Blood Meridian and the limits of violence
In her fascinating New Yorker profile of the author Hilary Mantel, Larissa MacFarquhar writes: “What kind of person writes fiction about the past? It is helpful to be acquainted with violence, because the past is violent.” Of course, the present can be violent, too, along with many of our visions of the future, and one of the hardest things about becoming a writer, at least for me, is coming to terms with the depiction, meaning, and significance of fictional violence. I’m about as mild-mannered a personality as they come, but I’ve found myself working in a genre utterly predicated on the anticipation of violence and the occasional violent payoff. Both The Icon Thief and City of Exiles have high body counts, and Eternal Empire doesn’t seem likely to break the pattern. There’s a moment fairly early in my third novel in which an innocent person meets an unfortunate fate, and several readers, including my wife, have pointed to this scene as particularly shocking. But I can’t see any way around it. For the narrative stakes here to have any meaning, the reader needs to know that no one is safe. As a result, although I’m a fairly cerebral novelist at heart, I’ve ended up writing about violence more than I ever expected.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot ever since finally finishing Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, which had been on my short list of novels to read for a long time. Until now, the only McCarthy I’d read was The Road, another devastatingly bleak and violent novel, but Blood Meridian goes much further: it’s essentially an epic meditation on violence, with more atrocities per page than any other story I can name. It’s a challenging book, hugely readable from paragraph to paragraph but often wearying as a whole, which is an inextricable part of McCarthy’s conception. The violence here is deliberately depicted without the usual payoffs: the narrative doesn’t build in any conventional sense, but instead carries the reader along through sheer rhetorical and symbolic power. This isn’t an unstructured novel by any means, but the structure is paratactic rather than periodic—the plot doesn’t advance so much as proceed inexorably from one bloody set piece to the next. McCarthy’s strategy is to give us as little context as possible: the book is based on real but largely forgotten historical events, and its characters spend much of the story moving through vast, featureless deserts where even the constellations cease to take their familiar shapes.
I’m not especially interested in delving into the allegorical depths of McCarthy’s story, and I’m not even sure he has much to say about the role of violence in American history, any more than Kubrick does in The Shining. As a writer, I’m more inclined to consider the book on its most fundamental level, as the work of a novelist of formidable gifts confronting the narrative problem of violence. I’ve mentioned McCarthy’s language, which, like all great styles, is often vulnerable to parody. Its central strength, however, and the one that unites its many registers of tone—from brutal realism to Biblical sonority—is its specificity. McCarthy delights in arcane but evocative proper names for animals, weaponry, landscape, and it’s hard for the reader not to be caught up in that spell:
…all about in that circle attended companies of lesser auxiliaries routed forth into the inordinate day, small owls that crouched silently and stood from foot to foot and tarantulas and solpugas and vinegarroons and the vicious mygale spiders and beaded lizards with mouths black as a chowdog’s, deadly to man, and the little desert basilisks that jet blood from their eyes and the small sandvipers like seemly gods, silent and the same, in Jedda, in Babylon.
And this specificity is central to the novel’s treatment of violence. McCarthy shows us horrible things, but he’s no more or less specific in the details of mass scalpings as he is in describing the way a man’s shadow looks against a rockface, and it’s all part of the same rich narrative fabric. (This is why the idea of a film adaptation is so daunting: it would take a director of genius to find a visual equivalent for McCarthy’s prose, without resorting to the sorry compromise of voiceover.)
In the end, however, McCarthy, like Shakespeare, is most evocative when he falls silent. After more than three hundred pages of detailed bloodshed, the book ends, famously, on a note of ambiguity: the final encounter with Judge Holden is left to our imagination, and rightly so—it’s one of the most terrifying moments I’ve ever read in a book, the embodiment of the fear that our childhood nightmares will still be waiting for us, when we least expect it, years or decades after we thought we left them behind. And the moment when the author finally turns his eyes away wouldn’t be nearly as effective if the entire novel hadn’t methodically demonstrated that McCarthy can describe violence as well as any writer who has ever lived. The most frightening image in the world, as Stephen King once observed, is a closed door. McCarthy knows this, too, and it’s a measure of his shrewdness that as soon as that door opens, it closes immediately—and shoots the wooden barlatch home, locking us out of what follows. And although I have no way of knowing this, I suspect that McCarthy wrote all of Blood Meridian with that closed door in mind, systematically showing us everything to prepare us for the moment when he shows us nothing, leaving us with that one simple sentence: “Then he opened the door and looked in.”