The Descent

by Dr. Girlfriend

I cannot help but see a lot of parallels between Roberto Bolano’s 2666 and Blood Meridian: an abyssmal (couldn’t resist) desert chock-full of bodies, a detached detailing of violence, and a wholeheartedly negative view of humanity.  For those of you who have not read 2666 (or did not vote for it, ehem), one interpretation I dug out of that graveyard of a book was that the purpose of the artist (or the author) is to present a mirror to the world and accurately reflect the atrocities occurring therein.  I applied this notion to my reading of Blood Meridian after An American Patriot referred us to a review with Cormac McCarthy, where he considered good literature to be that which “deal[s] with issues of life and death”.

If the mission of the author is to reflect truth, how does he go about obtaining this truth?  The judge speaks of the “true dancer,” someone “who has been to the floor of the pit and seen horror in the round”.  Bolano argues one must descend into a metaphorical abyss and confront what resides there to accurately portray the nature of the world (pretty terrible!) in art.  But, as we all know, if you stare long enough into an abyss, “the abyss stares back into you”.  What are the moral implications for the author?  Must they merely be exposed to the horror, or, in this investigation, can they not escape becoming that which they seek to explicate?  Is Cormac McCarthy a blood-thirsty serial killer IRL?!

Does anyone disagree with any of this?  The judge declares, “Books lie.”  As Hotspur pointed out, we create entire mythologies based on the lie of a good-evil dichotomy.  Or maybe they are “rough likenesses thrown up at hearsay after the things themselves had faded in men’s minds.”  Maybe it’s the best approximation we can get to “the bones of things”?  The novel as autonomous shadow? “No man can put all the world in a book.”

In 2666, as a reader, I kept waiting for an explanation to make sense out of the senseless murders.  With this book, I was prepared for the let-down: “The mystery is there is no mystery.”  And yet, McCarthy leaves the kid with an ambiguous fate.  For me, this lent more credibility to the idea that McCarthy is living up to his own bloody standards.  Perhaps there are some depths in the abyss even he has not reached, that most men will never know or conceive of?  Do you think McCarthy was successful as an artist, a truth-teller?  I think he would acknowledge that he is trying, but perhaps literature can never live up to “the sun whitehot”.  The novel is “a pale replica” connected to reality, but ultimately there are “worlds past all reckoning”.

Even if the judge’s death were a plot point, I can see some other manifestation of violence rising to take his place.  “He says he’ll never die.”  Well shit, now what are we going to do?  The only thing we can: witness and acknowledge and never portray the violent nature of this world as less horrible, and thus, less valid.  Denial and ignorance are what allow this carnage to perpetuate.

Random thoughts:

  • Have I told you about my Kindle yet?  I own a Kindle.  It was quite useful for looking up definitions.
  • Favorite use of the English language to describe scalping: “All about her the dead lay with their peeled skulls like polyps bluely wet or luminescent melons cooling on some mesa of the moon.”  F-ing gorgeous.
  • McCarthy admits other authors’ influence on his writing.  There is a scene where the judge copies stone etchings and then erases them.  The judge could be seen as a would-be author with intentions of skewing the narrative.
  • What affected you most in the book?  The dancing bear finally got me.  And how it kept dancing…oh!
  • The phrase, “gathered him up in his arms against his immense and terrible flesh” prompted flashbacks of a horror story I read in 4th grade.  I can only recall the image of an obese man waiting in the apartment above you, waiting for you, with his miniscule Crunchy Cheeto member.  Your fate was inevitable.  I restricted myself to Cheetos Puffs for years.
  • “Battle not with monsters lest ye become a monster.”  I’ve had loads of fun battling with you monsters for this first round of Bookgum.  Shout out to all those who participated and, especially, An American Patriot , for creating this niche on the interwebs.


