Life as it ain't

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The Puzzling Road

Posted by Ronak M Soni on March 22, 2010

Book Cover

The best cover I could find; I read it in an awful blue one.

The Road, one of the most critically acclaimed books of the decade and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction 2007, has left me somewhat nonplussed; what was it about? And why was it about whatever it was about in the specific way it was about it?

When I heard it was the story of a father and a son travelling across a post-apocalyptic wasteland, I was sure it would be about McCarthy’s post-apocalypse, with the father and son providing an emotional centre a la Ladri di Biciclette. The initial pages confirmed my opinion, and on my first try – sometime in 2008 – I only read around thirty pages because I thought it was getting too repetitive.

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 gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world. His hand rose and fell softly with each precious breath. He pushed away the plastic tarpaulin and raised himself in the stinking robes and blankets and looked toward the east for any light but there was none. In the dream from which he’d wakened he had wandered in a cave where the child led him by the hand. Their light playing over the wet flowstone walls. Like pilgrims in a fable swallowed up and lost among the inward parts of some granitic beast. Deep stone flues where the water dripped and sang. Tolling in the silence the minutes of the earth and the hours and the days of it and the years without cease. Until they stood in a great stone room where lay a black and ancient lake. And on the far shore a creature that raised its dripping mouth from the rimstone pool and stared into the light with eyes dead white and sightless as the eggs of spiders. It swung its head low over the water as if to take the scent of what it could not see. Crouching there pale and naked and translucent, its alabaster bones cast up in shadow on the rocks behind it. Its bowels, its beating heart. The brain that pulsed in a dull glass bell. It swung its head from side to side and then gave out a low moan and turned and lurched away and loped soundlessly into the dark.

Notice, apart from the obvious melancholy, the number of sentence fragments in the piece. That is an obviously ‘artsy’ attempt at bleakness, which I don’t think generally works. Well, in this case it does, but this book is littered throughout with sudden onslaughts of description using these fragments which tend to be poetic descriptions structured without consideration for any narrative rhythm. Which is a pity, considering the quality of the rest of the prose. Another problem with this attempt is that these two characters are at a point beyond the ability to feel bleakness, where their life is basically drudgery, with occasional poignant reminiscences.

But the real point I was trying to get at using the extract was how much this sort of thing added to my puzzlement about the book; if the point of the book was its vision of the future, and this attempt at bleakness supports this idea, why was its vision nothing more than a generic one, an aftermath of floating ash a la the Triassic and no surviving food sources?

Okay, so maybe it’s not about that. Is it, then, about the complete lack of real hope in this world – in other words, an environmental message? The ‘bleakness’ would support this too, and I can see how some people might have taken it that way, but isn’t it the wrong point of time to capture this lack of hope, when the basic idea of hope has gone out the window and blown up in the nuclear blast? What I’m trying to say is, isn’t it a better idea to capture a moment while it’s still slipping out of their hands and heading for the window, giving some real room for poignancy in the bleakness rather than this plain, simple – I’m going to have to repeat a word – drudgery?

Then, I’m led to remember these passages, conversations between the father and the son:

He woke whimpering in the night and the man held him. Shh, he said. Shh. It’s okay.
I had a bad dream.
I know.
Should I tell you what it was?
If you want to.
I had this penguin that you wound up and it would waddle and flap its flippers. And we were in that house that we used to live in and it came around the corner but nobody had wound it up and it was really scary.
It was a lot scarier in the dream.
I know. Dreams can be really scary.
Why did I have that scary dream?
I dont know. But it’s okay now. I’m going to put some wood on the fire. You go to sleep.
The boy didnt answer. Then he said: The winder wasnt turning.

I’m forced to conclude, that is, that the book is about the relationship between father and son, the father’s fears for his son, and the world is merely a device to accentuate it.

Well, shoot me for being puzzled.

