Feb 252009

There are books that strike you and then are books that run you through; books that walk the narrative right into your guts – inch by inch – as though it were a lance. Such work leaves me quieted for a few days, pondering what to make of it. Immediately after reading this novel, I was not quite sure what I wanted to say. Off the cuff, I came to the conclusion that that Blood Meridian establishes Cormac McCarthy as a living American master; that said, I do not wish to waste time by gushing over this novel’s finer qualities in a general fashion. Instead, I am interested in some of the specific stylistic moves the author made that managed to rattle my back teeth. One such move is to frame depictions of deadpan violence with a narrative voice that sounds both ancient and elevated.

First off, the book just feels old. Though set in the American west, this novel subverts most of the expectations of the genre using tactics that keep the reader off balance while providing specifics that anchor the story in the nineteenth century frontier. This is accomplished before you have read word one of the body text as McCarthy sets up the aura of classic saga by using chapter headings. For example, the headings for chapter five read: “Adrift on the Bolson de Mapimi – Sproule – Tree of dead Babies – Scenes From the Massacre – Sopilotes…” (55). Setting the headers up in this fashion is effective because the reader is tuned in to read a story with epic characteristics. Fragments like “Adrift on the Bolson de Mapimi” Simultaneously invoke the The Odyssey and Moby Dick. However, when I read “Tree of dead Babies,” I have no literary reference point for the image. It is an unexpected and grotesque landmark in a text replete with grotesqueries that become exponentially more extreme as the novel unfolds. The violence depicted in Meridian is unrelenting but far from gratuitous as the author continues to raise the stakes, through plot and theme. The result is a reader that is invested in the journey, possibly wondering if they will ever become as inured to the death and the depravity as the characters seem to be. McCarthy does a first-rate job of depicting the Glanton Gang’s decent into barbarism. The gang starts out as a group of outlaws and killers who are working as an instrument of the Mexican government and end up a roving band of murderers who kill indiscriminately. The narrative arc itself becomes a topic of conversation as some readers might see the group as unrestrained and immoral from the outset; at their “best”, the gang is collecting bounties on scalps collected from men, women and children. However, I would argue the gang certainly crosses moral boundaries, only to redraw then cross them again; this is, for me, clearly an exploration of warfare and the ‘rules’ one abides by. After all, they starts out working under a rough code of conduct, then let the facade fall away at the banquet. But by the time the gang takes over the ferry, they have shed any trappings of outward misdirection that they are anything more than killers and thieves.

To be sure, the core of the action in this novel is straight forward brutality, but the violence is framed with poetic exposition, philosophical soliloquies, and unexpected tangents that consistently keeps the feel of this narrative in flux between the American frontier, the plain outside the walls of Troy, or some yet unexplored level of the inferno:

With the darkness one soul rose wondrously from among the new slain dead and stole away in the moonlight. The ground where he’d lain was soaked with blood and with urine from the voided bladders of the animals and he went forth stained and stinking like some reeking issue of the incarnate dam of war herself (55).

Zane Gray or Louis Lamour this most certainly is not. In maintaining this narrative voice throughout a novel about the nineteenth century frontier, McCarthy responds to the mythology of Davy Crockett and the grand narrative of manifest destiny that is tossed off as a quaint, abstract idea in middle school history courses from sea to shining sea. I would not presume to know McCarthy’s intent in writing about the scalp trade of the Mexican Texas border, a particularly bloody location, physically and historically in the history of both America and Mexico; but, I cannot help but read this novel as an extended metaphor for western expansion. However, instead of being didactic, the novel floats along using the cloud of myth; it is the same myth that helps to place these tottering instruments of genocide alongside Agamemnon or Priam’s rank and file. Maintaining the elevated voice is a feat in itself, but it is most effective because it is partnered with the laconic dialogue and straight-ahead violence that characterizes the western. And the bulk of the dialogue, with the exception of Judge Holden, is the kind of stoic, deadpan phrases one expects. The skill with which McCarthy displays in shifting between detailed description and immediate action makes the novel a lush experience.

After reading The Road, I was impressed with McCarthy’s style, but Blood Meridian left me in awe of this author’s ability to articulate a larger narrative. I feel like I have a lot to learn from this novel, and I look forward to dipping into it in the future.

Feb 222009

There are many things to like about Colson Whitehead’s novel The Intuitionist. But, it is a strange book to approach as a reader and suspend prejudgment long enough to like it. I mean imagine you get the five minute elevator pitch (yes- that pun is unfortunate) for this book: “Well, it’s about the city’s first, black, female, elevator inspector. She becomes caught up in a web of intrigue surrounding theoretical note books that concern the design of a paradigm-changing elevator.” I know that’s not something that gets me fired up. However, this is a successful novel. As a writer, I came away thinking about the reasons something so weird worked so well. Whitehead employs two tactics that complemented his overall narrative strategy: a reticence to provide info dumps until they inform the story and a lack of specificity of regarding time and place. While one of the novel’s primary concerns is race, the slippery terms and complicated tensions that surround the topic fill this book, Whitehead manages to make this theme something significant and noticeable without detracting from the plot, and he does so without ever really telling the reader where the story takes place. Yes, I hear you screaming it is clearly New York City, but we will deal with that a couple of paragraphs below.

