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Wednesday, April 8, 2009 06:32 PM
Book Report - Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West
 by Fëanor

The latest stop in my continuing journey through Cormac McCarthy's bibliography is Blood Meridian. It's similar to the other books I've read by him in a lot of ways, especially The Road. Indeed, Blood Meridian's wild American West of the 1850s is frighteningly similar to the post-apocalyptic world of The Road. Both books describe a journey across a lawless wasteland full of violence, death, madness, and misery, a journey that becomes a litany of horrors. The disturbing thing about Blood Meridian is that it's based on a true story.

When we first meet the main character of Blood Meridian - a nameless young man who is referred to at first only as "the kid," and later, in a telling change, as "the man" - he mostly just takes advantage of any kindness showed him and moves on, seeking only to live as well as he's able. The phrase "he'd kill you as soon as look at you" seems to have been created to describe the people in this book, the main character in particular. He lashes out violently at the slightest provocation. But as time goes on, and as we meet more of the other characters of the book, we realize that the kid is actually pretty kind and soft-hearted compared to some. And he changes quite a bit over the course of the story. In fact, about halfway through, he disappears entirely, drifting into the background after joining a cold-blooded gang of killers, led by a man named Glanton. Glanton and the others are hired to kill Indians, but actually simply roam the wilderness taking what they like and killing whomever they please, selling the scalps of the dead as those of Indians even when they're not. During this part of the novel, McCarthy focuses on the gang as a whole rather than on the kid, and on other characters in the gang, especially, and most importantly, a man known as the Judge. The Judge, as you might have guessed from his rather archetypal name, is a mythical, almost Satanic figure, huge and seemingly immortal, wandering the world, examining it, and writing everything down in his little notebook. He wants to show that he can have knowledge of anything and everything, that he can control and have dominance over the world. He often shows his own personal control over himself and over others by randomly killing innocent creatures, like animals or children. His belief is that man's best and only pursuit is war and death. To do violence and to stake one's life in conflict against another is the highest and most honorable thing. War is god, he says.

The kid resurfaces in the later portions of the novel, and the book solidifies into a physical and philosophical conflict between the kid and the Judge. Near the end of the book, the kid meets a young man who is angry and violent and ready to fight over anything. In other words, he's just like the young man the kid once was. Recognizing who he was in the child, the kid becomes "the man," and is referred to as such for the remainder of the book. It's a subtle and powerful transformative moment.

The Judge sees the kid as ultimately flawed because he has a conscience and is disturbed by the acts of mayhem in which he takes part. The kid sees the Judge as a psychopath. He is eager to show he is not afraid of the Judge, but constantly avoids direct conflict with him until the very end of the novel, when they finally face off against one another. This ending sequence is ambiguous, metaphorical, and allegorical, but the most common interpretation is that the Judge has killed the kid, and triumphed.

McCarthy has an enormous vocabulary and is an undeniable master of the use of language. There are many passages in this book that are breathtakingly beautiful, powerful, and thought-provoking. The novel is a meditation on the human experience, especially as it relates to violence and death. It's written at times like a bible or an ancient myth or an allegory - a weighty tome within whose pages the secret of life seems to lie. It's wise and terrible, brutal and uncompromising, beautiful and hideous, stark and lush.

The book is full of a heavy sense of fate and doom. McCarthy doesn't just foreshadow events; he tells you straight out that this character will die in this way so many days or years hence. As the kid and his posse pass through a town, McCarthy reveals that they'll pass through it again in the next couple of days and kill everyone there. At the beginning of each chapter he provides a series of short phrases describing all of the events of that chapter. We know what's going to happen; nothing can change it. It's all written already. Often the events of the story are described as like a play, like theater, like a dance. It's a dark story, full of horror, and it gives us little hope for humanity, even though there are fleeting moments of generosity and kindness here, too. I sometimes wonder if Cormac McCarthy has ever written a happy story, featuring rainbows and unicorns and puppies that don't get strangled and thrown into rivers. I'd like to read that story! His bibliography so far is a little disappointing in its unchanging and unrelenting grimness. But besides the fact that it's depressing, I can find little other fault with this book. It is deeply moving, masterfully written, and very important - which is a word I don't often use to describe a novel, but which I cannot avoid using here. In fact, Blood Meridian is probably one of the most important novels I've ever read, especially in the context of American fiction, but also in the larger context of world fiction. It's definitely worth a read, if you can stomach it.
Tagged (?): Book Report (Not), Books (Not), Cormac McCarthy (Not)
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Saturday, June 7, 2008 08:14 PM
Book Report - The Road
 by Fëanor