Also, the themes weren’t the only thing puzzling me:

  1. The usage of obscure words. It was completely and utterly inorganic to McCarthy’s style. It completely contradicted his hopes to achieve bleakness by cutting his sentences up. He should have at least caught itself when he used one and had to explain it. “They were discalced to a man … for all their shoes were long since stolen.”
  2. The need for editing. There were sentences where both the father and the son were ‘he’, and one had to stop reading and think to find out which was whom. And there’s two – exactly two – passages written in first person, inexplicably breaking from the third person of the rest of the narrative.
  3. The need for copy-editing: There’s a sentence which starts with a small letter and, like that’s not enough, is very mysteriously butchered. Spelling mistakes I’m comparatively fine with, but this is totally unacceptable.

But all this is making The Road sound like a bad book. By the heavens, that it is not. When McCarthy isn’t describing anything, his prose has a level of mood and force few people can match. Not to mention that it did actually bring home the realities of living in a post-nuclear world, from the constant uncertainty about the next supply of food (there’s a beautiful bit where they stumble into a vault full of it) to the constant need for new shoes. All in all, however, I have higher hopes of the movie, which may be able to break free of McCarthy’s distracting obsession with his son and simultaneously bring home the reality of the world that McCarthy’s hackneyed method of description couldn’t.

Other interesting reviews of the book and movie:

Max Cairnduff of Pechorin’s Journal had feelings in many ways similar to mine, but for different reason.

William Rycroft of Just William’s Luck loved the book, found the relationship thing completely fine, and included it among his best of the decade.

Trevor Barett of The Mookse and The Gripes loved the book and was rooting for its Pulitzer win that year.

Roger Ebert loves the book and appreciates the movie.

A World Literature Forum member hates its very guts.

8 Responses to “The Puzzling Road

  1. I think this book is all about mood, and the belief that man goes on, no matter what. I mean, you have two people surviving in the bleakest of circumstances, and yet they continue to survive. What is the purpose of survival? To survive. McCarthy isn’t going for any deep meaning here; he’s more interested in the process. What would happen if I put a man and a boy, his son, in a post-apocalyptic world? he thinks. What would they do? How would they live?

    While I enjoyed this book immensely (the prose, the invocation of a world, the bleakness), and while the man is noble in living for his son, I don’t know that I would read it again because of how gloomy it is. That, if anything, is the trap that a lot of great writers today get caught in: to be taken seriously, they feel that their work must be serious. Quick: name me a great living writer of comic novels. Now name me a great living writer of tragic novels. See what I mean? Where’s the joy and laughter in literature these days?

  2. A problem with your last lines: I don’t think it’s possible to be a great comic writer the way it is to be another type of great writer, because humour is much more regional in nature than any other form of artistic expression (name one great foreign comedy). Great art that was written as comedy survives more because of what’s under the humour than the humour itself.
    What I’m saying is, people prefer to be funny as a sideline; in fact, almost every great writer I can think of (and have read) has been funny sometime in his career, even Coetzee, who’s possibly the most world-weary writer alive (his 2007 book, I thought, was a remarkably effective parody of himself).

    More importantly, I disagree with your larger point. Maybe you are more conversant with modern fiction than I am, but I find that almost every book I read nowadays likes to weigh in a bit on the other side of whatever it’s doing. In fact, I find that the writers are tired of solemnity, and create books that look at it in a completely different way. Two examples I can think of from recent times are Indra Sinha’s Animal’s People — an almost exuberant look at the lives of the survivors of the 1984 Bhopal Gas Tragedy (which took twice as many lives as 9/11 but not even a tiny fraction of the retaliation) — or Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist which is an incisive critique of American foreign policy told as a love story.

    Oh, about The Road, I think you have a point there, and it works almost perfetly on the level you describe, but I’m still left emotionally a bit out there. Might have something to do with the fact that I had expectations.

    Btw, do you ever write about books? It might be a nice change to disagree on your blog instead. 😛

  3. Also, may I recommend the World Literature Forum link? The posters there have somehing to say about humour in the novel. It will take a while to read, but certainly worth it.

  4. Great comic writers? How about Moliere, Balzac, Twain, Wilde, and Swift? Joyce is funny in parts, too, though I don’t mean comedy so much in the sense of being funny (though I think the funny parts of the above writers translate rather well to Western audiences, at least), but rather in the sense of encompassing all that is wonderful and melancholy about human existence, as opposed to just focusing on all that is tragic. And true, I shouldn’t generalize by saying that ALL contemporary writers are about doom and gloom, but it does seem that a fair number of American writers are.

