My rating: 4 of 5 stars
“I’ve never thought of writing as the mere arrangement of words on the page,” Joyce Carol Oates writes in “To Invigorate Literary Mind, Start Moving Literary Feet,” “but as the attempted embodiment of a vision: a complex of emotions, raw experience” (171).
In Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy provides the reader with an overwhelming experience of cowboys roaming the range in search of scalps, either Mexican or American Indians. McCarthy is able to bring the story of “the kid,” who by the end becomes known as “the man,” alive through his ability to use third person objective, lavish his prose with specificity, and create lifelike dialogue. No easy task for any writer.
One of the foremost American writers in literature since 1950, Cormac McCarthy has established a voice and tone within his books that immediately sets himself apart from other writers.
In Blood Meridian, McCarthy incorporates third person objective which becomes “an ice-cold camera’s-eye recording. We see events, hear dialogue, observe the setting, and make guesses about what the characters are thinking” (Gardner 157).
The reason third person objective works well in this novel is because there is also a lack of fully knowing what a character feels or thinks at times of great horror or sadness. The reader is simply given the facts and details, a cold vision of reality:
A young Mexican girl was crouched naked under the shade of the wall. She watched [Glanton] ride past, covering her breasts with her hands. She wore a rawhide collar about her neck and she was chained to a post and there was a clay bowl of blackened meatscraps beside her. Glanton tied the jacks to the post and rode inside on the horse (284).
And another powerful example of McCarthy’s straight forward prose:
When [the Yumas] entered the judge’s quarters they found the idiot and a girl of perhaps twelve years cowering naked in the floor. Behind them also naked stood the judge. He was holding leveled at them the bronze barrel of the howitzer. The wooden truck stood in the floor, the straps pried up and twisted off the pillow blocks. The judge had the canon under one arm and he was holding a lighted cigar over the touch-hole (286-287).
In the former example a young girl is topless and appears more as chattel than a person. In the latter sequence, the nude judge has been caught in what appears to be a sexually abusive act of molestation, but the narrator, like the thick-skinned people of the time, does not pass judgement but offers the scene as is and allows the reader to draw his/her own conclusions and interpretations.
All throughout the novel young teenage girls disappear as the gang, and namely the judge, ride through; McCarthy, however, never draws direct attention to this, something pertaining to subtlety and will be discussed later.
The third person objective is a strong medium for the content found in Blood Meridian. In a time of outlaws, savages, and sheer lawlessness any other form of prose would, first, not provide such an immediate impact emotionally, and, second, would actually dampen the actions into melodramatic symbols. A novice would have forced the emotions into the action sequences rather than letting the action and observations do all the work.
The reason third person objective also works as well as it does in Blood Meridian is because of McCarthy’s oracle-esque vision in describing people, places, and events in extreme detail, which conforms to specificity as a tool to enhance the story.
In analyzing the poem titled ”The Fish” by Elizabeth Bishop, Mark Doty explains that the specific details in abundance transform a topic in a piece of writing to become alive rather than a symbol of meaning, otherwise stagnant creation:
“The wealth of detail keeps the fish from becoming a symbol and allows it remain creaturely, its inscrutability intact even as the poem offers us an interpretive act” (21).
The same can be illustrated in McCarthy’s novel where such specific details are provided to allow a more visual and “raw experience” but simultaneously includes a deeper, hidden meaning. In other words, McCarthy allows his work to speak for itself. For instance, the kid comes across the specific detail of the four of cups. The narrator describes the setting and the tarot card is passed over quickly without a further look. It is some thirty-five pages later that the kid draws attention to this detail and its meaning:
He went from house to house. In one room the bones of a small loom black and smoldering. In another a man, the charred flesh drawn taut, the eyes cooked in their sockets. There was a niche in the mud wall with figures of saints dressed in doll’s clothes, the rude wooden faces brightly painted. Illustrations cut from an old journal and pasted to the wall, a small picture of a queen, a gypsy card that was the four of cups. There were strings of dried peppers and a few gourds. A glass bottle that held weeds (63).
