of the fruit trees. They go afoot, these comrades, down along the bare adobe wall. Band music carries dimly from the square. They pass a watercart in the street and they pass a hole in the wall where by the light of a small forgefire an old man beats out shapes of metal. They pass in a doorway a young girl whose beauty becomes the flowers about."

"They passed old alms-seekers by the church door with their seamy palms outheld and maimed beggars sad-eyed in rags and children asleep in the shadows with flies walking thei dreamless faces. Dark coppers in a clackdish, the shrivelled eyes of the blind. Scribes crouched by the steps with their quills and inkpots and bowls of sand and lepers moaning through the streets and naked dogs that seemed composed of bone entirely and vendors of tamales and old women with faces dark and harrowed as the land squatting in the gutters over charcoal fires where blackened strips of anonymous meat sizzled and spat. Small orphans were abroad like irate dwarfs and fools and sots drooling and flailing about in the small markets of the metropolis and the prisoners road past the carnage in the meatstalls and the waxy smell where racks of guts hung black with flies and flayings of meat in great red sheets now darkened with the advancing day and the flensed and naked skulls of cows and sheep with their dull blue eyes glaring wildly and the stiff bodies of deer and javelina and ducks and quail and parrots, all wild things from the country round hanging head downward from hooks."

7) Rural parishes

"He woke in the nave of a ruinous church, blinking up at the vaulted ceiling and the tall swagged walls with their faded frescoes. The floor of the church was deep in dried guano and the droppings of cattle and sheep. Pigeons flapped through the piers of dusty light and three buzzards hobbled about on the picked bone carcass of some animal dead in the chancel."

8) Characterful local drinking places

"The cantina was a single room and there was a hole in the ceiling where a trunk of sunlight fell through onto the the mud floor and figures crossing the room steered with care past the edge of this column of light as if it might be hot to the touch."

9) Evil

The subject perhaps, of a future post...

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