    There are actually several books that I’ve wanted to write about, but my copies of those titles are, for the most part, packed in boxes back in Connecticut. Unlike movies, I have no IMDB to jog my memory, and most of my movie reviews are written while the movie remains fresh in my mind (plus, it’s easier to find scenes on a DVD than it is to find certain pages in a book). So, when I read Lord of the Rings again, or The Remains of the Day, for example, I will probably write a review about it.

    One book I am planning to review, once I finish The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath (which is good, but sooo long!), is Rieko Matsuura’s The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P. Based on how I’m doing with Plath’s book, I should be able to get to that novel in late April or early May, with a review to follow about a month or so later. Of course, I’m hoping I’ll get to read it earlier.

    I have noticed a lack of book criticism on my web site, but that’s because I don’t like taking notes when I watch, read, or listen to anything, as it interrupts the flow, yet more than movies or music, one must do that when reading novels, since they take up much more time than watching movies or listening to CDs (even Wagnerian operas) do.

  5. About “encompassing all that is wonderful and melancholy about human existence”, this is a beautiful definition and of course it’s universal. Rushdie is one I can think of at short notice. However weighty his themes, his writing gives it the quality. In Haroun and the Sea of Stories, we can actually feel that he must have finished the sentence with a flourish.

    About humour:
    P. G. Wodehouse!! What was I thinking? I’m not completely sure. If I ever find out, I’ll get back to you.
    However, I’d still say humour is rather regional. The things like surprise that fuel laughter are probably still the same, but what triggers those responses differ rather vastly for most people. Possibly something like this, but… how did I forget about Wodehouse?
    The writers that you mention (I haven’t read the French ones, just the rest), I honestly don’t find funny (except Twain sometimes), I like them more for what’s under.

    Also, a book review from you would seriously be rather interesting. Maybe I should start taking your case about it.
    (I read your comment on Grace’s blog, so don’t be surprised.)

  6. I figured you would read my comment on Grace’s blog. 🙂

    Maybe “joy” is a better word to use than “comedy,” though I’m thinking of comedy more in the classical sense. Tragedies tend to be about individuals; comedies about groups. Tragedies are psychological, comedies sociological. In comedies, everything starts out bad and ends up good; in tragedies, the opposite occurs. Even tragedies can have light-hearted bits in them (Macbeth, for example, or Late Spring), but I don’t like books that are all doom and gloom ALL THE TIME. For example, a classic example of a comedic writer is Balzac, whose books rarely have humor in them, but have a great affection for all of the characters, as — in a different sense — do Ozu’s films. And yes, how did you forget Wodehouse? 😉

    Oh, and Balzac wasn’t one of the greatest word smiths or stylists, but he makes up for it with his attention to detail and his well-drawn and realistic portrayals of people. I am SHOCKED, however, that Wilde doesn’t at least make you chuckle. Then again, high-brow humor (witticisms, double entendres, etc.) is more regionalized than, say, slapstick.

  7. Found out I did do a semi-review of Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood. I guess that will have to tide you over for now 😉 Here’s the link:

  8. I think my lack of laughing at Wilde moght come from the fact that I can’t hear the English accents in my head (because I enjoy English comedies, the ‘Blackadder Goes Forth’ series, A Fish Called Wanda, In the Loop etc.), but that’s another discussion altogether.
    Incidentally, I can’t think of any non-English examples of high-brow humour. It’s something very uniquely English.

    Actually, come down to it, I haven’t read a lot of recent books where verything starts out bad and ends up good; modern writers seem to prefer doing things that aren’t very easily identifiable as ‘good’ or ‘bad’.
    And, I’m with you on the dislike of full-on doom-and-gloom. The least I need is writing that is beautiful in itself, like Coetzee’s In the Heart of the Country, which is a 200-page complaint, but is written so beautifully — the beauty of the writing is somehow divorced from the situation, making it easier for us to bear — that it is one of my favourite books.

    Reading your partial book review, it’s all the more obvious that you should do a full one. 😉

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