Cormac McCarthy’s Heart of Darkness

As part of my 100-novels reading project, I’ve selected Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy as my 31st read.

As the back cover material notes, this novel unfolds the story of a 14-year-old boy known only as The Kid, and his journey into the dark and bizarre world of westward frontier expansion in the 1850s; the novel specifically chronicles incidents on the Texas-Mexico border. The Kid encounters a variety of violence on the frontier, including a massacre of a Texan militia by the Comanche, and joining a motley crew of mostly white scalphunters.

The more I read of McCarthy, the more I think of him as a latter-day Conrad. Blood Meridian is an early novel of McCarthy’s, but like No Country for Old Men, it explores the human heart of darkness, fully apocalyptic and scarily prophetic. In Blood Meridian there seems to be a Kurtz figure in the scalphunter’s leader Judge Holden, and my guess is, as I read, that the Kid is Marlow.

Published in 1985, the novel treads on the heels of the film Apocalypse Now, another exploration of the heart of darkness. There are images in the novel that remind me of that film as well. One of the scalphunters wears a necklace of shriveled human ears, and this reminds me of stories I’ve heard about soldiers collecting such morbid trophies in war, and I think there may be a scene either in Apocalypse Now, or perhaps Platoon, in which an American soldier collects the ears from his kills.

I’m only 100 pages into the novel, and true to McCarthy, there has been plenty of bloodshed.

I was also chilled by this prophetic line uttered early in the novel by the captain of the Texan militia that goes on a mission to take back Mexico (the novel of course is set vaguely around the end of the Mexican-American War): "’We are to be the instruments of liberation in a dark and troubled land.’"

The captain later leads his expedition into a trap and all but a few, including The Kid, are mercilessly slaughtered by the Comanche. Such a brutal evocation of the dangers of American imperialism. Sadly evocative and prophetic of our present darkness, as well.

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And Then there’s Alice

I’ve never read Alice in Wonderland, and now I’ve added it to my 100-novels list. So far, I’m loving it, especially its beautiful sentences.

Lewis Carroll’s sentences are wonderful, graceful and marvelous examples of craft. Early in my reading I was particularly impressed with the following sentence and how it handles narrative proportion:

Suddenly she  came upon a little three-legged table, all made of solid glass: there was nothing on it but a tiny golden key, and Alice’s first idea was that this might belong to one of the doors of the hall; but alas! either the locks were too large, or the key was too small, but at any rate it would not open any of them.

A less skillful writer might’ve chopped this sentence into three sentences, and thus breaking  up the rhythm and making  the action choppy, in particular the action that follows the colon after "glass". I can imagine sentences like this:

There was nothing on it but a tiny golden key, and Alice’s first idea was that this might belong to one of the doors. She tried the keys. Either the locks were too big, or the key was too small. None of the doors opened.

I could also imagine a modern editor insisting upon such breaks to get rid of the repetition of "but". As we know, repetition is a sin in modern editing.

Books Bought and Life in the Tropics

Books Bought:

  • The Best American Essays 2005, edited by Susan Orlean
  • Ailce’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll

Book read:

  • Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller

This is a reread. I first read Miller in graduate school and was swept up by his exuberant language and the (pardon the pun) fuck-everything eroticism. At the same time I was enthralled by Henry & June, the film of Miller’s affair with Anais Nin and his writing of Tropic.

The film still enthralls me. When I first saw it, I wasn’t aware it was drawn from Nin’s journals. Reading Tropic the first time, I tried to find parallels between it and the novel. After reading Tropic, I then read Erica Jong’s biocritical The Devil at Large, which celebrates Miller’s attacks against American "sexophobia." (That bio has one of the best chapter titles ever "Crazy Cock in the Land of Fuck".)

Jong’s basic thesis is that Miller could lead us back to a pagan sense of eros, and I swallowed that thesis. Until my recent reading of Tropic.

I wasn’t enthralled by this reading. To me the novel now has the feel of a period piece. It captures the underworld, Left Bank world of Paris in the Thirties, just as the Lost Generation was fading into the Great Depression.

When I first read Miller and Jong and saw the film, I was less jaded by relationships and sexual relationships. I’m a bit more jaded now, and have read novels, such as James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime, that are clearly influenced by Miller, and explicit sex scenes in novels as well as film are no longer censored or uncommon.

Tropic of Cancer does have value; its influence extends to writers beyond eros. Miller writes extensively in the American apocalyptic vein. Throughout Miller, the world is closing in on blowing itself up. Most of his images come from World War I — poison gas, Big Bertha, etc. — but it’s still apocalypse.

Oddly, I find the apocalyptic strain appealing. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s the latent Baptist in me, watching Armageddon being played out in the Middle East.

Books Read update

It’s been a long time since I’ve updated you on my books read list. This is an update for November. Only two go on the November list:

  • Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid
  • Angels by Denis Johnson

I could add a third, Modern Baptists by James Wilcox, which I started in late October and finished up in November.

All three are books on my informal 100-novels reading list, which I’ve periodically been writing about here. I haven’t made an update on that either. I’ll do a brief one here on the above two novels.

Annie John reminded me of a short novel in the vein of Virginia Woolf. As far as action or actual plot goes, nothing much happens. It’s essentially about a girl growing up in Antigua in the 1950s and 60s. Much of the narrative is a deep reach into the mother-daughter relationship. Like Woolf, Kincaid explores character through the Woolfian "halo of perception." Most of the novel, as Jane Smiley acknowledges, "detail[s] Annie’s simultaneous disillusionment and quest for independence as she becomes a ‘young lady’ … a star student in a rigidly British educational system, and her mother’s loved and hated antagonist."

I was fond of the scenes at the school. They reminded me of Jane Eyre. It was also interesting to pick up on the mild homoeroticism between the young girls. The mother-daughter relationship dissolves at an odd moment–a hunt for illicit marbles. I thought this was strange. It’s never clear what sort of morality is attached to Annie’s possessing marbles, but it becomes the pivotal moment of deterioration between the mother and daugther and the moment when Annie begans to move toward independence from her family.

Denis Johnson’s Angels is a marvelous brief walk on the apocalyptic. This is the third time I’ve read this novel. This time I read it after having been alerted to the many "angelic" messengers that Francine Prose notes when she talks about the novel in her book Reading Like a Writer. Paring the novel to its essence, it’s about single mother Jamie Mays, who is essentially running away from herself, and her journey through the underworld of American culture, following the guide of lost soul Bill Houston.

It’s a dark ride, one that ends with Jamie placed temporarily in an asylum and Houston on death row. One of Johnson’s conclusions is the dark one that Americans are inherently violent, or tend to be easily consumed by violence. The novel itself descends along several violent paths, including rape and murder. It ends with this poignant passage:

But that was just a story, something that people will tell themselves, something to pass the time it takes for the violence inside a man to wear him away, or to be consumed itself, depending on who is the candle and who is the light.

What candle do we pick? What light will we follow?