I have been a loyal Videogum reader since Day One and received my
B.A. in English, so Bookgum is the perfect combination of personal
interests and minimal expertise.
I am the worst and a grad student in psychology.  My other passions
include college football and eating.
I tumbl about cheap/free Austin events at


  • Tomorrow, I’ll (this is AN AMERICAN PATRIOT now, by the WAY) wrap THINGS up with SOME FINAL thoughts and AN OPEN forum FOR FURTHER discussion SO BE SURE to keep F5ING.
  • AS ALWAYS, those interested in WRITING FOR Bookgum should email ME AT
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16 Responses to The Descent

  1. Mans says:

    Dr. Girlfriend, this is great.

    I too thought of “2666”–the Sonoran Desert really seems like a tough place. Both books, as brutal as they are, are based on real life events. What does it say that the two most violent books I have read are bare reflections of real events? I think in this, your conclusion is the best and most right: we cannot forget the terrible things we do.

    One thing I want to touch on is your random though about “books lie.” There is a tension in the novel between language and not-language (for lack of a better term).

    Consider: the Kid is not named, he doesn’t even know his mother’s name. He is illiterate and says as little as possible. On the other had it the Judge, a man who seems to know many, if not all, languages. He is ambidextrous. He writes in a book. Yet it is the Judge who proclaims that “books lie.”

    Also: the Kid’s father comes from a family of makers (“hewers of wood” I think it says), yet the father is just a drunk teacher who quotes forgotten poets. Right from the outset, it seems that the life of words is a degradation of REAL life.

    I don’t know what to make of this, but in this context remember, Toadvine is branded with letters on his face.

    • hotspur says:

      Whoa: I had not thought about that — the kid illiterate, and so maybe McCarthy is saying he’s a closer representation of human nature than the judge’s view of us as natural-born killers, which maybe depends on a lot of propaganda and rhetoric and mythologizing to gin us up for killing.

      So as Dr G points out, McCarthy is showing the judge as a writer who skews the narrative, and maybe McCarthy is himself a writer who tries to right the narrative, by portraying everything as honestly as possible. So he is using words for the opposite of the judge’s purpose in using them.

      • Mans says:

        The Kid is born violent. I don’t have the book with me, but I think in the first paragraph or two it tells us that he leaves home because of his inborn taste for violence. Even before the Judge gets to him, he fights and stabs and burns anyone he can get his hands on.

        If anything, his time with the Judge makes him less so. By the end of the novel, he is a fairly mellow dude. He just wants to be left alone. The Kid at the beginning of the novel killed a bar tender for not giving him a drink. By the end, he doesn’t even want to kill the Judge.

        I’m not sure right off the import of this, but I think that there may be a point here: nature is violent in that it is with out care–nature, heat, rocks, fighting, eating. People can make this better–through hospitality–or worse.

        I don’t know. Just thoughts.

    • bill_the_butcher says:

      Unreal. I had no idea this 2666 thing was coming. I read Blood Meridian twice before and then 2666 and I started thinking about 2666 in terms of Blood Meridian exactly as you guys did. Also, I didn’t vote for the books (I am the worst) but I would have voted the shit out of 2666.

    • dr. girlfriend says:

      i’ve been looking over this reply all day, trying to suss out the meaning in all this, but i’m stumped. i think i need to sit with these concepts a bit longer.

  2. Gina says:

    You know, it’s totally bizarre, but I also ended up being most affected by that dancing bear! It just kept dancing! Maybe after being so desensitized after so much violence against everyone else, including so many dead babies, it took something like that poor dancing bear to shock us back into real-life human feelings.

    What I sort of got from the judge was that he could represent the recorders of history and how our views of the past are totally shaped by these historians’ portrayal of what happened. He records everything in his book and says that things cannot exist without his consent. I don’t have the book with me, but he also mentions something about how religious texts are made by men who weren’t there and are writing down what they think happened. I think the judge saw himself as someone who was writing down things as they happen as almost a living religious text, something that was exactly what he saw, not something he remembered later. The judge is the stand in for the author, the historian, the religious figure, and because of this, he can’t die, will never die.

