Monday, October 01, 2007

On 'The Road'

For many years, Cormac McCarthy has enjoyed the affection of a large contingent of critics and readers. I’m one of those readers. But last year, when his latest work, The Road, was published, something happened. Even for an acclaimed writer, and even factoring in the "lifelong achievement" sentiment that might attach itself to a novelist of his stature and age (74), the reviews were extraordinary.

You probably know by now, but The Road tells the story of a father and his young son wandering a gray, post-nuclear war (post-something, anyway) America. The boy was born soon after whatever disaster befell the planet, so he has only known life as a stark trudging toward survival. His mother committed suicide rather than wander with them, and McCarthy makes clear that this was an understandable decision. Things are grim. There aren't many people around, and many of those who do remain are cannibals.

In the New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, "(McCarthy's) use of language is as exultant as his imaginings are hellish, a hint that 'The Road' will ultimately be more radiant than it is punishing. Somehow (he) is able to hold firm to his pessimism while allowing the reader to see beyond it. This is art that both frightens and inspires."

On the front page of the Times Book Review, William Kennedy reviewed the novel, not without qualification, but enthusiastically on balance.

When Salon asked writers to name their favorite books of the year, Jennifer Egan, Geoffrey Dyer and Jim Shepard all praised The Road.

New York Magazine selected it as the #1 novel of the year. Entertainment Weekly did the same.

In the annual Tournament of Books held at The Morning News, the panel of judges in the final round voted for The Road over Gary Shteyngart’s Absurdistan, 15-2. The comments that accompanied their decisions included the following:

Maud Newton: "McCarthy, after the disappointment of last year's No Country for Old Men, is at the top of his game. The Road may even surpass Blood Meridian."

Mark Sarvas: "The Road is a masterpiece. It's the kind of book writers dream of writing, a career capper, a deeply moving, affecting and—yes—important book."

Brady Udall: "The Road is the best book I've read in five years."

Elizabeth Gaffney: "The Road changed me—artistically, politically, emotionally. It's one of the most harrowing and important books written in years."

Oh, and it won the Pulitzer Prize.

People liked it.

Many of the reviewers I mention above are writers I have read and admire. But how old were they when "The Day After" first aired? Perhaps I owe my reaction to a dark nature, but I didn't find McCarthy's vision of the end of the world inherently terrifying or unique.

I'm a longtime fan of McCarthy's. I read the first two books of his "Border Trilogy," All the Pretty Horses and The Crossing, in college, and loved both. (I've read Horses twice more since, and I rarely revisit things in their entirety.) I don't think he's perfect, though. I found Cities of the Plains a letdown after the grandeur of the two aforementioned novels (though it was good enough to make the entire trilogy a coherent and stunning achievement). And I thought Blood Meridian, which preceded the trilogy and is widely considered his masterpiece, was crammed too full of a certain type of McCarthy sentence, overly descriptive and nature-besotted, feverish with cosmic metaphor, building past climax to the point of Carried Away, like this one: "The jagged mountains were pure blue in the dawn and everywhere birds twittered and the sun when it rose caught the moon in the west so that they lay opposed to each other across the earth, the sun whitehot and the moon a pale replica, as if they were the ends of a common bore beyond whose terminals burned worlds past all reckoning."

It's true that the Border Trilogy was noted, compared to McCarthy's earlier novels, for its softened violence and its lesser reliance on words that would have even the highly educated scratching their heads, and that these changes expanded his audience. But for most readers, I imagine, McCarthy also benefited greatly in those books from specificity of characters and complexity of plot, which also distinguished them. The more faceless his characters, and the more generic their march through nature's indifference, human violence, and ultimately despair, the more his writing verges on a parody of itself. John Grady Cole (in All the Pretty Horses) and Billy Parham (in The Crossing) tethered McCarthy to more conventional journeys, taken by young men who easily inspired emotional investment. There were stark moments in those books, and prolonged passages of environmental description, but there were also traditional protagonists moving through more or less traditional plots. Not every writer is aided by being tethered to more conventional forms, but I would argue that McCarthy is.

In setting The Road in a post-apocalyptic world where plot is beside the point and the two main characters are — given their hazily remembered past, monochrome present, and probable lack of a future —inevitably archetypal, McCarthy overuses the stark-but-somehow-simultaneously-baroque tone that eventually threatens to send all his work off the rails. McCarthy is a writer who could make a casual brunch read like the end of the world, so when he's actually writing about the end of the world, his grandiosity grows numbing. In this sense, his language fails The Road, distracting from the emotional potency it might have had. (Clearly, there are many who disagree.) The dialogue between father and son echoes the affected rhythms of the conversations between cowboys in the Border Trilogy, but those rhythms are much more convincing when emanating from cowboys. In The Crossing, Billy's younger brother, Boyd, finds him awake in the middle of the night:
Boyd came on into the kitchen. He stood at the table. Billy turned and looked at him.
What woke you up? he said.
You did.
I didnt make a sound.
I know it.
The Road features this similar moment:
The boy turned in the blankets. Then he opened his eyes. Hi, Papa, he said.
I’m right here.
I know.
That last example is an admittedly brief one, but it's representative of the rhythm used between father and son throughout. Here's another example just to establish it further:
We have to stop, he said.
It's really cold.
I know.
Where are we?
Where are we?
I dont know.
I understand that this is the apocalypse, and that end times probably won't lend themselves to chattiness, but still, these terse, stoic exchanges between father and son rang false to me. It didn't help that when they weren't talking, they weren't doing much of anything:
They slept through the night in their exhaustion and in the morning the fire was dead and black on the ground. He pulled on his muddy shoes and went to gather wood, blowing on his cupped hands. So cold. It could be November. It could be later. He got a fire going and walked out to the edge of the woodlot and stood looking over the countryside. The dead fields. A barn in the distance.
Without many other characters, or any civilization to which the father and son can react — without any discernible variety in the charred landscape — that scene is all too representative of the book's progress. In fact, my enduring memory of The Road will be that paragraph stuck on repeat. It's a fine paragraph. But 241 pages of it felt like overkill.


