Jan/Feb 2020  •   Reviews & Interviews

Blood Meridian and Reading the Unreadable

Review by Peter Amos

Blood Meridian.
Cormac MacCarthy.
Vintage. 1992. 368 pp.
ISBN 978-0679728757.

I don't guess anything is unreadable, but some books are less friendly than others. This year, I read three books I'd been warned away from, in large part because I'd been goaded toward them just as often. First was James Joyce's Ulysses, towering and intimidating for its length and density. Second was Vladimir Nabokov's notorious masterpiece. Imminently readable and beautifully written, Lolita starts with a narrator and a premise that is utterly abhorrent and only shoves it further into the reader's unprepared mind. The third popped onto my radar in the last year. My dad recommended in the strongest possible terms I read Cormac McCarthy, but Blood Meridian was so gratuitously, unapproachably gory that he couldn't get through it.

I read all three of those books this year—Ulysses, Lolita, and Blood Meridian. The latter two belong in a separate category. Ulysses is transgressive in the way it tells its story; its endlessly garbled stream of consciousness and relentless focus on the mundane and inglorious that lead to its being banned and ridiculed in polite society for much of its early years. Lolita and Blood Meridian are transgressive for the stories themselves.

I read Lolita (and Ulysses) in large part because I was tired of people telling me to. I had friends tell me Lolita was the best book ever written, or that I didn't know what I was missing. They'd look askance at me because I shied away from its reputation or dangle its importance in front of me like a cat toy. "You know, you're probably right, Peter. It's not for everyone."

Alright, man. Alright.

And they were men. Invariably they were men—as are, probably significantly, Vladimir Nabokov, James Joyce, and Cormac McCarthy. Shock value, oppressively dense language, absolute commitment to aesthetic brutality, disregard for the reader's boundaries, and overt violence are particularly attractive to men. That tendency is compounded by the higher bar set for women with respect to the same (or even remotely similar) content. Women who push boundaries are reined in, while men are celebrated for their genius.

But, still, I caved to the literary dudes who raised eyebrows when I shrugged off the idea and finally read Lolita this fall. I didn't know what to do with the experience. I hated it. And I didn't hate it for the reasons its fans accuse. I am not a literary prude who can't stand to read about sex or darkness or violence or depravity. I didn't miss the point of the book. Lolita uses college professor Humbert Humbert and his kidnap and molestation of Dolores Haze to explore the brokenness of man's moral compass, the darkest parts of human nature and desire, and the malleability of truth. I follow. I'm there. But the wild-eyed man in the labcoat didn't fully understand his experiment. Nabokov created a man he knew full well to be a self-deluding, overly pitiful, and certainly predatory monster, but he wrote the character so convincingly and beautifully and sympathetically that his readers found themselves on Humbert's side.

I don't know Nabokov, but I like to think the purpose of the book was to engage a reader in the way I was engaged. I read a page with a grimace on my face, the grimace softened, I laughed. I stopped mid chuckle and hated myself and remembered who I was laughing at. Everyone can be evil, and even depravity can be human, and Nabokov used his unparalleled talent to shove his reader's face into that truth. But so many of his readers seem bent on the sympathy and not on the contradiction. They take the famous declaration—She seduced me!—at face value and miss the speaker's endless rationalizations. Nabokov has no doubt about what his narrator is, like when Humbert looks at the victim of his crime and says, "It was something quite special, that feeling: an oppressive, hideous constraint as if I were sitting with the small ghost of somebody I had just killed." Nabokov's implication is quite clear. Humbert, in a way, was sitting with the small ghost of somebody he had just killed.

But it's hard to divorce Nabokov's intention from his work's legacy. He set out to trick self-righteous and moralistic readers (probably like me) into sympathizing with a man they reflexively loathed and, in so doing, teach them that morality is complicated and the human mind even more so. What he actually did (in addition) was give a generation of men a loathsome permission structure, a high-minded literary justification for their own behavior, and a strange sort of hero in Humbert Humbert. Jeffrey Epstein's private jet, after all, was nicknamed the Lolita Express. Albert Einstein knew the relentless pursuit of his ideas would lead to untold destruction, so he relented. We hold scientists responsible for the actual legacy of their work all the time, and it would be strange to exempt artists completely from similar responsibility. At least as strange as holding them immediately accountable for every deranged interpretation.

So I didn't like Lolita, and when I set out to read Blood Meridian, I expected a comparable reaction. But, if anything, I feel only more strongly about Lolita for having waded through Cormac McCarthy's rivers of gore. To be fair, I read Lolita so that people could no longer tell me to read it, while I read Blood Meridian because I've grown to appreciate Cormac McCarthy. The Road is bizarre and beautiful, and All the Pretty Horses is a true masterpiece. That's a very different place to start.

