blood meridian & beloved: evil twins

two words: irresistible evil

Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West, by Cormac McCarthy, 1986, is the filthy brutal expectorating brother to Beloved, Toni Morrison, 1987. Both novels, set in mid 19th century USA, around the time manifest destiny became more than just a notion, explore twin sides of a blood-soaked history: As the atrocity of slavery is perpetrated in the east, the other monster America’s legacy is built on, genocide keeps wicked hands busy in the barren west.

This is a hungry country. p.17

Both novels have a breathtaking lyrical pulse, but while Beloved has beauty (and a plot), everything is harsh, heavy, ugly and relentless in Blood Meridian.

This does not diminish its appeal.

Blood Meridian is McCarty’s imaginative take on the Glanton Gang‘s bloody rampage across the south-western border between 1849 and 1850. (Beloved too is a retelling of the trial of slavewoman, Margaret Garner, c.1856.) Adapted from Samuel Chamberlain’s visual and romanticized memoir,  My Confessions: The Recollections of a Rogue, written for his daughters, McCarthy reinvents the Glanton Gang Moby Dick style. Unlike Chamberlain’s version, we are spared no blood-spatter or braining or entrailspill or infantkill: I lost count of the scalps, ears, hearts, heads and testicles taken in BM. Just when you think there is no other way to kill or rape man, woman, child or beast, another is invented in brutal effect. Every kill or near-kill is significant, even the one too cruel to describe. Evil and dominion, as echoed in BM‘s epigraphs, are not exclusive to the American story, they are part of the larger human story. The judge preaches,

War endures. Before man was war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting the ultimate practitioner. War is god. p.p. 248-249

and the truth of it registers in our annals.

The central character in Blood Meridian, ‘the kid’, a 16 year old runaway, is violent but not evil. He remains incorruptible even as he finds a home among the rabid and vicious scalp-hunters. Judge Holden, a Gene Hackman type meets Milton’s devil, has full control of everyone, John Glanton especially. But he wants the kid. He and his natural rival, the expriest Tobin, another member of the gang, in a “secret commerce” wage a tacit battle to claim him across the desert stretch, but the kid resists.

You alone were mutinous. You alone reserved in your soul some corner of clemency for the heathen. p.299

It is only after a near three-decade chase that the judge finally gets the kid, now ‘the man’, to ‘dance’.

here beyond mens judgment, all covenants are brittle. p. 106.

I winced and moaned my way through Blood Meridian. When I got to the dead centre of that terrible book, by the lake, at the very threshold into evil the title describes, I had to put it down and wait a few hours to pick it up again. It went that way for days over the second half of the novel. My heart pounded, I could barely breathe, as a morbid compulsion to see the bloody spectacle through took hold. I am desperate still for it to let me go, as I am haunted by the question: What did the judge do to the man?

cormac mccarthy

Cormac McCarthy’s epic is masterfully told. His forensic ability to stare unflinchingly at the heart and entrails  of American history and say what he sees is remarkable, matched only by his poetic proclivities. He covers not only the vast terrain of the American west, but the terrifying expanse of human capacity for evil.

A mans at odds to know his mind cause his mind is aught he has to know it with. He can know his heart, but he dont want to. p.19

Little Children‘s director Todd Field is/was attempting an adaptation after Ridley Scott rejected it as un-filmable. The sheer scale of the violence and terrain are mammoth challenges, so I agree with Scott that this is one for pages. As for Field, I wish him godspeed and good insurance.

cowboys and angels-george michael
war-bob marley

would you like that brain scrambled or fried?


I’ve finished 1984 and it’s been two nights of trippy dreams since. I can’t repeat them because frankly, they’re too fucked-up. What I can say is, some things, like imagination and desire, must remain inalienable or we stop being human. All of us.

The running horror of Beloved, 1984 and An American Tragedy, which seems to be alternately building powerful cases for the prosecution and defence of Clyde-the textbook sociopath-Griffiths, has me frazzled…

I need a cuddle session. Stat.

beautiful horror

two words: thick love

I am reluctant to post on Beloved. It signals moving on…

I gobbled up Beloved over two nights, then downloaded Toni Morrison’s own incredible reading on my iPod and am now on my second listen. It is not enough. I could drink from this cup of horrific beauty the way Beloved did when she first came out of the water, endlessly.

Every word in Beloved competes for power, beauty and devastation. Sethe’s story is harrowing, but the telling of it, magnificent. Beloved proves,

the difference
poetry and
prose is


If Toni Morrison centred the page alignment and added random line breaks, this extraordinary novel would become an extraordinary poem, it is just so beautifully written.

choke cherry tree

Beloved‘s apposition of beauty and horror, in style and content, is pervasive: Sweet Home, a shamelessly lush patch of earth with stunning sycamore trees – is a slave plantation that hangs  and torches dissident slaves from said sycamore trees – it is “fire and brimstone, but hidden in lacy groves.” p.6; “it makes you wonder if hell is a pretty place too.”

Sethe’s  horrific scars from a merciless whipping are her choke cherry tree and “the decorative work of an ironsmith too passionate for display” p.17, not just dead skin on her back, or testament of unspeakable cruelty.

And Sethe loves her four children with a ‘thick love’. But she tries to murder each of them, succeeding with one, Beloved.

This is not a spoiler. We’re given this information in the blurb, if not Chapter 1. This story is about what happens before and after, as well as the moment Sethe takes to her children with a hacksaw.

