Bart's Reviews > Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West

Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West by Cormac McCarthy
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Jan 10, 2013

liked it
Recommended for: Fans of westerns
Read in December, 2007

In Cormac McCarthy's novel The Crossing, McCarthy proves he can write about about the travels of a wolf in a poetic and engaging way. In Blood Meridian McCarthy writes about three or four wolves, calls them humans - those characters he bothers to name at all - and shows that with enough talent and powerful prose, a writer and his work can be called "great" without having to develop a single character in 330 pages.

Among those who would be unsatisfied with the mere word "great" and have to go further in describing Blood Meridian, unbelievably enough, we find literary critic Harold Bloom. Mr. Bloom, who has published at least 1,000 pages that say irony and character development are the only measures of a major writer, is ridiculous in his praise, writing that Blood Meridian is "clearly the major esthetic achievement of any living American writer."

McCarthy is a writer of overpowering prose, no doubt. So overpowering, in fact, that where lesser writers would come to a moral dilemma and have to use it to shape a character somehow, McCarthy simply overpowers the story and character and reader with his prose. For this he's earned comparisons with everyone from Dante Alighieri to Homer to Melville to Faulkner. Frankly, he can have his comparisons to Faulkner, but he can't have Melville.

The nearest McCarthy comes to Melville's Ahab is with his "Judge" character in Blood Meridian. But the Judge is about what Ahab would be if we didn't know he'd lost his leg, didn't spend 400 pages chasing his whale and just came to the last few pages of biblical soliloquies about Ahab thrusting his spear. The most McCarthy's willing to do for us in the way of character development is capture the Judge thrusting his spear over and over again - with newer and more accomplished and more grotesque depictions on each page.

Why is the Judge thrusting his spear? Something about the permanence of war and violence. When it comes time for such explanations, McCarthy either offers us an indecipherable sermon of florid language from the Judge or provides an insight like this:

"For this will to deceive that is in things luminous may manifest itself likewise in retrospect and so by sleight of some fixed part of a journey already accomplished may also post men to fraudulent destinies." (p. 120)

Even if McCarthy had been a touch less "literary" and actually employed punctuation that sentence would be incoherent.

One needn't be a lazy reader to realize, quite early on, that there's little irony to be found in McCarthy's prose. Really, what we have in The Crossing, Cities of the Plain, Blood Meridian and The Road are travelogues written in a fierce American prose and offering some of the most beautiful depictions of gore in a century of literature.

About that prose a different - and probably better - critic than Bloom, James Wood, memorably writes:

"(McCarthy) is an American ham. When critics laud him for being biblical, they are hearing sounds that are more often than not merely antiquarian, a kind of vatic histrionic groping, in which the prose plumes itself up and flourishes an ostentatiously obsolete lexicon. Blood Fustian, this style might be called."

If one wants McCarthy's exact same landscapes populated with actual characters, creatures who think and converse and evolve, one is better off reading Larry McMurtry.

And if one wishes to catch McCarthy doing honest-to-goodness storytelling, one is better off reading (or seeing) No Country for Old Men.

Or, as an unnamed character in Blood Meridian, who goes by the moniker "the kid", thinks to explain things after 100,000 words of changing not one bit: "I aint with you" . . . at least not if you're saying this novel is the major American literary achievement of the last fifty years.
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Comments (showing 1-18 of 18) (18 new)

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Jeremy Shar This is a very well written review, and I agree with a lot of what you said. Sure, there's no character development. The Judge is the Judge, the kid is the kid, and Toadvine and Jackson etc aren't really much of anything. Basically everyone with a name dies, and many characters serve only to feed lines to the Judge so that he can incomprehensibly wax poetic. But for some reason, I didn't really mind all that. To me the book's language and imagery were enough to keep me enthralled. I liked trying to figure out what on earth the Judge was talking about, and, in my mind, Blood Meridian really wasn't about the characters. If it were, it would be a terrible book. The trouble is that I don't have the vaguest idea what it is about.

message 2: by Paul (new)

Paul Bryant Great review.

Charles Martin Great review, and in reply to Jeremy's comment, I assumed the book was about Mexico and its brutal landscape was the central character. It was the only dynamic element of the book and certainly recieved the lion's share of McCarthy's attention.
I would be curious to read your thoughts on "The Road."

message 4: by David (new)

David Howsam McCarthy is not a writer who has much interest in character development, that is not what he is attempting to do. It is obvious that it is not part of his art the way it is, say, for Saul Bellow or Henry James. So to criticize a writer for not doing what he wasn't trying to do seems pointless. I think McCarthy is using language to create fictions that represent, or symbolize, a dark and pessimistic view of the world. But the point is that he is one of the few great writers to examine this part of humanity. Violence is intrinsic to human society. And in this novel McCarthy demonstrates that it holds a central place in history and the foundation of our world. But he uses language to elevate this vision into art. And that is what art does. It examines the world and tries to find symbols that represent that world. McCarthy chose to look at something terrible but he made great art from it. To criticize him for that is like saying Picasso's Guernica wasn't a very pretty picture.

Seth I believe the lack of characterization is intentional. If the characters grow and learn, especially the kid, would that make the reader's hard journey worth it? Would it justify the violence? Maybe the book is daring us to find evidence of growth and purposefully frustrating our habit to find such evidence in the characterization. If the point is to defy the notion that violence has a higher purpose, a lack of growth in the characters makes perfect sense. And by veiling their thoughts and feelings, maybe it is a test for the reader, either to accept that or struggle against it by forcing an interpretation where no evidence exists. For example, the kid is called the man late in the novel. What assumptions do we bring about manhood to the table? Is he wiser as a man? Has he learned? The novel doesn't say, maybe to test our assumption and our need for higher purpose. We want him to have grown. It would make the violence, if horrible, at least productive. But such conclusion would be incompatible if the theme is how violence has no purpose but death and reproducing itself for no high purpose and no greater meaning.

