Following the lead of America’s favorite English professor Harold Bloom, literary critics have canonized Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian as the one of the greatest novels of the 20th century, alongside the classics of Waugh, Joyce, Conrad, and Faulkner. Already, McCarthy has become a household name because of the highly acclaimed film adaptations of his novels No Country for Old Men and The Road.
To justify their adulation, critics liken Blood Meridian to the great literary epics of the past, particularly The Odyssey and Moby Dick. Like these other works, Blood Meridian features a vast mysterious landscape, conflict on a cosmic scale, and universal themes like death, violence, and the cyclical nature of history. At times, McCarthy’s style, which combines elements of modernism (doing away with grammatical conventions, emphasis on gritty details, and traditional plot arcs and characterization) with Romanticism (long stretches of description, turbulent behavior, and poetic language), lends gravitas and depth to its subject matter. Even the narrative’s regular emphasis on gore is credited for novelty and vividness.
Unfortunately, such effusive praise for Blood Meridian might fool an unsuspecting reader into reading and praising a perfectly ugly piece of writing. McCarthy’s greatest novel, to which he apparently devoted two years of his life in the wilderness writing it, is the literary culmination of absolute nihilism. He scrupulously composes a narrative sequence—not a true story—that revels in sin and suffering and destroys any sense of truth, goodness, and beauty. Instead of aiming to elevate and illuminate readers, he concentrates of appalling and confusing them. In general, the book is a perfect example what becomes of literary art when fully opposed to any positive ideal: it is corrupted in all ways and exposes the evil lurking in the void.
True to its empty spirit, Blood Meridian has no plot; it only has a sequence of gruesome events punctuated by prolix descriptions of bleak landscapes and pseudo-erudite discussions between The Judge (the main antagonist) and the other characters. McCarthy makes it clear that none of his characters have any agency, but follow winds of circumstance—they are figures, not characters. They slaughter, carouse, and pillage without any motive or remorse. No one changes over the course of the book because they lack the capacity for change. Thus, the novel ends like it begins, pointlessly. Although McCarthy’s fans and literary posers interpret this nihilism as profound and authentic, most readers will rightly see it as inhuman and boring.
However, since most artistic novels tend to incorporate the reigning philosophy of the day, it might be unfair to judge McCarthy’s bleak vision of the Southwest as completely worthless. Nearly all novels and television dramas written in the past few decades take place in amoral environments, feature anti-heroes, and immediately discard concepts like freedom and truth. Only Christians and bumpkins (which, for artists today, are synonymous) would desire a meaningful ending, a virtuous protagonist, and a clear structure. Blood Meridian satisfies the tastes of truly modernized sophisticates who read for expressive intensity and pushing boundaries—in other words, for shock value.
This is the reason that they will identify McCarthy’s talent to elicit revulsion and nausea as something exquisite. His recounting of scalping, mutilation, and decaying corpses is deemed “sublime” and strangely beautiful. In reality, these scenes desensitize the reader and blur the action. For all of McCarthy’s elaborate description of gore, he seems to lack the ability to depict action clearly. Nearly every clash between the bandits and Indians happen in a cloudy kind of chaos where it is nearly impossible to determine who exactly did what.
Naturally, the language of the book matches its underlying negative principles. Like his aimless bleak settings, characters, and plot, McCarthy makes his prose equally aimless and bleak. He completely does away with quotation marks, most commas, and has more run-ons and fragments than he does actual sentences. This has the effect of obfuscating the speaker, dissipating meaning (both general and specific), and jumbling the narrative. The reader must wrestle each sentence without the satisfaction of achieving full understanding. More often than not, he comes away from reading the book with a headache and an ill temperament.
In one aspect, Blood Meridian does succeed as a work of modern literature by almost perfectly demonstrating what results from nihilistic literature: a horrific yet ultimately dull assemblage of words languishing at margins of intelligibility. An attentive reader might pick up some scraps of the Western literary tradition peppering one monotone chapter or another and know that this is only ironic verbal excess, nothing more. Otherwise, he will behold the barren absence-of-good that make up the very best of today’s literature and popular entertainment. It is the sure sign of decadence, and it is the very thing writer and readers of good conscience must reject, even as pretentious critics and professors do the opposite.