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.
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.