2xDNF: BLOOD MERIDIAN (1985) & BRASYL (2007)

A short post on 2 books I didn’t finish, mainly because of their prose.


BLOOD MERIDIAN, OR THE EVENING REDNESS IN THE WEST – Cormac McCarthy (1985)

Blood Meridian McCarthyDubbed as one of the ultimate Great American Novels by some, I looked forward to reading this, but DNFed at 30%. It’s basically a violent (anti-)Western with lots of descriptions of landscapes. I have no idea why it is included in some lists of speculative fiction.

Why did I quit? The prose didn’t click. I thought it was contrived, and convoluted because of that. Taste obviously, as lots of people seem to like its poetry, and even say it is genius. Lots of reviews on Goodreads extensively quote examples of sentences & entire passages, so take a look at those to see if it could work for you.

I also don’t buy the premise of the book – or what the general consensus seems to be on its premise – namely the fact that man is depraved. “Man” is such a generalization that statements like that are hardly interesting. True, at times some humans act in a depraved way, but the vast majority of people I know are good at heart. Then again, if I had kept on reading, I might have seen McCarthy was being ironic. Who knows?

For contrast, here’s Caryn James from the NYT on the novel in 1985: “This latest book is his most important, for it puts in perspective the Faulknerian language and unprovoked violence running through the previous works, which were often viewed as exercises in style or studies of evil. ”Blood Meridian” makes it clear that all along Mr. McCarthy has asked us to witness evil not in order to understand it but to affirm its inexplicable reality; his elaborate language invents a world hinged between the real and surreal, jolting us out of complacency.”


BRASYL – Ian McDonald (2007)

BrasylBrasyl – a near-future account of Brazil – started out good, but at 30% I still couldn’t figure out what the story was about, and the stop-start prose started bugging me: chaotic & jumbled.

I started reading some reviews on Goodreads, and came across this by Ian James:

“the description of being able to see into parallel worlds was not at all believable, and it made no sense that the poison from a frog conferred the ability to do so in humans, just because that frog’s retina is supposedly capable of detecting a single quantum of light (and is thus able to see into the quantum world). Also, just because you can see billions of parallel worlds does not mean you can predict the future, find out answers to questions in your own world, or be able to travel in time. It made NO sense, and it was not explained at all. There was some gibberish about quantum computers somehow causing a sort of gateway between parallel worlds, but this unconvincing pseudo-scientific explanation was muddled up with the hallucinogenic or mind-altering psychic power “explanation” in other parts of the book.”

I decided to cut my loses, because it is exactly that kind of stuff that bugs me these days.

I liked River of Gods & Luna: New Moon a lot, but Luna: Wolf Moon didn’t convince me to read the third Luna installment. This time McDonald failed to convince me altogether. I still have The Dervish House on my TBR, we’ll see about that one.


Consult the author index for my other reviews, or my favorite lists.

Click here for an index of my non-fiction or art book reviews, and here for an index of my longer fiction reviews of a more scholarly & philosophical nature.

43 responses to “2xDNF: BLOOD MERIDIAN (1985) & BRASYL (2007)

  1. That Ian McDonald fellow, I’ve heard enthusiastic things about him. I might try out River of Gods one day.

    The only Cormac book I ever read was The Road and I thought it was very impressive, but it was also his only speculative fiction novel as far as I know.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve seen the movie, and based on that I was not inclined to read the book, and reading a chunk of Blood Meridian doesn’t help either. You remember The Road’s prose?

      I did like the Coen’s version of No Country For…, but it didn’t make me want to read that book either.

      I’ve read about it some more, apparently there are a few very light fantastical elements in BM. No idea about their nature though. You could also classify it as horror based on the violence. Some speculative fiction lists include horror books too, but this doesn’t seem to be supernatural horror to justify that.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Ok, so I’m not the only person in the world who cannot stand McCarthy. For a lot of reasons, but also the one you stated. His writing is so self-consciously “poetic”. Maybe some people really like his stories, but I think a lot of people read him because they think they’re supposed to “appreciate” such “wonderful” writing.

    I hardly comment and the one time I’m negative. Sorry. I’ll be positive next time. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • No worries, any comment is much appreciated.

