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Dear Book Club, Why I Won’t Be Finishing Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian

Dear Book Club, Why I Won’t Be Finishing Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian

I’m going to my book club tonight, and I’m sorely unprepared. We’re discussing Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy, and according to my Kindle, I have only read 24%.

I knew that Blood Meridian was going to be a problem for me. When one of the other book clubbers suggested it, I immediately said, “I don’t like Cormac McCarthy.” Then I revised my statement: “OK, so I’ve never actually read a whole book of his, but every time I start to read one, I can’t get through the first chapter.”

So then, with a sigh, I compromised:  “You know, maybe it would be good for me to be forced to read a Cormac McCarthy book. Because I know I’m not going to do it on my own.” I figured I had no right to say that I didn’t like an author when I’d never actually read more than twenty pages of his work.

Blood Meridian it is!” the book club decided.

Not that I was expecting to change my mind about Cormac McCarthy. I was pretty sure I wouldn’t like the book, but at least after reading it I’d have some powerful and accurate ammunition for when I started bashing his stuff.

And, to be honest, I bash Cormac McCarthy pretty frequently. My common insult is to say that his writing style consists of sentences like the following:

The man looked at the boy. The boy looked at the man.
There was sun and then there was rain and there were clouds in the sky and there were horses in the field and there was a cat and there was a dog and there were lots of things everywhere doing stuff.*

Yeah, I’ve been McCarthy bashing for years.  Once, back in 2008, when I was in a graduate-level creative writing class, I accused a fellow student of trying to be the next Cormac McCarthy after reading one of his short stories. I think he would have taken it as a compliment, because I think he was trying to be the next Cormac McCarthy, except that I had a sneer on my face and said something to the effect of, “what’s up with you not using quotation marks? Do you think you’re too good for grammar? Do you think you’re the next Cormac McCarthy? It doesn’t work when he does it either, you know.” We got into a pretty heated debate in class. Later on in the semester, we ended up in a pretty heated make-out session. But that’s another story.

Cover of the 1st edition

Cover of the 1st edition, 1985 (wikipedia)

So what didn’t I like about the first 24% of Blood Meridian? Well, for one thing, it’s written in run-on sentences with truckloads of unfamiliar words – many of them relating to the Old West like hackamore, demiculverin and felloe, and many of them archaic or show-offy like bistre, bruit and surbated, as well as strange Spanish words like rebozo and azotea and words McCarthy might have just made up such as scurvid and slear.** (By the way, as I typed this, Microsoft Word put red squiggly underlines under all of those words.)

So, OK, I can see that McCarthy is interested in language.  He has an impressive vocabulary and has certainly found his own unique and gritty style, which is admirable, but I do not like his style . I find it pretentious, I find it boring, and I find it extremely hard to follow. I would read a page of Blood Meridian, realize that the entire page was one long sentence, and then say to myself, “hmm… now what just happened?”

What seems to have happened so far (spoiler alert, sort of) is that the protagonist (only called “the kid” because McCarthy has an aversion to naming his character) is wandering around the Old West, spitting into the dust and meeting various crusty men. He joins a rag-tag group of soldiers who are heading to Mexico for some unauthorized mission. He survives a bloody Comanche attack and then wanders around the desert with the only other survivor until they are taken to jail. Then there’s a bunch of pages where most everything is in untranslated Spanish. That’s where I stopped reading.

I won’t even go into the fact that this is a total boy book. As far as I can tell there is not a single female character, unless you count some dead Mexican women that the kid saw floating in a pond. Not that a book needs to have a female character for me to like it, but it’s something to note. Blood Meridian is frequently named as one of the best novels of the twentieth century. Do you think there are any novels with a solely female cast that bear the same distinction? In fact, my friend Jeni said,  “The only Cormac McCarthy book I can stand is The Road. I think the rest of them are macho, chauvinistic, and not nearly as deserving of praise.  I don’t know a single woman who enjoys his books.”

But, like I said, I’m not going to go into that. Because really, the main reason why I stopped reading Blood Meridian was not because it was a boy book. In fact, I’d say that the violent Comanche attack was probably my favorite part because it was the most interesting and coherent. (Despite the fact that it was a run-on sentence of over 250 words, and yes, I counted.)

No, the reason I will not be finishing Blood Meridian is that it is not any fun to read. And yes, I realize that I could look at it as a challenge, but I give myself enough challenges.  When I read, I want to enjoy it, or I want to feel that the book is teaching me something (usually how to be a better writer).

And to me, good writing means good communication. An author transports the reader into the world he’s created. The author wants the reader to understand what’s going on in that world. But with Blood Meridian, I sometimes felt like Cormac McCarthy didn’t really want me to understand. I felt like he only wanted to show off his burly vocabulary and his blatant disregard for grammar (why doesn’t he capitalize proper nouns, for example?) And maybe that’s not true. Maybe he really did want to communicate his version of the Old West, and this was what he thought was the best way to do it.

I can see why his style is intriguing or even awesome to some people, but I am definitely not one of them. I want a book that I can get lost in, not one that loses me in the first chapter.  I’m looking forward to seeing what book club thinks.