Sethe, a 19 year old slave woman heavily pregnant with her fourth child, drags herself out of hell to escape Sweet Home. She is beaten, broken, swollen and near death, but she is free. Finally free! To love Howard, Buglar, Beloved ‘crawling already?’ and the newborn, Denver, because they can’t be “hanged, rented out, loaned out, bought up, brought back, stored up, mortgaged, won, stolen or seized.” p.23 Free.

For 28 days. After which the four horsemen of the apocalypse ride up to 124, having tracked Sethe down. She doesn’t run, or hide or offer herself up. She does the unthinkable, the incomprehensible.

So: How do you keep living after killing your own baby? How do you keep breathing after you’ve cut your own baby’s throat? Not well, especially if there is a powerful connection with the afterlife. Mysticism further inspires the lyrical beauty spread thick throughout the text and demands eager rereads, as Beloved’s ghost sets up ‘a mighty haunt’.

Is this killing something you can ever understand, forgive, justify? Is Beloved real, or is Sethe suffering from  a psychotic break? Will Sethe ever be rid of the ghost of her beloved?

Beloved is a story of love, of the unloved. It will break your heart. It will heal your heart.

toni morrison

Toni Morrison is a poet in weak dissemble. She uses her breathtaking scope of word, imagination and passion to tell the story too few tell, and too few want to hear; of the Sixty Million and More who died in the slave trade, and of the ones who survive, so beautifully. So beautifully.

anyone’s ghost-the national
strange fruit-nina simone
i loves you porgy-nina simone


ys falls, ja

If I could take five books with me – forget ‘on a deserted island’ since we talking about favourite things here – at YS Falls, way down from the noisy water, in the sweet dappled pools of frangipani shade, they would be:

  1. Jane and Louisa Will Soon Come Home (1980) Erna Brodber
  2. Myal (1988) Erna Brodber
  3. Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) Jean Rhys
  4. Song of Solomon (1977) Toni Morrison, and
  5. Beloved (1987) Toni Morrison

These are my sacred texts, my genesis, my exodus, my revelations. They beckon viscera, ancient sorrow, longing, joy in the lyrical pulse of their prose. They testify and prophesy. They plug me into life. Exquisitely.

They also explain the massive chasm in my reading experience, one I’m trying to bridge by taking on the TIMES list.

Reading Beloved yet again reveals that while I have a restricted reading palate, it is a fine palate indeed, but I must resist this tender trap. I will not skip to Wide Sargasso Sea and forget the rest. I will not read Beloved more than twice this week. I will read the other books on the list.




Though still a work in progress, here are the novels that I’ll be reading in 2011.

Struck through titles have been completed.
Bold titles are presently being read.
* indicates reread.

  1. 1984-1948-George Orwell
  2. The Adventures of Augie March-1953-Saul Bellow
  3. All The King’s Men-1946-Robert Penn Warren
  4. American Pastoral-1997-Philip Roth
  5. An American Tragedy-1925-Theodore Dreiser
  6. Animal Farm-1946-George Orwell*
  7. Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret-1970-Judy Blume
  8. At Swim-Two-Birds-1938-Flann O’Brien
  9. Atonement-2002-Ian McEwan
  10. Beloved-1987-Toni Morrison*
  11. The Big Sleep-1939-Raymond Chandler
  12. The Blind Assassin-2000-Margaret Atwood
  13. Blood Meridian-1986-Cormac McCarthy
  14. Catch-22-1961-Joseph Heller
  15. The Catcher in the Rye-1951-J.D. Salinger*
  16. A Clockwork Orange-1963-Anthony Burgess
  17. The Corrections-2001-Jonathan Franzen
  18. The Death of the Heart-1958-Elizabeth Bowen
  19. The French Lieutenant’s Woman-1969-John Fowles
  20. Go Tell it on the Mountain-1953-James Baldwin
  21. The Grapes of Wrath-1939-John Steinbeck
  22. The Great Gatsby-1925-F. Scott Fitzgerald
  23. A Handful of Dust-1934-Evelyn Waugh
  24. The Heart is A Lonely Hunter-1940-Carson McCullers
  25. The Heart of the Matter-1948-Graham Greene
  26. Herzog-1964-Saul Bellow
  27. Housekeeping-1981-Marilynne Robinson
  28. I, Claudius-1934-Robert Graves
  29. The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe-1950-C. S. Lewis
  30. Lolita-1955-Vladimir Nabokov*
  31. Lord of the Flies-1955-William Golding
  32. Lucky Jim-1954-Kingsley Amis
  33. The Man Who Loved Children-1940-Christina Stead
  34. Midnight’s Children-1981-Salman Rushdie
  35. Mrs. Dalloway-1925-Virginia Woolf
  36. Naked Lunch-1959-William Burroughs
  37. Never Let Me Go-2005-Kazuo Ishiguro
  38. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest-1962-Ken Kesey
  39. The Painted Bird-1965-Jerzy Kosinski
  40. A Passage to India-1924-E. M. Forster
  41. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie-1961-Muriel Sparks
  42. Snow Crash-1992-Neal Stephenson
  43. The Sound and the Fury-1929-William Faulkner
  44. The Sun Also Rises-1926-Ernest Hemingway
  45. Super Sad True Love Story-2010-Gary Shteyngart
  46. Things Fall Apart-1959-Chinua Achebe*
  47. To the Lighthouse-1927-Virginia Woolf
  48. Ubik-1969-Phillip Dick
  49. Ulysses-1922-James Joyce
  50. Under The Net-1954-Iris Murdoch
  51. Under The Volcano-1947-Malcolm Lowry
  52. Watchmen-1986-Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons*
  53. White Teeth-2000-Zadie Smith*
  54. Wide Sargasso Sea-1966-Jean Rhys*