      Self-conscious prose indeed. Not that I’m against that in principle, but as its tough & difficult here, the rewards didn’t justify the effort for me.

      I’m sure there are lots of fans that generally appreciate this, but as with any work of such renoun, some might be in it only for the cultural credit indeed. On the other hand, you have to be pretty self-delusional to “like” this while you actually don’t.

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  3. I am so sorry you had 2 DNF’s in a row. That hurt just to see happening. On the positive, you’ve affirmed to me that my decision to avoid McCarthy was a good one and a decision to stick to.

    I hope your next read turns out better for you.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Blood Meridian has been on my shelf for a while. Your review doesn’t make me want to dust it off and read it. 😂 I read his “The Road” a while ago and appreciated his style in that one. But it was a dark and fairly depressing book.

    Liked by 1 person

    • If you liked The Road’s style, I wouldn’t discard Blood Meridian based on my review. I’m really in a minority position if I read other reviews.

      Liked by 1 person

      • OK, thanks. I don’t think the Road is anywhere near as dense as the prose in Meridian from what I’ve heard. I did read the opening pages a while back but wasn’t in the mood for such a “serious” book. I’ll let you know if I do pick it up again.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Two DNFs in a row? That hurts!
    I scratched Blood Meridian from my tbr, so thank you for sparing me the same fate that you had to endure.
    As for McDonald, I read his New Moon and loved it but never managed it to read further in the series. River of Gods is on my tbr ever since I read the spinoff novella „Little Goddess“ https://reiszwolf.wordpress.com/2020/12/06/the-little-goddess-2005-near-future-sf-novella-by-ian-mcdonald/

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Two DNFs in a short time frame can be not only disappointing but also frustrating: I hope that you already found a good book to balance the scales! 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • I tried Brasyl in July, so that’s long enough ago to not affect my enthusiasm for reading. But I did have bit of a rut around that period with Incandescence (June), A Scanner Darkly, Brasyl, Heretics, Fiasco and Breakfast for Champions, none of which was fully succesful.

      I’m reading Bewilderment of Richard Powers at the moment. I’ll finish it for sure, but I’m not far enough to say I really like or dislike it. Could go either way.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I loved Blood Meridian – the prose being one of the reasons. Of course, to each their own. 🙂 But it leads to the question: what do you think of William Gibson’s writing? Certainly there are differences between the two writers, but both are among the best minimalists, in terms of style, I know.

    Liked by 1 person

    • My track record with Gibson is uneven, but I loved Burning Chrome, also for the prose indeed. I also plan to reread Neuromancer one day because I feel I didn’t approach that book with the right mindset when I first read it.

      It’s interesting that you see McCarthy as a minimalist, I would not call the prose in BM minimalist at all. It has a certain economy, true, but in terms of imagery, vocabulary, etc, I’d rather call it baroque, even maximalist. Describing sunsets with phallic imagery isn’t minimal to me 🙂

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      • I hear you. McCarthy’s style isn’t the poster child for minimalism. But I still feel it’s in that area – and I’m thinking of his ouevre, including BM. Proasic, certainly there are moments, but overall he writes short sentences, rarely digs deep into scene or dialogue, provides little punctuation, and the majority of emotion and meaning is between the lines. That’s enough to qualify as a “minimalist” for me, but I get where you’re coming from.

        Regarding the below commentary about BM being more of a mood piece than a story, I don’t think I quite agree. I would certainly agree it’s not a plot-centric novel. An observation of the human condition seems closer to home.

        “Pseudo-profundity” is also a bit jaded. I’m not a person who takes life/death as seriously as McCarthy of Faulkner or Hemingway, but I understand when they focus on it. It is, after all, one of the most foundational aspects of being human, and something everyone deals with in their own way. McCarthy, like Ballard so often did, was clearly trying to get at the nuts and bolts of the human psyche. In BM’s case, it was what drives the human animal to war, death, and destruction when it seems so obviously a bad thing. For me, that paradox is thought-provoking. It’s not a pretty picture, I get it, but until humanity stops killing itself en masse, the book will be relevant, which is why I don’t get the “pseudo-profound” commentary.