Blood Meridian is based on the actual exploits of the notorious Glanton Gang in the US-Mexico border regions during 1849 and 1850. It's the story of a young boy who leaves home to make a fortune in the Wild West. He falls in with Glanton's band of partisans contracted by the Mexican government to collect scalps from the Apache warriors who terrorize the border region. The obvious problem with the arrangement is that there's no way to differentiate the scalp of an Apache warrior from any other, and Glanton collects his bounty regardless. Eventually the gang spirals from brutal partisan war into pure mercenary violence and eventually utter nihilism.

Everything people say about Blood Meridian is true. It's an anti-western, and it's the ultimate western; one sentence is short and declarative, and the next is thunderous and god-laden; it's alien in one paragraph and minutely real in the next; it's confusingly beautiful in its depictions of the world around and appallingly brutal in its rendering of the violence that scars said world. Everything about the book is extreme and difficult to read, both because of the strange language and the unrelenting gore of the narrative.

But the violence serves a purpose. McCarthy is famous for his ruthless worldview, and Blood Meridian is a manifesto: dark, horrifying, and deeply, deeply cynical. But it's powerfully true even if it's incomplete. McCarthy says, through the voice of the book's antagonist Judge Holden, that "moral law is an invention of mankind for the disenfranchisement of the powerful in favor of the weak." He writes like he believes it.

Mercy only exists in Blood Meridian to be snuffed out, and characters rise only to the occasional refusal to commit certain acts of violence among the others in which they rejoice. But those tiny and insubstantial boundaries are invariably punished with death. Even the tiniest moral boundary is taken and exploited by those men in the story who have none. McCarthy writes, in essence, his story of the American dream and the moral foundation of the men who pursued it. Violence met with greater violence, and that violence met with violence still greater, on and on unto annihilation. He writes about a world, at best, forsaken by God ("If God meant to interfere in the degeneracy of mankind, would he not have done so by now?") and, at worst, manipulated and built by God for endless brutality ("If war is not holy, man is nothing but antic clay").

I'm cynical, but even I'm too positive to subscribe to McCarthy's vision of the world. Still, he annunciates a certain truth, and without making the depravity and disgusting violence of men explicit, that truth loses its impact.

I've always thought of Lolita as one of the books I may never read, on principle if for no other reason. Blood Meridian loomed on the horizon only for a year or two, but it occupied much the same place. But only one is remotely unreadable. Lolita is exceedingly readable. For all its legacy of transgression and taboo, Lolita avoids much of what should make the story disturbing. Lolita is nothing but inner monologue, describing in minute detail the self-justifications and feelings of a protagonist who commits despicable crimes. The book consists entirely of a narrator trying to convince himself he isn't a monster. It seems inevitable that a writer as skilled as Nabokov would also convince some of his readers. Nabokov prized enchantment above all else, and confronting the crimes of Humbert Humbert too directly would've broken the spell.

But Nabokov seems unwilling to recognize that some of his readers might've been eager to be enchanted. He, in some strange way, failed a test McCarthy passed. Both use the totality of their creation, the effect of their writing and their story, on the reader, as a prop in the story itself. Nabokov's craftsmanship and meditation on life and the mind and the human heart make the reader feel his character's self-delusion more and more deeply until they question their own morals. McCarthy's astounding poetry coupled with the unrelenting violence of his story shoves his reader into the same rhythmic, habitual brutality of its characters. But Blood Meridian forces the reader to confront precisely what Lolita tricks the reader into forgetting. They both examine the crimes of despicable people, but McCarthy refuses to look away and offers his reader no relief whatever from their depravity. Nabokov puts them under a top hat and lifts the hat to reveal a bunny rabbit.

And now I can say I've read them both. Blood Meridian stares up from my desk, McCarthy's stone-carven, haggard face peering out of the frame from the back cover. Agreeing with Cormac McCarthy is a thing of a different order, but given a worldview so nihilistic, I can't imagine accomplishing what he accomplished without Blood Meridian's excess. Nabokov looks up from his dust jacket over spectacles resting at the tip of his nose. He doesn't smile, but the smile is there, hiding. I think about Lolita and feel like the whole thing was a trick, a joke, an experiment performed for its creator's amusement. It's a brilliant, compulsively readable book that cuts to the root of morality and human depravity, but I can't help wondering if Nabokov could somehow have accomplished his end without giving Jeffrey Epstein a clever, high-literary nickname for his 747. Blood Meridian, on the other hand, comes an inch from being truly unreadable, but its unreadability stems from McCarthy's determination to look his truth in its face.

Because Nabokov scrubs the actual brutality from his protagonist's crime and McCarthy revels in it, Lolita feels more gratuitous, more unnecessary, more needlessly transgressive than the unimaginably more graphic Blood Meridian.

But for either or both: once is probably enough for me.


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