Despite my problems with No Country for Old Men (the weird stylistic quirks; the disappointingly lame and cliche moral of the story), I was still impressed with it, and interested in reading more by Cormac McCarthy. And since The Road is being made into a movie soon, and the story sounded interesting to me, I decided to try that book next. But as soon as I started reading it, I thought I'd made a mistake. poppy and I are in a pretty high stress situation right now, which has left us both a bit emotionally fragile, and this book is extremely, extremely depressing. It's a post-apocalyptic story - but this isn't the fun, silly, Mad Max post-apocalypse. McCarthy imagines what would really happen to the world and the people in it if a huge disaster had occurred which wiped out most of the life on Earth and poisoned the rest. The exact nature of the disaster is never explained, because that's not what McCarthy is interested in here; his story is about what comes after death. The plot focuses on a father and his son - a boy who was born on the very eve of the apocalypse. They are traveling down a main road, heading south, with no really clear goal in mind; the hope is that they will somehow find a warmer, safer place with better people in it, but it seems a distant hope at best. There are no animals left, the sun is obscured by smog at all times, the plants are poisoned, everything is covered with ash, and the few people who are left are more likely to rob you, murder you, and eat you than help you. In other words, these characters are living on after the death of the world.

So you can see what I mean about depressing. But McCarthy's writing, as usual, is incredible. He'll explain what's happening in simple, straightforward words, then suddenly introduce a line of stunningly beautiful, poetic language that's full of insight and power. The book has the same stylistic quirk as No Country for Old Men (no quotes), but I'd seen that before so it didn't bother me that much this time. And again it's a novel about an old generation whose world has passed away, and a new generation with a bleak future ahead of it. But it's also about fathers and sons; about letting your child go on and lead his own life; about dealing with loss and tragedy; about remaining human and moral even in an evil, inhuman world. It's an intense, suspenseful, emotional, extremely dark book, so I expected it to have a pretty brutal ending, but in fact the conclusion is about as hopeful as it could be, considering the circumstances - though it is still soaked through with loss and sadness, like the rest of the book.

This is a powerful novel, and I think a better novel than No Country for Old Men, because it has a simpler story but a more complex and meaningful message at its heart. Making it into a film that's as beautiful and poetic will be difficult indeed, because the language in the narrative was such a huge and important part of making the book as good as it is. Still, the right filmmaker could possibly pull it off. I'll be interested to see how it works out.
Tagged (?): Book Report (Not), Books (Not), Cormac McCarthy (Not)
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Sunday, February 10, 2008 07:48 PM
(Last updated on Friday, March 27, 2009 03:11 PM)
Book Report - No Country for Old Men
 by Fëanor

(UPDATE: After talking with others about the book, thinking about it some more, and reading more of McCarthy's work, I've decided I was wrong about some of the conclusions I came to about this book. I've always been really bad at spotting unreliable narrators, and I always tend to assume a narrator's point of view is the same as that of the author, or at least that the author is approving of the narrator's point of view, and I think I made an error when I did that here.)

After recently seeing the film No Country for Old Men, I became curious about the book it was based on, as I mentioned in my review. My friend Erik reminded me that he was a fan of Cormac McCarthy's work, and said NCfOM was probably a good place to start, so I went looking for the book at my local library. Other people must have had the same idea, however, because all the regular copies of the book were out. But they did still have a large print copy, and although I felt a little weird about taking that one out, as I really don't need large print (it looked like the book was shouting at me when I opened it up), I did really want to read the book, and poppy didn't think there was anything wrong with it, so I went ahead and did it.

The book, like the movie, is about a pretty average man named Llewellyn Moss who, while out hunting, comes upon the scene of a drug deal gone wrong, and decides to take the money. But a psychopathic killer named Anton Chigurh with his own set of strange principles is already seeking the money, and he will stop at nothing to get it. Meanwhile, the local sheriff, a good man named Bell, tries to discover why bodies are dropping all over his county, and how exactly he can stop it.

It's a dramatic, thrilling, action-packed, but ultimately melancholy and tragic story, full of moments of unexpected beauty and insight. It's told in an interesting way, divided into numbered chapters, with each of them divided further into sections, the first section always being a first-person narrative from the perspective of Sheriff Bell, written as if he's speaking directly to you, and the following sections being the actual story, told from the third-person limited point of view, often following Moss, but sometimes switching to Bell, Chigurh, or some other important character.

Unfortunately, another of the interesting things about the way the story is told is McCarthy's rather irritating misuse of punctuation. The man has something against quotes - of both the single and double variety. Not only does he refuse to mark off dialogue with them, he never even uses single quotes in contractions. The only time quotes of any kind appear at all is when indicating possession ("Bell's," for instance). I guess he couldn't think of a way to eliminate those and still have the text make sense. Still, although this stylistic affect thankfully doesn't make things too confusing to understand, it is annoying and, as far as I can tell, completely pointless.