        I sometimes see blog posts about art books here. I think of Blood Meridian like a painting. Yes, a dark, bleak image appears at first glance, i.e. “man is depraved.” But as you know, the longer you look, the more you see. Then questions appear in relation to the depravity. And I think it’s there that the “painting” holds its value – ethical, philosophical, and otherwise.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Yes, if you put I like that, I can agree on why you’d name it minimalism, thanks for the clarification.

          As for the text as painting, agreed as well, that’s more or less what I wanted to say with ‘poetic prose’, and I agree that I probably should have read on to make statements about the content, both in the review as in the comments.

          Still, from what I can gather of 30% of its pages, I think the condition humaine it observed is kinda one-sided, viewed through the lens of violence, the drive towards war, death, etc as you say. Bad behavior, true, but I’m not sure if its paradoxical, or even helpful to see it in terms of a dichotomic good-bad matrix. I haven’t read enough of the book, but my hunch was that it doesn’t really provide an answer with why good people turn bad, because it starts with bad people already (if you allow me to use the dichotomy). In that sense it’s maybe pseudo-profound, in that I don’t think we are good or bad at the core, but simply that certain people in certain conditions sometimes start to act violently. Pointing at the existence of evil in humanity on an almost metaphysical level isn’t helpful for understanding I’d say, and I got the feeling McCarthy was doing that, but probably my understanding was skewed by all the (possibly wrong) commentary/reviews I read upfront.

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          • That part I get: why spend several hours in a dark, dark story that seems to offer nothing more? If there is any spot of light in the “painting” of the novel, it occurs at the very end. Nothing conclusive, it nevertheless leaves the reader with a millilitre of hope. But I get it, why drink a liter of gasoline first?

            Anyway, looking forward to the next review!

            Liked by 1 person

        • Aonghus Fallon

          I guess to each his own? In fairness, I didn’t dislike the book as much as Bormgans. I even felt – like you – that the violence had a cumulative power. But I read it primarily as a Gothic pastiche of the revisionist western (which was a cinematic staple twenty years before this book came out) rather than a work of literature.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Yes I wondered too how much of it was secretly meant as pastiche?

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            • Aonghus Fallon

              Indeed! I said earlier I thought McCarthy was a bit of a fraud, but I’ve never been quite sure if he believes his own schtick or not. Or if he started out with his tongue firmly in his cheek, then ended up believing in his own publicity (a common enough failing, in fairness).

              Liked by 1 person

  8. Aonghus Fallon

    I read Blood Meridian years ago. It has no discernible plot, or rather, the violence is the plot. It was as if Melville had written a Peckinpah western.* A couple of scenes did stick in my mind – like how sparks of static dance off cartwheels and guns during a thunderstorm (does that even happen?) along with the novel’s sole, allegorical flourish: Death as personified by Judge Holden. In fairness to McCarthy, a fat white naked dude is a change from some skeletal figure in tattered black robes.

    * In that respect I think McCarthy is a bit of a fraud; his books have a sort of pseudorprofundity that is really more about establishing mood than saying anything genuinely thought-provoking.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah the first Holden scene was great I have to admit. But then he disappeared again in the rest of the prose. Skimming the book I saw that the last 6th or so was more action driven, less descriptions.

      Thank you for that pseudoprofundity remark, I couldn’t exactly put the finger on it when I was reading it, but I think you are on to something. Mood first indeed, as for content, pointing at the existence of evil as Caryn James (or is it James Caryn?) wrote, isn’t exactly profound.

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  9. Aonghus Fallon

    Judge Holden turns up at the end, I think – somebody’s just shot a dancing bear (it’s performing in a saloon) but Holden warns the mc that this is just the warm-up act. Guess who’s going to be the main act?

    I never read ‘No Country for Old Men’. I enjoyed the film but it was characterised by the same sense of inevitability. You knew what sort of story McCarthy was telling and how it was going to end, and a story like that – no matter how well acted or how well filmed or well written – is just an exercise in style.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ah, I thought that the character who turns up in the beginning at a sermon and accuses the preacher of being a fraud and having sex with goats was Judge Holden.

      I like NCFOM, but didn’t know the author back then, and went in with zero expectationss, so I never saw it as something else as just another Coen movie, and a good character study of the character Tommy Lee played. The Bardem character seemed a caricature in comparison, like some other Coen vilans.