*Please note that neither of these sentences, as far as I know, are actual lines from a Cormac McCarthy book.

** For more crazy vocab that McCarthy uses in Blood Meridian, see this list.



About evalangston

Eva Langston is a writer, among other things.

7 responses »

  1. Stephen Gillies

    I am a sixty seven year old man and feel like I have wasted a week’s reading. In my London English, McCarthy is up his own Aris.

    Although, unlike you, I did read to the end I feel you did the right thing. Give me Enid Blyton anyday.

    I agree with your critique.

  2. Pingback: My 300th Post & Some Old Favorites, Chosen by Paul | In the Garden of Eva

  3. This is an appallingly bush-league take, regardless of opinion.

    May the eventual readers and inevitable 24% abandoners be no less ignorant concerning the strengths and weaknesses of your own forthcoming novel, Ms. Langston.

  4. I have a close friend who loves McCarthy. Many years ago, he was reading a bunh of the author’s books. So I read a few at the time. I don’t quite remember what I thought of the novels overall, but I do recall some of the prose being amusing.

    My friend and I recently decided to read McCarthy’s first book, The Orchard Keeper. I’ve had a hard time getting into it. Despite some interesting mood-setting descripions, it often comes across as melodramatic, cnfusing, and near plotless. It isn’t effective storytelling and ultimately frustrating, even boring at times.

    It made me wonder if I was missing something. I do know he tells a better story in some of his later works, but that isn’t what was really bothering me. From what I remember, all of his writings have more emphasis on mood than meaning, the overwrought melodrama of language at times overhelming the narrative. Even when the style is original and beautiful, it can become tiresome in how much effort it takes in deciphering and rereading. Nearly everything is described to an umpteenth degree which slows down the plot, especially with all the ten cent words, arcane terms, and neologisms.

    On a more basic level of story, I don’t think I’ve ever met a McCarthy character that had the depth given by writers like Hesse and Hardy. Also, the message or essence conveyed feels shallow compared to my favorite writers—besides those already mentioned: Kafka, Borges, Ligotti, or even someone like PKD at his best; although it is hard to compare those to McCarthy. For a more similar author, I find more human authenticity and compelling significance in the writings of Flannery O’Connor.

    I don’t want to dismiss McCarthy. I’m just left scratching my head about why he is so popular. He is most definitely and inteeresting and unique stylist, but I wouldn’t list him as one of the greatest writers. I somehow doubt he will be much remembered a century from now.

  5. I do like to give credit where it is due. I don’t think I necessarily wasted my time reading The Orchard Keeper. McCarthy does some things quite well. He evokes a specific place and time. Also, even though it can be hard to get into at first, his dialogue sounds genuine. As a stylist, he has skill that he sometimes wields effectively, if he could only find a worthy purpose for it.

    I must admit it was a hard slog. It was easy to get lost about who a particular character was or who was speaking. The lack of quotation marks is hard to do well, but I eventually got used to it. Still, I’d rather keep it straightforward without having to struggle over such simple things as discerning dialogue. He often makes the reader work too hard for too little gain.

    In the end, I wasn’t quite sure what was the point of the novel, besides a meandering mood piece and a peek into a particular world. The parts don’t cohere into a whole.

    If there was a meaning or insight being conveyed, I couldn’t for certain say what it was. Maybe it relates to there being no heroes, as one character explains, by which I guess it is meant there is no grand good or evil. But it was a lot of work for that message, especially considering I wasn’t looking for any heroes. Maybe stating that there are no heroes seemed like a greater insight back in the 1960s when The Orchard Keeper was written.

    There is always something in McCarthy’s novels about nature and violence. He is obsessed about those themes. Maybe I’m dense, but it isn’t clear to me what ultimate insights he is offering. The opaqueness of language either is hiding some profound truth that I’m unable to dig out or it is just so much sound and fury. McCarthy’s writing does get me thinking. I sense there might be something McCarthy is trying to communicate, if I could only figure it out. Then again, maybe there is nothing more to it.

    One’s opinion of McCarthy depends largely on one’s view of language. He is an author in love with language. He never lets an opportunity go by without putting on a verbal display and pushing the limits of style and comprehensibility. Some people love the challenge of that kind of writing. I can understand why such people admire McCarthy.

    However, I have a different attitude about language. I don’t want writing that draws attention to itself, at least not constantly. I want an author to have the ability to make me forget that I’m even reading. I want to be drawn in by the story and, as such, I want there to be an clear narrative there to be drawn in by.

    In a McCarthy novel, there is a distance in the reading experience. The reader is never fully brought into a character’s worldview. While reading The Orchard Keeper, it wasn’t clear that his characters even have inner lives. The focus is always outward toward action and description… and, of course, toward language itself.

    I still hold out the possibility that I’m too clueless to get it. I’m willing to listen to anyone who wants to try to explain what I’m missing.

  6. The man turned to this woman Eva and said, You’re a fool, a damn fool for your opinion on Blood Meridian. You should stick to watching television.

    He slapped her.

    • La la la, slapping women. La la la, Cormac McCarthy. La la la, opinions are opinions. La la la, misogyny!
      That’s a little ditty I made up while reading this comment. Have a great day!


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