Compared to 2016, during which I read more than a book a week, I’ve barely touched a tome this year. That changed a fortnight ago, when I needed something to occupy my brain while hiding in a Marrakech hotel room from the North African sun. I’d brought with me Cormac McCarthy’s 1985 epic Blood Meridian, a novel I really only speed-read about eight years or so ago, so it was a relatively fresh experience.
I’m not sure if I have much to add to the critical furore over the book, which is chiefly centred around the prose and imagery. I’ve seen Mccarthy variously described as the greatest living stylist in any language and the heir to Faulkner. Harold Bloom’s general panegyrics probably do not need repeating here. Blood Meridian has been hailed as both his masterpiece and the best American novel by anyone after 1950.
There’s a great deal about his writing I find hypnotic and fascinating. He constantly reminds me of a something once written about Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying: epic as the Old Testament, American as Huckleberry Finn. (Unlike Faulkner, McCarthy is also as bloody as the Hebrew Bible.) But there are frequently moments I find myself saying it loud, “Oh, come on” and wanting to reach for a red pen. McCarthy is decidedly not a purveyor of le mot juste, and sometimes the excessive sizzle denotes an overdone steak. There are even times when I cannot, for the life of me, understand what it is McCarthy is trying to say, and like him I am a devotee of Joyce – from whom, it must be said, McCarthy learned all the wrong lessons. Judging by his interviews, he seems to think Joyce’s greatness lies in his lack of punctuation… But that’s only true of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy. True, as early as Dubliners Joyce sacked off speech marks, but he never possessed the terror of commas McCarthy ascribes him. Furthermore, Dubliners is an exhibition of precise language, whereas so much of Blood Meridian is just an accumulation of syntactically loose jetsam.
(I don’t have a copy of the book with me, but I can return with examples.)
I don’t mind idiosyncracy in a writer, especially not when such power can be derived from it. McCarthy’s writing conveys real menace – Judge Holden is a genuinely frightening and brilliantly realised character, although anyone calling him “the most terrifying […] in all of American literature” as Harold Bloom did has never encountered Dr Benway.
(In fact, all of the nonsense about whether or not the Judge is Satan misses the point obvious to a comic book reader: Holden is actually Darkseid, just like Benway is Desaad.)
Which brings me to another unfavourable and perhaps odd comparison I found myself making. Blood Meridian is, to its credit, a Hieronymous Bosch painting of the American West, but an inferior one to Burroughs’ truly revelationary Western Lands trilogy. Where McCarthy is idiosyncratic, Burroughs is experimental. Where McCarthy hints at the numinous, Burroughs eviscerates it. And where I see McCarthy as a genius and visionary amateur, Burroughs seems ever more the master – A real American Moses wandering down from Mount Sinai chewing on psychedelic cacti.