    That sort of lost some stem there, I forgot my main point halfway though, but that’s just a thought I had while reading. Great job with the write-up, Dr. Girlfriend, and all the others as well! This has been really great and I always wanted to belong to a book club!

    • Mans says:

      The bear got me. Also, Glanton’s kindness toward the dog got me.

      • BOTH GOT to me as WELL. I THINK I said something TO HOTSPUR (or SOMEONE via email) that I FOUND IT odd how OUT OF all the death in the BOOK, THE bear is one OF THE FEW times we’re given a really EFFECTING image and an EMOTIONAL response. LIKE a lot of the BOOK, I’m not sure WHAT TO MAKE of it, but I think IT’S CERTAINLY there.

      • hotspur says:

        I was upset when (I think Brown) sawed the artful shotgun to pieces, and I was moved by the craftsman who refused to do it.

        It is absurd that the destruction of a gun bothered me more than the destruction of people but the gun was an artwork and so were the descriptions of the massacres. Oy, McCarthy is just so in charge all the way through this book.

  3. bill_the_butcher says:

    Great write up Dr., all of the write-ups are superb.

    I obviously don’t think that McCarthy started killing to get into the frame of mind he needed to write this, but I know that he consulted over 450 historical records and is incredibly well read. I am now writing a piece on Oil and its implications and thinking about it too much can really get into your mind and take me to a dark place. For some reason I have this image of McCarthy just locked in a basement library for years, researching and getting himself into this bleak frame of mind.

    But I think that this is all part of the joke, as Mans pointed out. The author McCarthy works so hard show us there is no meaning in a book that he worked so hard to write. No book can show the whole world, McCarthy says, but at the same time he tries to show that in a book. He undermines his own project!

    All I’ll say is writing this must have been an exhausting process.

    • dr. girlfriend says:

      why even try then if it is not possible? because as an author, he is morally responsible for reflecting reality? i like how mccarthy keeps it real and gives the caveat that “the perfect work of literature” is forever out of reach.

  4. stu says:

    That Cormac quote about only caring for literature which “deal[s] with issues of life and death” was in the New York Times in ’92. Worth reading the whole thing:

    The other quote in the interview that struck me concerned the circles he prefers to run in: “At the MacArthur reunions he spends his time with scientists, like the physicist Murray Gell-Mann and the whale biologist Roger Payne, rather than other writers.” I remember he talked about this in his interview with Oprah a couple years back (which we should definitely revisit when we discuss The Road later, as I believe it’s the only video interview of him out there).

    Maybe this is a stretch, but I think both these quotes point to a similar understanding of McCarthy: he prefers to cut to the chase. The next book we read, Never Let Me Go, will deal with some equally heavy themes, but it goes about it in a much more personalized, peripheral way. McCarthy isn’t interested in illustrating the idiosyncrasies of human relationships in his writing, no matter the ultimate purpose. And he doesn’t spend his free time hanging with fellow authors expounding on literary theory; his approach is to write plainly about the cycles of life and death, the fight for survival that lie at the heart of all human activity.

    The majority of his books place small bands of ill-equipped people against merciless, desert terrain. Man vs. nature (and man vs. man) in its most raw form. The causes and meaning of the violence inherent in the natural world he presents are never explicitly explored. So, (for me at least) it kind of logically follows that he shares a bond with scientists who study the essential forces and “stuff” of life.

    If I were to place just one characteristic of the Judge on McCarthy, I would choose his interest in meticulously cataloging plants and animals. Perhaps this novel, in some way, represents Cormac’s emotionally detached and detailed sketch of the state of nature he observes around him and in history.

    • dr. girlfriend says:

      mccarthy certainly knows every plant in the southwest.

      • Mans says:

        McCarthy certainly has a book called “Guide to Plants and Rock Formations of the Southwest.” And also one called “Guide to Human Atrocities (4th Ed.).”

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