Can a Book You Don’t Like Be a Masterpiece?

In my last post, I described some of my doubts about Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian. Before I started the book, I had been told it was a “masterpiece,” and now that I’m finished, I’m struggling to decide what I think about this. On the one hand, the book didn’t satisfy me to the extent I thought it would; on the other, I concede that it still may deserve the title.

When I really like a book, it’s easy for me to simply “know” that it deserves to be considered great. While I was reading Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson, I felt profound exhilaration and delight, a feeling has not faded with later re-readings. And it’s clear that many people have felt this way about Blood Meridian. See, for instance, this attempt by six artists to illustrate every single page of the novel.

However, even though I personally wasn’t won over by Blood Meridian, and much preferred McCarthy’s later novel, The Road, I can imagine two possible standards under which I would still accord it the status of a “masterpiece.”

The first standard I’m going to call “internal consistency.” Blood Meridian has an incredible feeling of self-sufficiency, of an author’s vision carried out with no foreign matter allowed in. Even the individual sentences have this quality, many of them designed to stand alone, if necessary, as complete vistas or vignettes. A sentence I quoted in my previous post seems designed to tell an entire story in itself:

As they rode that night upon the mesa they saw come toward them much like their own image a party of riders pierced out of the darkness by the intermittent flare of the dry lightning to the north.

The goal for this standard of greatness, it seems, is to go as far in a particular literary direction as it is possible to go. Just as Gravity’s Rainbow often seems intent on being as confusing and idea-studded as possible, or just as Ulysses sets out to be a total replication of the city of Dublin, Blood Meridian has the feeling of a novel attempting to out-Western all other Westerns.

Does the typical Western have few female characters? Well, the ultimate Western, therefore, should have none. Does the typical Western focus as much on setting and environment as its characters’ personal hopes and long-term aspirations? Well, in that case Blood Meridian will give full depth and agency to its setting, while not even providing its protagonist with a name. Does the Western echo with the horrors of the American frontier? Then this Western will portray its American characters as the most inhuman and terrible creatures possible.

Does this pursuit of purity limit such novels’ ability to tell a good story? Well, so be it.

TheirEyesWereWatchingGod

However, I can see another standard for calling a book a masterpiece: its ability to speak to what we call “real life.” Part of the impact of reading a novel like Their Eyes Were Watching God, for instance, is asking oneself a question like, “How much am I like Janie Crawford?” Part of the power of reading Great Expectations is recognising one’s own illusions and self-deceptions in Pip.

This is not to muddle the difference between fiction and reality.  Rather, in a great work of fiction, we get the chance to see our own life illuminated by giant forms. Filtered through a writer’s vision of the world, we see that world afresh.

At least to this reader, Blood Meridian’s very purity and singularity makes it less satisfying when considered by this second standard of greatness. Instead, I experience it from a distance, like overhearing a television in another room. Whether this is because there’s no coherent protagonist to filter the story through, or because its monochromatic horror ultimately feels contrived (question: why does the Kid’s mother have to die in childbirth? Answer: Just to keep everything sufficiently bleak), or a mixture of these, I don’t know.

As I read, I can see that McCarthy takes it all very seriously, but I’m not sure how I am supposed to. Even though his great villain, the Judge, says a lot of important-sounding things, what these statements are supposed to signify is often obscure, even in a poetic sense.

To me, McCarthy’s The Road really is a masterpiece. It presents a future world I’ve never lived in, but which seems completely meaningful and compelling. Its horrors all make awful sense, as does its agonies of survival and impossible hope. On both levels of masterpiece-ness, it felt an awe-inspiring success.

But Blood Meridian left me uncompelled.

7 thoughts on “Can a Book You Don’t Like Be a Masterpiece?

  1. I read his entire canon in a survey course, and I’ve always been torn on _Blood Meridian_ myself. There are passages that are undeniably profound, but like _Suttree_, the novel feels like an experiment with difficult sentences before he transitioned into a much different style with The Border Trilogy, _No Country for Old Men_ (which he took a lot of criticism over because it was said to be too easy to read) and _The Road_. The Border Trilogy I didn’t love and label as pure Western genre fiction, maybe a version of what you describe above, and your commentary on _Blood Meridian_ makes that seem more likely. They’re gross. I love his first 3 novels the most because they are simpler on the sentence level but profound in others. I share your struggle to quantify what it is that’s different in the sentences. The best word I’ve come for it is density. The words are heavy and wet in _Blood Meridian_, sometimes wet with blood and for no apparent reason.