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  10. “I also don’t buy the premise of the book – or what the general consensus seems to be on its premise – namely the fact that man is depraved.”

    Presumably, you haven’t lived in the US or studied its history much then. As Hunter Thompson, another American writer, said of his countrymen: “we are really just a nation of 220 million used car salesmen with all the money we need to buy guns, and no qualms at all about killing anybody else in the world who tries to make us uncomfortable.”

    Beneath all the bravura propaganda about ‘freedom’ and ‘the shining city on a hill’, the US is essentially a colonial kleptocracy like Brazil and its ‘ownership’ class remain institutionally psychopathic, without any alleviating layer of aristocracy or interest in culture.

    McCarthy understands this. I have a British passport and have lived here in California on and off for a half-century on ‘resident alien’ status, and I like the country and weather, but have no illusions about many of the people.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for your comment. I understand where you are coming from. I am not saying humankind has never engaged in depraved behavior, but I think it is rather a matter of context instead of something that humanity ‘is’.

      It could be that the American context produces more violent citizens, as you seem to imply – but lets not forget the violence of Germans, British, Belgians, Japanse, Syrians, etc. Do you have any idea why America would be different than other nations in this respect? What could be the historical/geographical reasons?

      I fully agree with you on the state level: ‘freedom’ and ‘shining city on a hill’ is indeed propaganda, and the US is institutionally an imperial nation with steep class divisions.

      I would not say aristocracy is inherently better, however.

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  11. ‘I would not say aristocracy is inherently better, however.’

    And I know where you are coming from, too.

    To clarify what I mean, I think that if you go far enough back in the historical formation of any state-culture you will find a ruling class that established itself by essentially psychopathic ‘gangster’ behavior as that — as a hereditary ruling class and nominal ‘aristocracy.’

    But sometimes from the beginning — and often as the institutions and conventions of that state-culture began to accrete and took on more social force with time — obligations and expectations then were placed on members of that hereditary ruling class, along with their entitlements.

    This could be more than simple noblesse oblige — the inferred responsibility of privileged people to act with generosity and nobility toward those less privileged. There were mortal responsibilities inherent to being in the aristocracy and gentry of British society during the empire, for instance, so that a general like Wellington always made a point of being seen on the field of battle with his men; the gentry put their non-firstborn sons aboard Royal Navy ships as midshipmen from ages as young as ten years old, where they sometime suffered and died terribly — it was primarily a maritime empire, after all, and that was how admirals like Nelson were produced; and when RMS TITANIC sank in 1912, the upper-class males aboard largely did their duty as ‘gentlemen’ and deferred to the women and children — contrary to how the recent James Cameron film presents matters — in giving them places aboard the lifeboats.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Titanic#Passengers

    Contrast that with the resumes of the recent rulers of the American empire — men like George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Barack Obama, Donald Trump, who very conspicuously avoided putting themselves at risk and dodged military service by any means possible, while initiating imperial military actions that killed millions.

    So that’s what I meant by ‘aristocracy’ — the difference between the culture of the former kind of person as compared to the latter. (Though, yes, aristocrats can certainly commit atrocities and genocide just like the latter.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s interesting. A few years ago I had a colleague was was actually of noble decent – her father was a ‘jonkheer’, the lowest level of nobility in the Belgian system, and she more or less used the same reasoning to defend nobility: nobles were inherently good because of nearly genetically inbaked obligations to the people they rule.

      But I’m also weary for folk psychological/sociological explanations that border on social Darwinism. Not saying there is no truth in what you write, not at all, it’s just that is a complex matter on which I’m in two minds.

      Coincidentally, last week I ordered ‘The Dawn of Everything’ by David Graeber and David Wengrow after I read something about it in The Guardian, an excellent long read that touches on some of the things you say. I’ll start reading it after I finish The Evolution of Moral Progress by Buchanan & Powell, nearly finished. I’ll review both books eventually, I tend to read non-fiction on the side of my fiction reading.

      https://www.theguardian.com/news/2021/oct/19/unfreezing-the-ice-age-the-truth-about-humanitys-deep-past

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