The reader’s senses becomes overpowered by all the specific details that the room and the kid become alive and the four of cups card is given no further notice or special attention until…
The juggler took the boy’s hand in his own and turned the card so he could see. Then he took the card and held it up.
Cuatro de copas, he called out.
The woman raised her head. She looked like a blindfold mannequin raised awake by a string.
Cuatro de copas, she said. She moved her shoulders. The wind went among her garments and her hair.
Quién, called the juggler.
Even as McCarthy revisits this important detail, it is done so with such subtlety, another sign of a master at work; the card is spoken of directly and mentioned several times but in Spanish, again allowing the specifics to do all the work. The four of cups is an important detail because it is meant for someone who holds a wishful air about them and who often does not consider the here and now. The kid, when he becomes the man, fails to consider the moment and is killed by the judge.
One last tool that McCarthy uses to enliven his fiction is to have his characters speak in a way both fascinating but believable. “In real life,” Noah Lukeman writes in The First Five Pages, “most dialogue is odd: clipped, repetitious and, from an outsider’s perspective, enigmatic, fragmented, filled with unknown, personal references” (91).
McCarthy is able to explore his characters’ inner depths by allowing them to speak for themselves, as can be read in the following example:
Drink up, [the judge] said. Drink up. This night thy soul may be required of thee.
[The kid] looked at the glass. The judge smiled and gestured with the bottle. He took up the glass and drank.
The judge watched him. Was it always your idea, he said, that if you did not speak you would not be recognized?
You seen me.
The judge ignored this. I recognized you when I first saw you and yet you were a disappointment to me. Then and now. Even so at the last I find you here with me.
I aint with you.
The judge raised his bald brow. Not? he said? He looked about him puzzled and artful way and he was a passable thespian.
I never come here huntin you.
What then? said the judge.
What would I want with you? I come here same reason as any man.
And what reason is that?
What reason is what?
That these men are here (341).
Not only do the two men express a conversation that certainly might have taken place then, but the dialogue also allows the reader to feel the conflict and tension building through the questions and answers being clipped and broken. The writer does not force these two men to talk but, rather, these men are speaking freely and expressing themselves in a natural manner.
Lastly, notice the judge’s use of the archaic “thy” and “thee” and the more sophisticated vocabulary to express himself; whereas the man, once the kid, sounds hesitant and unsure of himself faced with the judge, and this too leads to the kid’s downfall.
In the end, Cormac McCarthy is a true genius that has told a lasting story in Blood Meridian. The vocabulary is often simple and direct.
The writing does not bring attention to itself. And the prose uses third person objective in such a way as to allow for the specificity of detail to draw the reader away from symbols and abstruse interpretation and focus more on the creating, establishing, and maintaining a dreamlike state. The expert crafting of dialogue is also an added bonus, shaping the novel into a complete work of art, one that respects the laws of storytelling and shapes a real world with real words.Bibliography:
Doty, Mark. The Art of Description: World into Word. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2010. Print.
Gardner, John. The Art of Fiction (1984). New York: Vintage Books, 1991. Print.
Lukeman, Noah. The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile. New York: Fireside, 2000. Print.
Maass, Donald. Writing the Breakout Novel. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 2001. Print.
McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian or The Evening Redness in the West (1985). New York: Vintage International, 2010.
Oates, Joyce Carol. “To Invigorate Literary Mind, Start Moving Literary Feet.” Writers on Writing: Collected Essays from The New York Times. New York: Times Books, 2001. 165-171. Print.
The Border Trilogy:
#2, The Crossing
CG FEWSTON was born in Texas in 1979 and now lives in Hong Kong. He’s been a Visiting Fellow at Hong Kong’s CityU, and a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome (Italy).
He’s the author of several short stories and novels. His works include A Father‘s Son, The New America: A Collection, Vanity of Vanities, A Time to Love in Tehran, and forthcoming: Conquergood & the Center of the Intelligible Mystery of Being; Little Hometown, America: A Look Back; and, The Endless Endeavor of Excellence.
You can read more about the author on Facebook @ cg.fewston – where he has 275,000+ followers