John I believe that Bloom would hold character development to be in service to aesthetic achievement. If McCarthy can create a memorable aesthetic experience (and I believe he has), such lower examinations are unnecessary. I will remember this book as long as I live.

Glynn Jordan Enjoyed reading this review, though I disagree. While it is arguable that the prose overwhelms the plot, McCarthy's craftsmanship in this novel is absolutely comparable to all of the great achievements of literature. In short, I wholeheartedly believe that Cormac McCarthy is one of the most gifted writers of American history and to assess a work of one of these greats is quite a difficult thing to do. Also I don't believe the sentence you mentioned is incoherent. I believe it simply means that men are deceived by things that transpire because as they recall those things in their mind they are led to a fate that is "fraudulent" as a result of their flaws in perception and memory. But of course a writer as skilled and intelligent as McCarthy knows that some might perceive that sentence as incoherent, and there is a likely a design to that attribute of it, as is usually the case with truly great writers.

message 8: by Daevid (last edited Feb 16, 2013 09:42PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Daevid Every book is not a character study. You seem to be regurgitating the common sentiment that only changes in character attitude are suitable subjects for writing.

Bibliomantic Ron, I think there are more friendly ways to put it than Daevid did, but I for one believe that he is right about character development not being the litmus test equivalent of what is good writing. If anything, your example of Anne Rice is of a writer who takes her time developing characters, but her works still don't excel beyond a certain level.

McCarthy is clearly a master of his domain, and I think he offers us the opportunity to discover his players' personalities from outside, by observing their behavior and reactions to each other and the environment at large. 'Blood Meridian' is a linguistically complex novel (I like James Woods's description of his use of the "obsolete lexicon", even though that is one of the things I enjoy about McCarthy, whereas Woods does not). Nevertheless, for all the complexity, the structure is in many ways minimalist. This style makes for great literature as well, and you get characters (as much as you wish) as a behaviorist would--by studying what they do, how they look, what they say, how quickly they do one thing or another--it is all there.

I am reminded of Yoshimura's brilliant novel, 'Shipwrecks', where a man who lost his wife is shown, using emotion-free prose, climbing a rock and allowing himself to be absorbed by the sea. The moment is very moving, and you feel what the man is feeling, as you did when you read earlier descriptions of his acts without direct "character development." Same with Tony Earley's 'Jim the Boy', etc. To limit writing to descriptions directly from the minds of the major characters and thus their "development" is far too limiting. Limits using any one particular element are incorrect, IMHO.

Robert Norris Ron seems to have vanished, oh well.

message 11: by Paul (new)

Paul Bryant I think the police finally figured where he was holed up.

Caryn The Judge is the devil. Definitely one of the most frightening characters in all of literature. And the story line was taken from a true historical event. There was a Glanton Gang which were hired by the Mexican Governor to bring eliminate the 'red-men' who were attacking settlers farms/villages. They would be paid per scalp. The Governor felt you had to 'deal with the devil' (this band of vicious scabrous outlaws) to get a devlish job done and he and his villages paid a price. The Glanto Gang did bring in 100's of scalps, but by no means were they all attackers or even all 'red-men' Native Americans. As I recall from reading about them, (awhile ago now), they were gunned down while raping and robbing the pioneers at a ferry station on the Colorado. It is fiction, but based on reality, so I suppose McCarthy felt it would be disingenuous to make a statement of character arc or meaning to the violence in human nature. (?)

OTOH, ANYONE capable of writing 'The Road' is one very dark pessimistic SOB!! (LOL)

Bobby Bermea One of the things I love about this website is finding intelligent reviews that I don't agree with. I'm firmly in the "biblical" camp but I enjoyed your review and especially your skewering of Bloom (speaking of intelligent and engaging critics who I don't agree with).

Anthony  Corbo Good review. Thank you.

Bobby Bermea By the way, Bart. This is a pretty skewering review. So what did you give it the three stars for?

Marius Hancu While reading Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West by Cormac McCarthy, you may want to see my questions related to it as answered in the alt.usage.english (AUE) Usenet newsgroup. My thanks to the participating AUE members. The focus of my questions was the language: rare words, funny or original expressions, special or strange constructs — as I saw them, from within my own idiosyncrasies.

Aristotle Johns In all honesty, I think your vision of this book is entirely misguided. If you read more McCarthy you will realize that he never (in your eyes) will develop a character in conventional ways. In certain books (like The Road or No Country) the prose is a lot less dense and the writing much more streamlined. But the same style is still there. McCarthy chooses to develop his characters through their actions. You state that McCarthy describes, "The Judge thrusting his spear over and over." With this you #1 Clearly didn't look any deeper in to The Judge and #2 Are missing McCarthy's point completely. His lack of omniscience is not a flaw, it is a style choice. He takes a more human route of development by building a character through their actions (the things they do and the things they say). Embarrassingly, you say that McCarthy lacks development but it is the one thing he does best. A static character is not a weak character. Lack of change in a character does not diminish the skill of the author, it rather shows the attitude of the character. Saying that the Kid did not change all book is a pretty true statement. Why do you think that McCarthy jumped the 30ish year gap in the last few pages? For fun? No. He did it to show this drolling of life and to emphasize the omnipresence of the Judge as well as the inevitability of fate.

I am sorry you didn't feel fulfilled by this work of art.

message 18: by Bart (new) - rated it 3 stars

Bart Y'all are great fun, thanks.

Three quarters think character development is not the point of McCarthy's literature, while the last lad thinks McCarthy develops characters best of all.

I would recommend Tolstoy for most. He does everything McCarthy does better than McCarthy, and he develops characters too.

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