Is the Personal Professional? Reading as an Academic and a “Normal” Person

I finished Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian the other day. The main reason for picking it up is that several friends, colleagues and random passers-by have been telling me to read it for the past five years or so. Ever since I first became interested in horror and other genre fiction people have demanded my opinion about this book, which Wikipedia describes as both a Western and an Anti-Western. Which, in my view, tears the whole concept of genres as meaningful categories of analysis to shreds, but that’s a different story.

Blood Meridian, for those who are too lazy to do a basic Google search, is loosely based on 19th century historical atrocities committed by the infamous Glanton gang, a group of mercenaries who initially engaged in the lucrative (but disturbing) scalp trade. The novel traces how the members eventually embarked on a random killing spree and describes this development in graphic detail. I personally found the novel contained more detailed descriptions of mutilated bodies than your average horror story. Yet more proof that genre is a complicated construct, but again, I will ignore that discussion for now.

Did I like it? As an academic I’m inclined to say it doesn’t matter, but this is merely a way to circumvent the fact that I found the book challenging. Which is a polite way of saying that I liked it a lot less than, say, The Road or No Country for Old Men. I may be an atypical McCarthy aficionado in this regard, though, as many people appear to prefer Blood Meridian over his later work.

So why did I have a hard time liking this book? It wasn’t the violence – though gruesome, I’m kind of used to literary gore by now. I think the style made it seriously difficult for me to really engage with the story and its characters. I often found myself reading a scene without the faintest idea how I got there. Sure, the novel’s nature is episodic and there is no clear plot, but as a result McCarthy often lost me.

I even considered not finishing the book when I was halfway through. This is an unusual occurrence, particularly because I really wanted to finish and appreciate this novel. In the end I did finish it, mainly because I remembered a different text which is remarkably similar. I’m talking about Alejandro Jodorovsky’s El Topo, a cult film which I saw in my local cinema last year. Just like Blood Meridian El Topo is violent, it vaguely suggests being influenced by the Western genre, and it is incomprehensible. Two people leaving the cinema after me voiced their disappointment loudly: they had expected something more Clint Eastwood-like. Again, a reason why genre labels can be profoundly unhelpful. But I won’t go on about that here.

More relevant is El Topo‘s incomprehensibility. After the first twenty minutes or so I stopped trying to make sense of the story and simply started to take in the images as they appeared on the screen. It was a disturbing experiences – I felt truly out of control – but at least I was no longer frustrated because I no longer had to try to make sense of what I saw. I ended up applying the same technique to Blood Meridian, and managed to finish the novel in the end.

So did I end up liking it? Some parts will definitely stick with me. Of course there’s the terrifying Judge Holden, who reminded me of No Country for Old Men’s Anton Chigurh. There’s the mysterious main character, simply known as The Kid. And there’s the continuous realization that parts of this story actually happened, which has changed my conceptualization of The West forever. As an academic, I like this book. It is cleverly written, I would love to write an article on it or discuss it with a group of students. But personally I did not enjoy it. It left me longing for something more engaging, something more straightforward, even though that might be due to my current state over workaholicism. I’ve just started reading Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin. I’m not sure whether that will make matters any better.

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