Paul: I read The Road by Cormac McCarthy.
Me: Did you like it?
Paul: Well, it was fairly well-written. And I’m glad a horror book won a Pulitzer. But you get to the end and — nothing happens.
Me: That’s how you can tell it’s literary.
I read this book yesterday. It was a quick read. It took me about four hours, maybe less. It’s really not that long. Generous type size, scene gap every couple of paragraphs. But the real reason it’s such a quick read is McCarthy’s writing style.
First, dialogue. He writes dialogue kind of like this:
Are you crying? the man asked the boy.
Because it looked like you were crying.
I’m not crying.
Are you sure you werent crying?
Yes I’m sure.
Which actually reads much faster than the same number of lines of dialogue written in a more standard fashion, with "saids" and inter-conversational action and whatnot.
Then, there’s his prose style. McCarthy mixes up a sort of flat declaratory style reminiscent of Hemingway, with the impressionistic English-grammar-is-only-a-suggestion-anyway style of James Joyce. Both are very quick to read, the Hemingwayish stuff because it is so simple and the Joycean stuff because it only makes sense if you read it quickly, for the general flavor and texture of the words, and don’t try to parse out a concrete literal meaning.
(For contrast I would suggest Jane Austen, who writes complex but perfectly grammatical sentences that often reward you with a joke if you bother to focus your attention enough to parse it out. Jane Austen is not particularly quick to read, I find.)
There’s another aspect to his writing style that made the book a quick read for me, and this was more about the storytelling than about the surfacing of his prose. The book is very repetitive, possibly deliberately as a thematic choice. We run into the same kinds of (very understated) conflicts over and over, and the action (such as it is) is pretty much the same over and over. Man and boy walk. Along the road. They see devastation. They look for food. Sometimes they find food. Sometimes they don’t find food. Sometimes they see a threat off in the distance. They talk about the threat. Then they avoid the threat.
The first time I ran into a segment kind of like this, I actually read it:
The man took a candle out of the drawer full of candles. He lit the candle with a match from the matchbook. He dripped some wax from the lit candle onto the counter and stuck the candle into the melted wax.
But the next time I ran into a segment like that, I would skim for relevant information. Candle, got it. And then the next time after that I wouldn’t even bother to make note of the fact that he lit a candle, because it turned out that it never mattered that he lit a candle. The candles never got knocked over and caught something on fire. The candles never went out at a crucial time. He didn’t run out of candles and have that be a problem.
Nearly everything in the novel is an unfired gun.*
I have to assume this is deliberate. I have to assume that McCarthy made an actual choice to fill his post-apocalyptic world with juicy threats like terrifying cannibal baby-eaters and enormous fires that sweep through the dead forests and earthquakes and botulism, only to have our protagonists (the man and the boy, his son) never actually be seriously threatened by them in any way that takes more than a couple of paragraphs to get out of. Because fighting for your life against cannibals would break the flat, gray, resigned tone? I guess?
I’ve read reviews of the new movie based on this book, and a common sentiment seems to be something along the lines of "Well, the book was brilliantly moving and McCarthy is a prose genius. The movie doesn’t suck, but it’s curiously flat and uninvolving. Probably because it doesn’t have McCarthy’s luminous transcendent fantabulous prose."
I find this a bit funny, because "curiously flat and uninvolving" is exactly how I would describe the book. The highly stylized prose made me feel very distant from the events, making the whole thing dreamlike and lacking in consequence. Now, I like flat, hopeless, existentialist narratives, so I didn’t mind that in and of itself. But in this context it actually seemed a bit like the book was pulling its punches. There are horrors in the book, but they are not visceral and immersive. I was allowed to have a dim, gray, abstract view of them.
The book generates some emotional energy when it looks, briefly, as if the boy is going to die before the man. That’s not where it looked like the story was going, and since the only thing driving the story is the man’s powerful love for the boy, it’s potentially devastating.
Then it doesn’t happen.
Which is pretty much the book, in a nutshell, right there. Then it doesn’t happen.
