Monday, June 04, 2007

Following the road to nowhere

Before Oprah and her minions, and Cormac McCarthy himself, sway me to the contrary, I just have to say, for the record: I did not care so much for The Road. I just don't see what the big deal is.

There's nothing to this book beyond mood, of which there's plenty, all of it stark and oppressive. I've got nothing against mood, or dark moods — some books are all about mood, and I'm all for that. Just like some books are all about plot, or character, or language.

But I wouldn't say The Road is a stylistic triumph either. Mood is primary here, and often at the expense of language. McCarthy's prose is often laughable.

"The snow fell nor did it cease to fall."

"Standing with his suitcase like an orphan waiting for the bus."

More than one metaphor employed "Holocaust victim" or something similar.

I mean, really. Good grief.

The tone is biblical. The story and the scope are small, but McCarthy is tricking us into thinking that what happens here is epic. (It's not.) It’s a story of a man and his son. It’s not about their relationship (the boy is a secondary character entirely). We barely get to know either of them; I’d find it hard to believe they come to know each other. Is there something meant to be more universal here? What is it? "Love triumphs in the face of adversity" — gimme a break.

I've over the last few months read a number of dystopian or postapocalyptic novels (4 of them review copies, coincidentally from the same publisher). I can't help but compare and contrast them a little.

My favourite of the lot was A Canticle for Leibowitz. It suffers from inelegant writing, lack of characterization, less than smooth plotting; but more than any of the others, it is a novel of ideas, which to my mind is what any treatment of a postapocalypse ought to be. An extrapolation of a current crisis framed by a prominent concern. What if.

The Children of Men, similarly, lacked in literariness, but it's relevant to the state of the world now and where it's heading. For all its faults, it provides, still, endless conversation fodder.

The Pesthouse, to my mind, is the best of the lot, with all the elements of idea, language, character, plot, etc in writerly balance. While the nature of the apocalypse is never clear (it's hinted perhaps that this future results from ecological disaster), it's a decent study of survival amid chaos.

But The Road? The Road has little by way of "idea." We don’t know why the world is in the state it is, and I for one could not be made to care.

There are rare glimmers of something interesting, but they're passed by:

He tried to think of something to say but he could not. He'd had this feeling before, beyond the numbness and the dull despair. The world shrinking down about a raw core of parsible entities. The names of things slowly following those things into oblivion. Colors. The names of birds. Things to eat. Finally the name of things one believed to be true. More fragile than he would have thought. How much was gone already? The sacred idiom shorn of its referents and so of its reality. Drawing down like something trying to preserve heat. In time to wink out forever.


That's it. A small part of a paragraph that grabs me and then vanishes. (Paul Auster covered the idea cited above more fully in The Country of Last Things.)

There are some beautiful bits, cryptic, that hint at mythic, philosophical depths (but they're never realized):

They began to come upon from time to time small cairns of rock by the roadside. They were signs in gypsy language, lost patterans. The first he'd seen in some while, common in the north, leading out of the looted and exhausted cities, hopeless messages to loved ones lost and dead. By then all sorts of food had given out and murder was everywhere upon the land. The world soon to be largely populated by men who would eat your children in front of your eyes and the cities themselves held by cores of blackened looters who tunneled among the ruins and crawled from the rubble white of tooth and eye carrying charred and anonymous tins of food in nylon nets like shoppers in the commissaries of hell. The soft black talc blew through the streets like squid ink uncoiling along a sea floor and the cold crept down and dark came early and the scavengers passing down the steep canyons with their torches trod silky holes in the drifted ash that closed behind them silently as eyes. Out on the roads the pilgrims sank down and fell over and died and the bleak and shrouded earth went trundling past the sun and returned again as trackless and as unremarked as the path of any nameless sisterworld in the ancient dark beyond.


And:

They talked hardly at all. He coughed all the time and the boy watched him spitting blood, Slumping along. Filthy, ragged,hopeless. He'd stop and lean on the cart and the boy would go on and then stop and look back and he would raise his weeping eyes and see him standing there in the road looking back at him from some unimaginable future, glowing in that waste like a tabernacle.


The book is at its most interesting when the duo encounter other people. But being that the populace is greatly diminished, we spend most of our time in the grim company of father and son, and a whole lot of nothingness.

Maybe this is the point: the quest for like-minded people amid all the nothingness of our hard daily lives. It's not a postapocalyptic novel at all (and that was the only draw for me; I have no interest for the subjects of McCarthy's other works); it's a small story about a man making his way in the world, trying to make a better life for his son.

Many of the review quotes refer to the love and tenderness between father and son. I didn't see anything more than an ordinary paternal–filial bond.

I found The Road pretentious, and it bored me.

2 comments:

Antoine said...

Word.

John Self said...

I liked The Road, but your view is highly refreshing amid all the unqualified praise the book receives. I agree that The Pesthouse is much more interesting, but then Crace always is.