Friday, August 1, 2008

Fiction Review: Cormac McCarthy, The Road

In both prose and film, post-apocalyptic narratives are almost exclusively the province of science fiction. At their best, such works function as allegory and satire, as with Walter M. Miller, Jr.'s A Canticle for Liebowitz. At worst, they devolve into either middlebrow cautionary tales, such as Nevil Shute's On the Beach, or lowbrow masculine power fantasies like the Mad Max films.

Beyond the general tag of science fiction, Cormac McCarthy's superb 2006 novel The Road stays outside these categories. It combines a downbeat Hemingway-style adventure story with a depiction of a devastated future landscape seemingly inspired by such British Romantic writers as Lord Byron. The narrative follows an unnamed man (possibly a doctor) and his young son as they travel south years after a cataclysm has leveled civilization and apparently ended most life on the planet. The description of the event in flashback is brief and vague: "The clocks stopped at 1:17. A long shear of light and then a series of low concussions." The air is choked with ash, and despite the masks the man and his son wear to filter their breathing, the man's lungs have become contaminated, and he knows he will soon die.

As is common in Hemingway, the man's resourcefulness and mettle is tested throughout. His knowledge and ingenuity are always at work, whether he is scavenging for food, finding shelter in the cold and often wet weather, or evading the marauding cannibals who appear to be almost all that's left of humanity. The dialogue is terse in the Hemingway manner as well. Here's a typical exchange between the man and his son, occuring after they find a supply of canned food:
Is it okay for us to take it?
Yes. It is. They would want us to. Just like what we would want them to.
They were the good guys?
Yes. They were.
Like us.
Like us. Yes.
So it's okay.
Yes. It's okay.
Life for these two has been distilled into a quest for survival. However, unlike much (bad) Hemingway-influenced adventure fiction, the story never devolves into an excuse for depicting violence. The pair's encounters with other survivors are brief, and when violence occurs, there's no sense of catharsis; one's only relief comes from the knowledge that the confrontation is over.

McCarthy isn't just hitting Hemingway notes for the sake of doing so. The style has an appropriate resonance, as it suggests that the meeting of basic needs is about the only meaning life has left. And it lends a powerful sense of understatement to the fact that, for the father, life does have meaning beyond the basic facts of survival: his love and need to raise and provide for his son. He always tries to keep the boy hopeful, whether it is how good the food they find is going to taste, or the promise of reaching the seashore. The boy also wants to reach out to the various people they encounter, and the father cares enough to tell him no. As the story progresses, we see the reasons why: the marauders are shown keeping young boys as sex slaves, warehousing living people to eat them slowly limb by limb, and, in one particularly horrific moment, roasting an infant on a spit. The father's love for his son has its dark side as well; he oftens thinks of shooting the boy to spare him such a dreadful end, and he tries to acclimate the child to using the gun for suicide if circumstances provide little other choice.

McCarthy's rendering of the apocalyptic landscape appears heavily influenced by the work of British Romantics. It's especially remniscent of Byron's 1816 poem "Darkness," and McCarthy's depiction seems epitomized by these Byron lines:
[...]The world was void,
The populous and the powerful--was a lump,
Seasonless, herbless, treeless, manless, lifeless--
A lump of death--a chaos of hard clay.
Wordsworth is recalled, too--the portrayal of the deserted homes and other buildings echo Wordsworth's own poem of devastated lives, "The Ruined Cottage." And McCarthy turns Wordsworth's principal poetic technique upside down. Wordsworth would contemplate the landscape as a spur to memory and the path to inspiration. McCarthy's protagonist contemplates the ash-laden landscape around him as a spur to memory as well, but it's a doorway to horror--the stoic acceptance that life around him has given way to desolation and death.

However, there is hope in what otherwise might seem a single, prolonged note of despair: the son. He always looks for ways to embrace life, whether it's in his enjoyment of the modest food, or his compulsion to help the derelicts they encounter who are even worse off than him and his father, or even his hope that a dog they see will one day accompany him and his father as a pet. And the book leaves us with the knowledge that the son will survive with his dignity beyond the father's death. In The Road, McCarthy depicts humanity at the extreme of experience, and despite the horror and all the examples of people falling in the face of the challenge, the decency of the man, the son, and others like him prevail. All is not lost, and as the son might say, the good guys win.

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