The odd punctuation isn't the only interesting use of language. Bell is a simple Texas man whose grammar isn't always perfect, but who has a wonderful and unique voice, and a strong sense of right and wrong. Most of his first-person sections are a true joy to read; they usually take the form of a series of short, fascinating stories told to you simply and from the heart. And indeed, all of the characters in the book who are native to Texas have a pleasant accent and amusing slang, which are entertaining and realistic (or at least, they seem realistic; I don't talk to enough Texans to know for sure). The other narrative portions of the book are written mostly in very plain and matter-of-fact language, accompanied by the occasional dip into poetic descriptives, which are made all the more startling and beautiful for being nestled amidst all that blandness. Of course, this can also make the poetic language occasionally seem oddly out of place and unrealistic.

Reading the book right after seeing the movie was an interesting experience. In some ways, the book's style is similar to that of the movie, and of the Coen brothers in general; McCarthy often simply describes the physical actions of the characters and the things they're seeing, and it's up to the reader to interpret why the characters are doing what they're doing, and what it means that they're seeing what they're seeing. Also, there are certain parts of the book that the movie copies so exactly - down to not only the exact words of the dialogue, but also the exact actions and gestures of the characters - that it was stunning to me. The Coen brothers managed to transfer these sections and pages directly from the format of literature into the format of cinema, without altering them one bit, and that's pretty impressive.

But of course, the movie and book also differ in many ways - in style, plot, character, and even meaning. The book, for instance, explicitly tells you the outcome of various events that the film leaves you to guess at. For instance, in the film you have to put together for yourself what you think happened to Moss at the end; you have to guess whether Chigurh gets the money or not; you have to guess whether Chigurh kills Carla Jean or not. In most cases, the guesses are pretty easy to make, but you are still left to do the work yourself. In the book, McCarthy describes in detail just what happened to Moss, just how Chigurh gets the money, and just what Chigurh does to Carla Jean. Although it was good to have my guesses confirmed, in a way I think I prefer the way the movie did things.

In fact, I prefer the movie in many ways. Don't get me wrong, it's a great book, extremely well written, and I'm very impressed by Mr. McCarthy. But the movie manages to make certain sequences more complex and dramatic by changing the events around slightly. I'm thinking particularly of the sequence wherein Moss returns to a hotel, takes another room, and removes the satchel of money from the vent because he's certain someone is in his original room. This scene in the book is short and to the point and there is little drama to it. In the movie it is so suspenseful and thrilling that it's almost painful, because we see Chigurh in the other room, killing many men, at the exact same time that Moss is removing the money from the vent.

Another unfortunate difference between the movie and the book is that the book goes on too long, trailing off with a whole string of unnecessary and repetitive sequences focusing on Sheriff Bell, well after the main narrative is over. This makes a certain amount of sense, as Bell is not only the ultimate narrator of the book, he is also its witness, its interpreter, and its conscience. But there's still just a little too much of him at the end here, and he just goes on and on well after he's already made his point.

What makes it worse is that I really don't like his point. Bell's interpretation of events is clearly McCarthy's; he is the one transmitting the moral of the story to us. And that moral is disappointingly simplistic, cliche, and boring. What Bell and McCarthy are essentially telling us with this story is that the kids these days are out of control; it's not like the good old days anymore; and the world is going to hell. First of all, I don't believe that's true, and second of all... is that seriously all you've got for us, McCarthy? That's the bit of wisdom you're trying to impart to us? You sound like every angry old white guy ever in the history of the world. Every old man says that the good old days were better and that the kids these days are out of control and the world is going to hell. And it's always at the same time completely true and completely false. Of course it's going to seem that way to you; it will seem that way to your children when they get older. But the world keeps on going, teetering on the edge of hell, and it hasn't ever fallen in yet.

What's particularly interesting to me about the book's message is that I don't feel it's the same message that the movie is trying to get across. In the book, Sheriff Bell complains about not understanding how there can be kids these days with green hair and bones through their noses, and speaks of that as a symptom of what's wrong with the world. In the movie, it's another peace officer entirely who says this, and his line elicited laughter from the audience I saw the movie with. Also, although Tommy Lee Jones' Bell says he agrees with the man, it's clear from the way he does so, and from his expression, that he doesn't really agree with him. The line and the man who says it are an object of derision in the film because what the man is saying is so ridiculous. It's what old men always say when the world moves on and leaves them behind. It's a cliche. What I realized after reading the book is that, in a way, the Coen brothers are - gently, to be sure - making fun of Cormac McCarthy in that scene.

The film certainly examines the idea that the world is different and darker now, but then, in the sequence in which Bell goes to visit his uncle, it discards that idea for the more compelling and believable idea that the world - or at least parts of it - has always been harsh, and has always been inhabited by strange, deadly men like Chigurh.

Ultimately, I very much enjoyed both the book and film versions of No Country for Old Men. The novel is an impressive work of literature, very entertaining and very moving. But I found myself deeply disappointed by what I feel is the novel's moral. I've read a lot of books by cranky old white men, but few wherein it was so sadly obvious just how cranky and old and white the author is.
Tagged (?): Book Report (Not), Books (Not), Cormac McCarthy (Not), Movies (Not)
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