F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Last Tycoon. Scribner’s, 1941.
Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian, Or the Evening Redness in the West. Modern Library, 2000 (1985).
I decided to reread The Last Tycoon when I saw the trailer for the upcoming Amazon TV adaptation. Just as with the recent Gatsby adaptation, this really seems to miss the tone of the novel. It’s as if the studios have a preconceived idea of Fitzgerald’s milieu that has been filtered through a romanticized view of Flappers, Prohibition, Speakeasies, etc. Perhaps this comes from Fitzgerald’s “Jazz Age” stories, I don’t know. It seems more likely that it comes from a stylized, potted “structure of feeling” about the jazz age that isn’t really based on anything at all. It’s what Jameson calls pastiche, due to the fact that any real sense of the past that we might have is lost. You see the same kind of thing in Waugh adaptations, especially of the early novels, where the producers seem to miss completely the brutal savagery of the lives of the “pretty young things”, even when their “vile bodies” are explicitly front and centre. What tends to be missing from Fitzgerald adaptations is how deeply sad they are. Gatsby, Diver, and Stahr are all subdued, deeply worn down figures, and they tend to drag everyone around them down with them. I find the end of Tender is the Night incredibly moving, as Diver’s life has basically fallen apart but he has no choice but to just… go on with it. Gatsby’s suicide is not the tragedy of that novel; the last two paragraphs display a momentary naive hopefulness on Nick’s part, undercut by the last sentence and the eternal futility it describes. Even though we only have six chapters of The Last Tycoon, none of them finished to Fitzgerald’s standards, reading those chapters is extremely rewarding. Everything seeming to allude to whole swaths of experience, realms of human relationships that we can only see peeking out above the surface. Beneath the banter and the wealth there are dark, heavy things going on. We’ll see how the Amazon adaptation managed to deal with any of that, but as with the abysmally wrongheaded adaptation of Dick’s Man in the High Castle, I’m prepared to be disappointed.
I wasn’t disappointed in Blood Meridian, but I was a little dissatisfied. I read it pretty quickly - it took a week, which is pretty good when you’re working full time, I think - and despite the drawn-out nature of much of the action, the quality of the writing and the desperately eerie things going on keep it going. It seems as if everything in the novel is geared towards making the extremely ambiguous ending work, but this is belied by the fact that the novel is based on real events and much research on McCarthy’s part. As everyone says, there’s something of Melville in Blood Meridian, but with the exuberance of Moby Dick replaced by a tight, almost suffocating control over language and plot. In this sense, the novel conforms to the ideas of control and conditioning, of preordained order that lie, I suppose, at the heart of what McCarthy is trying to say. This fits with what Josh Moufawad-Paul mentioned on Twitter, which is that the equivalence between the violence of the colonizers and the colonized which McCarthy is at pains to show up is deeply reactionary, in that by supposing violence and war to be part of an eternal human order, it presumes that the savagery of the Indigenous peoples pre-existed the coming of the Europeans and in some perverse sense made them deserve their conquest and extermination. I wonder if this is an aspect of Blood Meridian which has changed over time. In 1985, when I was in elementary school, no-one spoke about Columbus and the rest of the colonialists in anything but glowing terms. Where I grew up, I don’t think I heard anything about the violence of the conquest until the mid- to late-90s when I wasn in university. So it’s possible that the depiction of colonial violence and savagery was new and shocking in 1985, and that at the time the point was not to show that two orders of violence (that of the colonizer and the conquered) that were known and admitted were the same, but was to show that the violence and savagery of the colonizers was real, in an America that was still in denial about that, and which was still trying to come to grips with the imperialist violence in Vietnam and Afghanistan. It bears pointing out that McCarthy started writing Blood Meridian in the mid-1970s, around the end of the Vietnam War, and that in 1985, the US-backed mujahideen were increasing their resistance to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. It’s hard to condemn someone for imagining - in that context - the human universal of violence and war, and while that doesn’t detract from Moufawad-Paul’s critique of McCarthy’s reactionary position, I’m happy to give McCarthy the benefit of the doubt, and say that Blood Meridian is a good faith attempt to come to terms with things that were happening within the dynamic of US imperialism.
So why was I dissatisfied? I loved the ambiguity of the ending, I thought that was a great technical trick to pull off. And the writing, obviously, is fantastic. But it never really seemed to add up to anything beyond what was there on the page. I’ve read reviews by people who have read Blood Meridian multiple times, but it doesn’t feel like a re-reader to me. Going back to the Moby Dick comparison, there’s something there that makes that novel feel larger and richer than what you’re actually reading. I’m holding off on re-reading it until so that I can get the full effect, but I’ve been feeling like rereading Moby Dick since I finished it, which says a lot. Blood Meridian is a great technical exercise, and the ending is a fascinating achievement, but it hasn’t left me feeling very much.