The Terrible Beauty of a Cosmic Novel: Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian

7117831._UY200_.jpgCormac McCarthy‘s Blood Meridian reminds me of something Stanley Kubrick once said about Full Metal Jacket. He said he wanted to make a war movie and when it was pointed out to him that he’d already made Paths of Glory (a great film set during WWI), Kubrick explained that he wanted to make a movie not about a war but war itself.

That’s what Blood Meridian, this vicious, terrifying novel, is about. War. Or perhaps it’s about something even more elemental yet – violence.

You might be thinking this doesn’t sound like the most pleasant book and you’re right. It isn’t. It’s one of the most difficult novels I’ve ever read because of the sheer carnage described. This story follows an unnamed sixteen year old (“the kid”) as he wanders about the Southwest alone, with soldiers, and then with a scalp-hunting gang let by the real-life figure of John Glanton. With Glanton and his men, the kid hunts down Indians and later pretty much anyone. And all the while, one member of the gang, the terrifying judge, haunts every single page.

I want to repeat that while I couldn’t recommend this book more strongly, I’m aware that it’s not a light read. You could argue it is a catalogue of terrible people doing terrible things. But the reason this book is so powerful is that it feels epic.

This begs the question, what does it mean to call a book epic? I believe an answer can be found by looking back to actual epics like Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. They didn’t just tell a story. They contained so many details that you could practically reconstruct Ancient Greece from the text alone. Likewise, Blood Meridian, a novel with the cold, sharp beauty of an iceberg, painstakingly details the 1850s Southwest with an incredibly varied vocabulary. I’ve never had to look up so many words. At the same time, when characters talk, they do so in dialect, so on a single page you’ll get words like “adamantine” or “devonian” and “aint” or “git.”

This is a vast story with a character even more vast than the story itself – the judge. Where do I begin? The judge is a seemingly immortal being who knows everything, including philosophy, law, all languages, and how to play the fiddle. At first I thought he symbolized the Devil but that’s too simple. Upon reflection he feels like some nameless deity from an unknown religion, a thing outside morality or history. Harold Bloom compared him to a “human Moby-Dick” and he is (in more than just his enormous size) because I know I’ll remember the judge long after I forget the order of events in the plot, just like I can tell you all about the White Whale even though I’ve never finished reading Moby-Dick (yet).

This is a cosmic novel that makes most other books feel trivial and small.

So go read it. Now.

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