Monday, July 13, 2009

Is McCarthy's THE ROAD as great as everyone says?

The other day, at a flea market, I picked up a copy of Cormac McCarthy's 2006 novel The Road, which has been feted by critics and honored with a Pultizer Prize. I vaguely knew of it as one of those novels that relies on an sfnal trope--in this case, the post-apocalyptic setting--but which is absolutely not, no way, not at all, science fiction or any other kind of tawdry "genre" story. No, this one is Great Literature...I guess because Cormac McCarthy wrote it and illustrious critics (even Oprah!) liked it. So I bought it for a buck, and even did an informal poll of the Twitterati about it yesterday, getting responses that split about evenly between "love it," and "it's not that great."

I read the book in a few hours today--it's a quick read. It's not-quite-300 pages are rather spare of words. This surprised me after its somewhat ponderous opening lines: 

"When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he'd reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him. Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more grey each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world." (page 3)

It's lovely writing, of course, but I feared that I was going to have to concentrate extra-hard on a whole novel of nearly punctuation-free prose striving toward poetry.  But as it turns out, most of the text is more like this:

"We have to stop, he said
It's really cold.
I know.
Where are we?
Where are we?
I don't know.
If we were going to die you would tell me?
I don't know. We're not going to die." (page 94)

And so on. Much of it consists of this kind of dialogue-only interaction between the two main characters, known only as "the man" and "the boy" as they make their slow and dangerous way on foot down the titular road, trying to get to the coast and to get further south ahead of the onset of winter. The Man and the Boy are evidently survivors of an unnamed End-of-the-World event some years earlier which seems to have killed most people and destroyed the planet's climate. They struggle to keep each other alive and moving on a path that is fraught with misfortune and horror.

I guess I found it to be bleak and rather heartbreaking and quite vivid, and certainly a decent addition to the sub-genre of post-apocalyptic fiction...but is it really the big deal that the critics say it is?  The reviews are positively over-the-top. Enthuses Alan Cheuse of the Chicago TribuneThe Road is a postatomic apocalypse novel as we’ve never seen one before, a black book of wondrous paragraphs that reads as though Samuel Beckett had dared himself to outdo Harlan Ellison."  Or how about this from the Village Voice: "Sci-fi divination is new for him, though, and the freshness he brings to this end-of-the-world narrative is quite stunning: It may be the saddest, most haunting book he's ever written, or that you'll ever read." [italics mine] And on and on like that go the reviews. While it's certainly a decent book, these reviews make me wonder if the reviewers have ever read anything else from the genre. A mash-up of Ellison and Beckett? Are you kidding? The most haunting book that you will ever read? Ever? Post-apocalyptic survival stories are hardly anything new to readers of sf, even if they are novelties to the "mainstream" set. Also, even lit snobs and English profs know about novels like Pat Frank's Alas, Babylon and Nevil Shute's On the Beach, which I think some readers would find to have a similar emotional power to The Road. How about Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz or Ellison's A Boy and His Dog? I believe Stephen King, too, may have ventured into this territory with a rather (literally) weighty tome. Granted, these are all very different takes on the post-apocalypse--all very different from each other and different, too, from McCarthy's story. But it's not anywhere near a new theme, and McCarthy's book does not, in my lowly opinion, somehow "transcend" the genre by allegedly being the best of the lot. It's a decent addition to the genre, but I have to say that I am not anywhere near as blown away as the lit crit crowd was, and I really never am any time I hear about how a Serious Author has transcended a genre. Serious Literature is every bit as much a genre with its own conventions and expectations as sf, fantasy or mystery or anything else.

I'm curious if any readers of this blog have any opinions on this transcending-the-genre business, or perhaps a favorite post-apocalyptic story that they'd like to recommend.  My personal fave in this sub-genre may be Delany's Dhalgren. That might not quite count because the apocalypse in that story is localized to a single city and it seems that normal life continues elsewhere in the world, but the strangeness and mystery and eeriness of the unnamed Something That Happened Here is much richer and more compelling in that book than it was in The Road, and it's a book that I think I will always be able to revisit and discover something else, and I doubt that will be the case with Cormac McCarthy's story. [citations are from the Vintage Edition, 2006]

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Anonymous said...

Agreed. Other than McCarthy's occasionally haunting prose, I didn't find anything particular new or news-worthy about this one. At least it was short.

The movie of it is supposed to be coming out soon, and it looks like the filmmaker's beefed up the backstory. I'll probably check it out, but I don't expect to be blown away.

Anonymous said...

I have not read The Road, so I can't comment on the book.

What I do find interesting and regrettable is the way that these established genre tropes are picked up periodically by 'serious writers' and the results are lauded as though something new or more legit has been created. Beyond the fact that most of any grouping of anything is mediocre, I find the works of people who are aware and unapologetic about their genre affiliations to usually trump the efforts of so-called literary efforts such as this.

The Handmaid's Tale was a perfectly fine novel, but the end-all=be-all dystopian novel. No. I'm sure the same applies here.

And I think a point can be made that a real understanding of the given genre can lead to depth the johnny-come-lately literary author may fail to see. Take Mieville's The City and The City, for instance. (Yes, I am plugging my latest blog post abt the book!), where the literary author would have gone all out Kafka/Beckett on the story, with an understated tale wrought with meaning.

Mieville on the otherhand, understands the genre and what our expectations are as genre readers (both of the weird tale and the mystery story) and uses those expectations against us, delivers an analysis of those expectations while at once undermining them.

Bottom line, this is why self-styled literary writers or serious directors rarely deliver the SF&F goodness. They don't have enough respect for the genre to do anything other than ape its most basic forms.

Anonymous said...

There is a notion among some in the literary crowd that science fiction or fantasy is silly and it has to be disguised as something else in order to be respectable. The praising of a book by critics can be a calculated slap in the face to authors they perceive as cliched genre writers. However, they fail to realize (or admit) that literary-style fiction is just as cliched and silly as straight genre fiction. But as long as they have the genres to pick on, they can say "See, this stuff is original because that stuff is cliched--and this stuff is not like that stuff!" The originality comes from a comparison only, and so it is without a logical foundation.

ddtannenbaum said...

After reading many of these types of books over the years, I find Stephen King's the stand to be one of the best. Combining the horror of a science experiment gone wrong with Judeo-Christian mythology was an intriguing premise.

Christopher Fletcher said...

Yeah, THE STAND is really terrific. I sort of lost track of King in more recent years (like during this decade and the last), but those earlier novels like the STAND were pretty great. He has also had a lot of short-form and novella-length fiction that's really good.

Brandon said...

Anyone read Robert McCammon's Swan Song: a direct ape of The Stand, but I always thought it held togather better and didn't have the literal god intervention at the end.

Also, Mieville's novella The Tain is great.

Jeff Kozzi said...

I read THE ROAD earlier this year when someone gave it to me. I have read a lot in the post-holocaust subgenre.
I did not find anything special in this book. It contained NOTHING that I have not see before in the works of others. As a reader and writer I also believe in clean, clear style, so the lack of punctuation and complete sentences irritated me enough that I almost did not finish it. What is so literary about not being grammatical?
Better investments of your time:
David Brin's THE POSTMAN
Pat Frank's ALAS BABYLON (GREAT call, Chris!)
Philip Wylie's TRIUMPH
LUCIFER'S HAMMER by Niven and Pournell
Jack Dann's JUNCTION

I think all of these were better, and any of them show that McCarthy just found an outlet for something dark and broody (which people think is synonymous for "literary" for his next "masterpiece." I found NO element in THE ROAD that was not to be found in AT LEAST one of these earlier and better books.


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