Monday, November 24, 2008

War, Cormac McCarthy and Speculative Fiction

Broke, running out of coffee and whiskey (not to mention food), and not feeling like going in to work leaves me in a random mood today. I feel rushed and pressed to do a lot of things, all on my mind at once. Yet I sit at my desk, in my broken backed chair and pursue utter randomness, looking for Black Swans.
Really, I was trying to find a Cormac McCarthy quote to use in a discussion, and it somehow led into an expanding gyre of the random. So, I'm running with it.

"It makes no difference what men think of war [...] War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner." Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian

Blood Meridian
is, without a doubt, my least favorite McCarthy novel. At least of those I have read (I have yet to read The Crossing, The Sunset Limited, Outer Dark, Cities of the Plain or The Orchard Keeper). I am not turned off by the violence, or the despairing philosophies, or any of the rest that so many others find repugnant about the book. I simply think McCarthy has done better. Blood Meridian is revisionist, a nice way of saying its historical accuracy is precisely dick, and compared to McCarthy's masterpieces such as Suttree and The Road, poorly written. It lacks the subtlety in extremes of those two novels. While they deal with extreme, and violent, situations and the wreck and ruin of human lives, Suttree and The Road do so with understatement, and the literary equivalent of negative space. The unsaid. offers little subtlety in its extremes, reveling in the violence, and base vulgarities of nearly every character. I understand the idea, the portrayal of human natures desired, but I simply find Blood Meridian to be inelegant all around. Even in Child of God, which lacks some of the subtlety of later McCarthy, there was an elegance to the handling of such extremes. I am continually mystified at people who cant get over Blood Meridian - Its just not that good. And don't even get me started on people who want to think it is an accurate historical portrayal.
With all that said, however, it has some gems in a handful of lines. And bad McCarthy is still better than a lot of other writers best. The line about war, as said by the character of the Judge, is one I have always liked.

While looking for that quote, I came across another interesting perspective on McCarthy, in particular his Pulitzer winning The Road.
I am an unabashed fan of The Road, and have recommended it to most everyone I know. Some who've taken me up on it liked it, others did not as is the way with anything. I think it is one of the best works of literary fiction I've ever read, truly a master work. But beyond that, I've thought since it first came out, that it was a bold move in literary fiction, as it is essentially speculative fiction. Science fiction, speculative fiction, SciFi, Sciffy, call it what you will, is a dirty term in literary circles. Like fantasy (thud and blunder), it is an area regarded by the literati as populated by hacks, and poor use of language, and all the other cardinal sins against literature. And, to some extent, they are right - There is a lot of really terrible speculative fiction. But there is a lot of really good speculative fiction, and plenty of writers who are far more literary and skilled at their crafting of language than a lot of the icons of literature. I personally think there are more fundamentally important works of science fiction, than there are of (at least modern) literary fiction. Perhaps only made more so by the fact that, the engineers, the scientists, the builders of our world read science fiction/speculative fiction. Their bliss, their flights of fancy, and the reflections of their hopes, dreams, failures, and losses, are all in speculative fiction. These are the people who build our world. Yet to many literati, their voices and concerns are low and vulgar, they are the unwashed rabble.
And someone, at least, has the balls to point all this out: Dipping Their Toes in the Genre Pool

I need to read A Canticle of Leibowitz again. It is a fantastic book. I was thrilled last fall when I saw it was among the required reading for a popular course at New Mexico Tech. Seeing numerous students carrying it around, dog earing pages, and talking about it was fantastic.

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