The Road is not actually a bad book. It has lots of mood and atmosphere and setting and memorable imagery. About a third of the way in I was thinking, "wow, this would have made a killer short story. Maybe a novelette. If it ended right here. Um, how many pages have we got left to go?"
But I think, based on its many gushing reviews and highfalutin’ literary honors, that it is an overpraised book. And I am cynical and a little cranky about this overpraise, because it seems to me a very typical scenario:
- "Literary" author writes science fiction/fantasy/horror book.
- Members of the literary establishment practically liquefy themselves with excitement over its novelty and wonderfulness.
- Even though it is using tropes already well-honed in the genre ghetto.
- Reviews acknowledge that it might be called science fiction, because it is in fact science fiction, but still, it’s not really science fiction, because.
- Surely actual science fiction is never LITerature.
- So, if somebody points out that another writer (Octavia Butler! J.G. Ballard!) has written something at least equally good, along these same lines, which we originally considered not literature, because it was science fiction, we will retroactively classify it instead as not science fiction.
- The walls of genre purity are maintained, the end.
Yes, it’s a pet peeve.
I find myself wondering if everyone can possibly really, sincerely, love McCarthy’s quirky and rather difficult prose style in The Road as much as the critical mass seems to indicate. Surely somebody else out there found the surfacing a little too distracting from the substance, yes? Surely somebody found it annoying that McCarthy so often has people say, in dialogue, SYMbolism-laden things that nobody would ever say? Somebody must have found his resolute lack of normal grammar and conventional narrative forms a little overly self-conscious? Surely somebody found the repetitive, actionless narrative a bit dull and unmoving?
The critical reaction to this book is so unanimously breathless that it feels dishonest. Like a bandwagon that people are jumping on without really looking at what’s inside. A case of the Emperor’s New Clothes. They don’t really see what makes it so fabulous, but they are afraid of appearing to be aliterary rubes, so they join in the praise chorus.
Just a theory.
So, anyway, as a geek, there were a few SFinal things that bothered me in The Road. He makes it pretty clear that the disaster was a widespread nuclear war followed by a nuclear winter that killed every living thing on the planet. Except for humans, who I guess survived a bit longer because they knew how to operate can openers. So, I found myself quibbling, "are you sure that would kill everything? Really? Everything? You wouldn’t have, say, rampant fungus takeover of vacated ecosystems? What about bugs, are there bugs?" (To be fair to McCarthy, the protagonists do eat mushrooms at one point.) But still, dramatically reduced UV light is different from no UV light at all.
Another problem I had was the timing. The boy — in a fairly poignant touch — was born immediately after the bombs fell. He seems to be about ten years old. So that means, what, this apocalypse has been going on for nearly ten years? And there’s still canned food left? Anywhere? That seems a little… unlikely.
Also, the cannibalism. It seems quite realistic that people would turn to cannibalism both as people are dying anyway and other food sources run out. But there are a few places where we run into women, and McCarthy bothers to mention that they are pregnant, and the implication is that they are pregnant because other people are going to eat the babies.
Yes, it’s horrifying. But it doesn’t actually work. You cannot get more food value out of an animal than what you put into it. If you are going to bother to feed the women enough extra food that they can gestate babies, you would be better off just eating the food yourself. And because this scenario doesn’t actually make sense, it feels like it exists mostly to push our buttons.
(Kind of like that bit in the beginning of Waterworld, where Kevin Costner distills his own urine for drinking water and excuse me, if you can distill your own urine, you can distill the seawater.)
And finally, radiation sickness. Nobody seems to worry about it. Nobody seems to have it. But levels of nuking that would cause this kind of devastating nuclear winter would also leave behind a lot of radiation, and in a mere ten years, you would still have to be worrying about the radiation. Right? Is the man supposed to be dying of radiation sickness? If him, then why not the boy? Etc.
But I suppose that all fits the tone of the novel, it’s a poetic rather than a realistic scenario.
The thing I don’t get, and will never get, is why that makes it "better" than regular science fiction.
*I assume that everyone is familiar with Chekhov’s rule of dramatic payoff, that if you show a gun over the mantle in act 1 somebody had better fire it by the end of act 3.