    Good stuff. Your site looks really nice, too.

    -Joe

    Like

    • Thanks for the comment! Yeah, I don’t feel like I did a great job in these posts either describing what it’s like to read Blood Meridian nor justifying my problems with it. Ultimately, I feel like the novel is a great “performance of genius” — it seems so genius-like. But I agree, there are many moments where the sentence writing feels like an experiment, taken to the edge of self-parody and beyond.

      I’m glad you like the look of the blog. I played around with the Twenty Fourteen theme for a while, trying to get a good balance on desktop and ipad displays (the site looks very different depending on what device you’re using). Curious: are you viewing it on a laptop or tablet?

      Congrats on the return to blogging, too!

      Like

  2. Great post, Daniel! This makes me think about visual art and what is considered a masterpiece. I find it difficult to appreciate many forms of abstract art because I often can’t relate to the works personally. I can admire them technically as an art form, but I have no relationship with the pieces. It sounds like Blood Meridian is like that. (Now that I think about it, music falls into this as well. I prefer Beethoven to Bach. Bach is technically wonderful, but Beethoven has emotion and speaks to me in a way that Bach never will.)

    Like

  3. I’m glad to have found your blog. I’m especially interested in your style series.

    As a fan of Cormac McCarthy, though I definitely had more fun reading The Road, I think Blood Meridian is his masterpiece. It was the first book of his I read, and I admire its purity and violent power. I think the decision to depict the characters as either allegorized archetypical individuals or satanic-villainous people works really well for the type of work it is.

    Blood Meridian is not a “novel” per se, but a great prose epic, like Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick before it. Like all great epics, Blood Meridian makes its setting and archaism a tangible and inseparable part of its structure. Les Miserables, Moby-Dick, the great epic poems – all make setting and physicality a part of their being as much as the more fantastical or heightened aspects.

    I also tend to prefer McCarthy’s earlier, more baroque and Melvillian style myself. For a simpler distillation of this, I would go to Outer Dark, which is a fantastic parable-novel.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for writing this! I agree with everything you’ve said here. I recognise that Blood Meridian is a powerful work, even a great work, and part of a long (mostly American) tradition of tragic prose epics: it’s just not my cup of tea. I don’t “like” it the way I would like to. Maybe I’ll re-read it in future years and re-consider.

      One question I have, and it’s a real question, is how the book’s allegorical and archetypal vision is served by its total lack of female characters. Even the protagonist’s mother dies in childbirth, as if even the memory of a woman is not allowed. This left me uncomfortable, wondering if the absolute misery and cosmic darkness of the book was a little contrived — or a little more specific to the author’s frame of mind — than the book would like us to think. Perhaps this is a subjective thing, too: there are no women in Moby Dick, and barely any men in Housekeeping, but I did not feel the same doubt about those novels. Curious what you think about this.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I personally think that the lack of female characters works for what Blood Meridian is accomplishing.

        A favorite blogger of mine, John Pistelli, had this to say:

        This is strange book to read right after Blood Meridian in my haphazard tour of late-twentieth century American literature; the two novels, both written and published in the late 1970s and early 1980s, are like mirror-images of each other, equal and opposite visions of human insignificance and natural absoluteness, extraordinary landscape paintings in elevated prose. Both novels strive to encompass the totality of classic American literature and thereby to master the whole western canon. Each novel insists, however, on a gendered lens through which to command their perspective: there are next to no women in Blood Meridian (which begins with the kid’s mother’s death) and next to no men in Housekeeping (which begins with Ruth’s grandfather’s death); both novels hew, in fact, to highly gendered genres in their narrative outlines—McCarthy’s epic, Robinson’s domestic Gothic

        So it makes sense for what McCarthy is accomplishing, and what Melville did for his epic Moby Dick

        Like

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s