Actually reviewing serious literature

I have a Ghost in the Shell post almost ready to go, but this book annoyed me so much that I have to get it out of my system first.

So I’ve long heard Cormac McCarthy described as one of America’s greatest living novelists, and Blood Meridian as his masterpiece. My recent rewatch of No Country For Old Men (adapted from one of his novels) finally made me curious enough to pick it up.

The results were very…..ehhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh

Set around the border of Mexico and Texas in the mid 19th century, the book tells thestory of the Kid, a teenager who winds up getting involved with the Glanton gang, a group of mercenaries (loosely based on historical figures) who butcher a lot of Mexicans and Native Americans.

That’s it. That’s the story.

There isn’t much in the way of structure or characterization, just episode upon episode of gruesome violence and depravity. Over 300 pages worth. It doesn’t take long before all the gore-fests lose their shock value and just become tedious and absurd. Towards the middle, I considered giving up, but kept on in the hope that McCarthy would eventually take this somewhere interesting, but nope: buckets of blood and brains all the way. Only the Judge emerges as a kinda interesting character: a physically imposing man who probably isn’t a real judge, and who has a tendency to make strange, sophistical speeches about the nature of reality. But he’s only interesting in the sense of being more theatrically evil than the blank slates that constitute the rest of the cast.

The story doesn’t work as a critique of American treatment of Mexicans and Native Americans, as it never manages to develop a moral viewpoint at all. If the point was an exercise in nihilistic absurdity then, well, mission accomplished. But that’s a pretty lame goal.

McCarthy is a good prose stylist – his way of writing has a certain gothic grandeur to it. But that’s just more aggravating than if it were written in a more pulpy style, because I can see how he had the talent to have shaped this into a more interesting story, had he wanted to.

I’m not against artists using grotesque or disturbing content for artistic purposes. But that’s what’s lacking here: artistic purpose. All the violence here just seems to exist for its own sake, and there isn’t much of a story around that violence. It almost makes me want to retroactively dislike No Country For Old Men

I just don’t see what all those literary critics are seeing here. For a genuinely great story about violence and its consequences, I recommend David Cronenberg’s film, A History of Violence. It’s a bleak and disturbing story, but with actual characters worth a damn, challenging ideas worth pondering and a dramatically satisfying narrative. A blurb on the back of the book compares it to Moby-Dick, The Iliad and The Inferno, all of which are great works of art actually worth your time.

About Josh W

Scribbler and doodler
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2 Responses to Actually reviewing serious literature

  1. Gaheret says:

    I´m sorry to hear this. I´ve read some great works by him (The Sunset Limited, The Road and perhaps to a lesser degree No country for old men itself), somewhat hopeful each in their own way, but I can see him going all the way to violence and desperation. The Sunset Limited depicts a dialectical fight between a white man with no purpose and a Christian black man who has just stopped him from suicide by force. The Road is a post-apocalyptic novel with lots of violence and a strange grammar (I think its point is to show the main character is not very clever), but very hopeful too, about a father and a son. No country for old men (the novel) tries to describe the unbearable horrors of a post-Christian world, represented by meaningless violence and the frailty of life: the protagonist (the old sheriff) is sympathetic to the Christian worldview (those of his spouse), but cannot bring himself to believe. There was some monologue in the end which struck me as insightful: “We didn’t have nothin to give to em to take over there. If we’d sent em without rifles I dont know as they’d of been all that much worse off. You can’t go to war like that. You cant go to war without God. I dont know what is goin to happen when the next one comes. I surely dont.”

    About the critics, I´ve come up with the conclussion that they tend to like better desperate and cynic works about meaninglessness, for some reason. Maybe it suits their worldview better, so they consider them more profound.

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