On the cover and the blurb
I read As Meat Loves Salt, a historical novel by M. McCann, in December last year, finishing it (unwisely) on Christmas, so that I found myself barely able to communicate with the merry aliens around me during the family feast. The book confused me, shocked me, charmed me, warmed me through, worried me sick and in the end, shattered me. For a while I was so distraught that I wasn’t even sure if I liked it or not.
But I have since come to my senses. As Meat Loves Salt (AMLS from now on) is the best book of my adult life. No other has affected me this profoundly, nor stayed on my mind so long. Three months into this new obsession, I’m almost done reading it the second time; I’m drawing fanart, and writing fanfiction for it. Yet somehow I’ve not yet managed to put my thoughts and feelings in sufficient order to blog about it. And I may never write a comprehensive essay: there’s just too much to say, and I lack the patience, and my writing time and energy are better invested elsewhere. But there are some relatively standalone bits and pieces for a series of shorter posts.
One thing I do not plan to do in any of them is retell the book. I will also make no attempt to avoid spoilers. These posts are addressed to fellow fans.
I’ll start with front and back matter: the amazing cover and the dismal blurb.
Not all the editions of AMLS have equally good covers. The one on my Kindle edition is so plain and drab and distant in themes or esthetics from the content that I blame it directly for the fact that I owned this book for over a year before I actually read it.
The amazing one comes with the Harvest Books 1st edition from 2003. Those among you with an art education more solid than mine might recognize the painting in it as The Wounded Man (L’homme blessé) by the French painter Gustave Courbet (1819-1877). Here’s the painting itself:
I was fairly desperate, during the days of the initial grief and thirst after the first reading of the book, to learn what’s on the cover, because I thought it might be the protagonist, Jacob Cullen. The person in the picture has the right complexion and even the hair length. And there’s nothing in it to firmly date the scene to some era other than the 17th century, where the book takes place. Furthermore, before I learned what the picture is, and seeing only a part of it in the cover, I thought the man’s eyes were open, if ever so slightly. To me he seemed to be looking down, in the direction of his hand which holds a fold of his coat. The look I perceived in his eyes was lustful and masterful. I also thought the hand was drawn suggestively, as if offering the man’s privates, through the clothes, to an unseen recipient. Such a picture would be so perfectly representative of AMLS that I didn’t think it at all unlikely the cover artist painted a period piece after reading the book.
However, the truth about the painting is in some ways even better. There’s a whole story about it.
First, the guy depicted is the painter himself. It seems like he was a bit of a narcissistic, egotistic ass, as not just this, but nearly all of his paintings are self-portraits. This fact is amusing because Jacob Cullen is himself a bit of a narcissistic, egotistic ass.
Second, the painting originally contained Courbet’s lover, but after the affair ended badly, Courbet just… deleted her. This too is eerily reminiscent of AMLS. Where once was a man happy and in love, we now have a man bleeding out, alone.
Third, the word wounded can be used figuratively to mean in love. It’s an archaic use, but not hard to parse in context. It’s used in the book itself in this sense. Jacob relates “everything he had told me as we lay together the night before: all about our first meeting, how I had at once wounded him, how when I stripped by the fire he could scarce breathe for delight”. To me, then, it seems obvious that the man in the painting was wounded by love; not by the sword. And this too bears semblance to AMLS.
Having learned all this, I became even more convinced that the person who designed this cover had indeed read the book and, more importantly, had understood it. Perhaps it seems arrogant to put emphasis on understanding of a historical romance: while AMLS is more literary than genre fiction, it’s not philosophy. There’s nothing abstracted in it, and even the language, though purposely dated, is delightfully simple and eminently readable.
Which is why, next to this amazing cover, the inaccurate and misleading blurbs for this and every other edition I examined, are so much of a puzzle.
Two of my friends who I talked with about the book went and read the blurb on (I assume) Goodreads or Amazon, which says:
In the seventeenth century, the English Revolution is under way. The nation, seething with religious and political discontent, has erupted into violence and terror. Jacob Cullen and his fellow soldiers dream of rebuilding their lives when the fighting is over. But the shattering events of war will overtake them.Goodreads
A darkly erotic tale of passion and obsession, As Meat Loves Salt is a gripping portrait of England beset by war. It is also a moving portrait of a man on the brink of madness. Hailed as a masterpiece, this is a novel by a most original new voice in fiction.
The first friend’s eye caught on the themes of war and soldiering, so I had to explain that the book, although definitely a fine piece of historical fiction set during the First English Civil War, is not actually about the war, nor about soldiering, in any way. The main characters meet and briefly serve together in the New Model army, and share some traumatic and formative experiences, but it’s all just a small, introductory part of the story. “The shattering events of war” are, at best, a very distant and faint backdrop throughout most of the book.
Also, the phrase “Jacob Cullen and his fellow soldiers” implies solidarity, brotherhood, common goals and ideals appropriate for Ferris, perhaps, but not for Jacob. No one would write that after reading the book.
The second friend’s eye caught on “darkly erotic” and they asked how well the erotica fits with the historical setting, so I had to explain that there is no erotica in AMLS. As a love story, it includes some mild descriptions of sex (which isn’t to say the sex itself is mild) that could, in my opinion, comfortably be rated teen. It’s the themes, the dark part of “darkly erotic”, that might require an elevation to mature; the things depicted, not the depictions, which are way less explicit than, say, my own Darksiders fic.
Really, the only correct part of that blurb is the final two sentences.
But I’ve seen worse. The blurb for the German translation of the book (titled, quite aptly, Rotes Glas) goes as far as to say something to the effect of (paraphrasing) “Jacob Cullen joins the army hoping to redeem himself”, which could not be more wrong if they tried for wrong on purpose.
To be fair, the book itself contributes to the difficulty. The blurb I read prior to purchase at least made mention of Ferris and of obsessive love—otherwise I don’t think I would’ve purchased it—but I still went back to it several times to check if I was reading the right book, because the extended beginning tells a story of its own, and while that too is a love story, it’s not the love story.
It’s possible that, having been published in early 2000s, the book couldn’t be marketed directly as what it is: a same-sex romance. It’s also possible that marketing it that way would imply genre fiction, while AMLS is more of a literary piece, so the publishers wanted to emphasize themes other than love.
Either way, I suspect the undeniably bad blurbs are one of the reasons AMLS didn’t achieve greater fame. It’s a shame, for it truly is a masterpiece.
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