The novel takes a great risk in its very premise that elevator inspectors and elevator manufacturers are central to the very existence of a city. Once the reader has committed themselves to this premise there is not much more to say about it until the reader has something invested in the success of the protagonist’s quest. So, I think Whitehead was smart to withhold essential information regarding the political and philosophical underpinnings of the world he creates until it is significant to the story. This might sound like common sense to some folks, but I have seen this poorly handled in many novels. Many times, the reader is beaten over the head with all kinds of detailed artifice that is explained and enumerated in a bid to create a realistic world. This can occur in any kind of fiction where there are all manner of things occurring that the reader might need explanations: science fiction, fantasy, historical fiction, etc. It is Whitehead’s decision to hold back on the details until it develops his characters that makes the information work harder. For example, I enjoyed reading a scene where the protagonist is asked a number of esoteric questions regarding the history, function, and design of elevators. It was enjoyable because I was cheering for the protagonist at this point in the novel; her mastery of the information and her ability to pass the test are important because I care that she passes it. The fact that I am becoming more invested in the politics of competing theoretical ideas of elevator inspection is secondary (for me as a reader) to what is at stake for the protagonist. In the end the “test scene” works on four levels: it develops the character of the protagonist, it causes the reader to become invested in Whitehead’s alternate universe, it shows the nature of the racism the protagonist is dealing with, and simultaneously reveals one of her major flaws. In short, by being careful with what he tells the reader and why, Whitehead gets more effect for his effort.

Whitehead’s decision to not anchor this alternate metropolis in a well defined time or place is interesting. The reader is told very little about where they are: a city, which is obviously New York if you look for the landmarks. However, the city is not explicitly named while others are. Also, there is a decidedly high amount of racial tension as well as reference to black characters being referred to as “colored,” which makes one feel as though they are reading about a narrative that occurs approximately somewhere in the 1960s. Other historical landmarks, such as pictures of civil rights leaders, are dropped in subtle ways. Thematically, I read this as a commentary on the atemporality of the topic of race. But, it also works to give the story a certain tone. The narrative itself is not told in a strictly linear fashion, Whitehead will often provide scenes that have only tangential meaning to the main narrative arc, so the reader’s uncertainty regarding exactly where they are located is something that is maintained to effect throughout the novel. However, the story is replete with so many concrete details, as well as allusions to the thrillers and detective stories, that the reader is able to situate themselves with this strange city and come along for the ride. That is the key. If you are willing to place yourself in the good hands of Mr. Whitehead, he will take you on an insightful journey to somewhere that is as familiar as it is strange. And you are in good hands. Just relax, take a few things as they are presented, and this novel will be worth your time.

Feb 192009

So, I know that I have not been keeping up with this here blog. Mostly that is because I am in the middle of writing a book, but I can’t say that excuse holds much water with me. After all, I will often recharge my mental batteries by surfing the net or mindlessly browsing Facebook. I could have been using that time to read something else or reflect on what I have been reading. Recently, I have resolved to opt out of the ADD techno culture that is causing the human race to rapidly devolve into giant butts with opposable thumbs; instead, opting into the use of my privileged situation and technology to think, create, and participate.

While I am up on my little soap box, allow me to take myself down a peg. In a recent seminar, one of my mentors started to mock a literary review that attacked a book we were reading. Mid rant, he pointed to a comment by the reviewer, identifying it as a ‘big ass cliché.’ I must confess this observation was a humiliating epiphany for me. When writing fiction, I go out of my way to avoid hackneyed phrases, vary my syntax, and generally pay attention to language*. But when writing analytically, I tend to stay so focused on getting my point across, without sounding like a complete moron, that I will often use a line from my standard toolbox of lines – this toolbox is well populated with clichés – to get my point across and call it a day. This cannot continue. Either one writes as best they can whenever they are writing or they do not.

Of course, all of that is well and good, but I have a self imposed quota that, as of late, has not been met. I am going to try to write about at least one book every two weeks. I cannot expect myself to produce brilliant, penetrating posts every time. But, I can set out to try to pay more attention to what I am saying and how it sounds no matter what the mode of writing might be. As my coursework winds down, I do not see much occasion for me to be writing academic essays in the future. Scholarly, critical work holds very little appeal to me. However, many of my favorite writers have produced some marvelous essays that cause academics to wince, wiggle, and opine; the reason that I find that work, essays produced by artists for artists, so interesting is that it often breaks the unspoken stuffy rules of academic discourse. In short – you can show your ass. I very much like the idea of writing about things on my terms, for my edification, clarification, amusement and/or pleasure. I just want to write them well.

Hopefully, the more I write the closer I will come to achieving my goals. After all, those of us not graced with genius must resign ourselves to working that much harder to articulate our ideas.

*Yes, I am aware that I tend to nearly always use three items in a list. Baby steps people.