A friend of mine, also a fan of McCarthy's, jokingly wrote to me: "I suspect he hasn't given many interviews because he's really just a sort of good-natured doofus who likes Cheetos and 'Everybody Loves Raymond' and is taking all of us for a ride."

Unlikely, of course, but some think The Road does hint at another side of McCarthy that may have been hidden until now — a specifically spiritual, hopeful one. He's written about God before, but mostly in a generalized, nature-centered way; a way that makes it clear that He or She or It is capable of twisting us under His or Her or Its boot as if we were so many prematurely abandoned cigarettes. As one character put it in The Crossing:
Men do not turn from God so easily you see. Not so easily. Deep in each man is the knowledge that something knows of his existence. Something knows, and cannot be fled nor hid from. To imagine otherwise is to imagine the unspeakable. It was never that this man ceased to believe in God. No. It was rather that he came to believe terrible things of Him.
But The Road offers more opportunity for readers who see Jesus, with loving arms outstretched, everywhere they look. Some notices that sensed a Christian heart pumping at the center of the novel were from unsurprising sources, like this mention in a Judeo-Christian/arts newsletter:
The father walks the road with a pistol tucked in his belt—in this savage land, he is no longer free to do right, only to stay alive. But there may be hope in McCarthy's darkness, perhaps even a sense of the Incarnation, an inkling of Advent. Despite the desperation of their journey, the son walks in empathy. With an innocence foreign to the blighted earth, this boy cares passionately about right and wrong. At times the father "raise[s] his weeping eyes" to see his son "standing there in the road looking back at him from some unimaginable future, glowing in that waste like a tabernacle." This child, born into a world gone mad, shines with some greater fire.
More mainstream critics, like Gail Caldwell at The Boston Globe, tended to mention possible Christian themes while simultaneously dismissing them:
The fire encircling this no man's land belongs to the love between father and son -- not so much a Christian metaphor as a simply holy one, a last waltz taking place in a dying world.
In The Washington Post Book World, Ron Charles took the intimations further than Caldwell felt necessary:
The encounter that illumines the final moments of the novel will infuriate McCarthy die-hards who relish his existential bleakness, but the scene confirms earlier allusions that suggest the roots of this end-of-the-world story reach far past the nuclear age to the apocalypse of Christian faith. The book's climax — an immaculate conception of Pilgrim's Progress and "Mad Max" — is a startling shift for McCarthy, but a tender answer to a desperate prayer.
Toward the end of the novel, the increasingly frail father tries to comfort the son about what might happen if he's left alone:
If I'm not there you can still talk to me. You can talk to me and I'll talk to you. You'll see.
Will I hear you?
Yes. You will. You have to make it like talk that you imagine. And you'll hear me.
Soon after, the son does seem to practice this kind of prayer:
He went down the road as far as he dared and then he came back. His father was asleep. He sat with him under the plywood and watched him. He closed his eyes and talked to him and he kept his eyes closed and listened. Then he tried again.
So maybe there's something to the idea of a specifically Christian intent, which would make The Road a more interesting addition to McCarthy's catalog. And perhaps he was planting seeds for the more explicit, optimistic faith in this novel in previous works. Early in Blood Meridian, a preacher tells a crowd about a nonbeliever he knew:
Neighbors, said the reverend, he couldnt stay out of these here hell, hell, hellholes right here in Nacogdoches. I said to him, said: You goin to take the son of God in there with ye? And he said: Oh no. No I aint. And I said: Dont you know that he said I will foller ye always even unto the end of the road?


Blogger Melina said...

I thought it was the worst book that I read of 2007. I really didn't find anything redeeming about it at all.

I am an English teacher and I tell the kids that it's "an easy read, very little more than that."

I feel like it is a case of the Emperor's New Clothes, no one wants to say that this book was closer to mediocre than to fabulous.

4:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Absolutely it's christian propaganda -- I am amazed that this has not received more attention.

5:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm not a great fan of McCarthy, so I wasn't surprised that, while I didn't hate The Road, I didn't love it either. I have to say, though, that I agree 100% with your comments about the repetition in the novel. About halfway through the book I thought "if they hide that damn shopping cart in the woods one more time, I'm going to shoot someone."

3:47 PM  

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