Tuesday, July 15, 2008

I read the first half of Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" this evening. I'd been hearing a lot of good things about it -- and hey, it takes place in a post-apocalyptic near-future and won the Pulitzer Prize, so how can I go wrong?

No one can plausibly dispute McCarthy's grasp of the English language. From the opening page, "The Road" glints with impressively understated feats of wordcraft and images of aching beauty: the omnipresent drizzle of ash that's turned the sky the color of gunmetal, the silent forests of blackened trees. McCarthy summons an image of a cataclysmic world so exquisitely realized it borders on the shamanic.

Nevertheless, I'm wary.

There don't seem to be any real ideas at work in "The Road." McCarthy's focus is the relationship between the unnamed father and son, whose trek across a gutted, toxic America forces them to perpetually confront their own mortality. But their strife is condemned to a vacuum; we view them in such extreme close-up that -- aside from a few obligatory shocks -- their devastated surroundings sometimes seem like an afterthought. (Compare McCarthy's approach to the vision of seasoned science fiction writers like Robert Charles Wilson, whose "Blind Lake" -- to use only only example -- utilizes the universe itself to underscore the inner lives of his characters. Forgive my impertinence, but I'll happily choose the latter anytime, Pulitzer Prize be damned.)

Just as ominously, McCarthy's novel is stained -- of only faintly -- with devices that serve little purpose other than to remind the reader that he's in the presence of True Literature. I'm unimpressed, for example, with the author's haughty disdain for punctuation. (In "The Road," abbreviation marks have been obliterated almost as thoroughly as the population.)


0uterj0in said...

A review of a half-read book, awesome.

intense said...

I'll bet you find Gibson's "Spook Country" more satisfying. I thought it's precursor, "Pattern Recognition," was quite well-written and rather interesting.

The Speeker said...

I started The Road, although I stopped because I found it too heartbreakingly sad for me at the time...

The lack of grand discussion of "ideas" about politics and ecology and society didn't bother me in this book. It seemed to me that the book is just about the love of this father for his son, and the desperation and agony of this man fighting for his son. After he has lost every other loved person or object in the world.

I can't really imagine anything more horrible than to be that father. Living with the constant and clawing desperation to save his son at any cost in the face of odds that make his attempt impossible and possibly also pointless - Yeesh.

The Speeker said...

Oh, also,
Another reason to infer that the book wants readers to focus on the love rather than the politics of apocalypse - we never learn what caused the apocalypse. It could be any of a number of causes. And the novel could be taking place in the present, the recent (reimagined) past, the future...

We only see the boy and the father because that is all that matters. Everything else is "gunmetal grey"

Mac said...


Totally valid points. The fact that I'm very much enjoying the book was probably lost in my critique -- if one can call it that.

My beef isn't with McCarthy, who's a damned fine writer, but with the critical community that overlooks similar imaginative works because they're "just" science fiction.

Mac said...

And no, 0uterj0in, it's not a review -- just some thoughts that came to mind as I read. (When I write a proper review, I suspect it will be rather glowing.)

Mac said...


I've loved all of Gibson's books. "Spook Country" is rumored to be among his best ... if not *the* best.

intense said...

As for Gibson's "best," of course, that's a relative term, and dependent on the tastes of the reader, but I'd have to say that "Neuromancer," (especially since it came out almost 25 years ago, virtually created the genre of cyberpunk, and had such soaring, complex imagery and fantastic a plot line), must remain among his very best, and, at least, one of my all-time favorites. While I've yet to read "Spook Country" myself, from what I've heard about it, I really look forward to doing so at some point hopefully soon--just wish I could afford more books like that--maybe I should get a real job, eh? Heh!

A Related Tangential Pair of Reminiscent Literary Asides: ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------

"Neuromancer" had such an impact on me at the time, I went out and bought a few extra paperback copies and handed them out to friends, nearly demanding that they read this oddly innovative SF book by this fresh, unknown, young author. Who knew? It brought me back to reading quality SF once again, an extra plus.

I grew up reading my Dad's SF books as a child, particularly the early, beautifully melancholy works of Ray Bradbury, and so had read much more SF than most, and so when I originally read "Neuromancer," it blew my mind due to it's uniquely new style and content, at the time.

It was like watching a movie, or alternate literary reality, that made me feel like I was there, observing on some near-visual level, a kind of fervid, burning living of the book in my mind, due to the requisite "suspension of disbelief" that the very best writing, books, and movies can inspire within the imagination. The art of burning chrome mirrorshades, indeed...

I reread the book again recently, and it still stands up as an extraordinary, moving example of the best of any writer's truest artistry. Remember, Gibson was the guy who invented the term cyberspace, a kind of consensual hallucination or imaginal space that resonates deeply with me, and as a long-time computer geek of sorts, and as an older, virtual net habitue, I found the book revelatory, in several simpatico ways.

I once met Gibson several years later, during a book tour of his during the early '90's, and got the chance to privately chat with him for a little while in the back room annex of a bookstore in Berkeley, Dark Carnival, that an acquaintance still owns, before a signing he did there, and we had a rather odd discussion about cattle mutilations, of all things, as I had been referred to him as some "ufo expert" (heh!), and what they might be caused by or signify (he asked more questions than made comment about mutes, though he was rather curious for some reason), though now I wish I'd had the time, or presence of mind, to talk with him about ufo phenomena and the possibility of non-human intelligence and the potential significance of the presence of same on or "visiting" our little planet, if such were true. I wonder what his take on the topic would or may be, actually. It might make another great book! Oh, well.

Via the same avenue, a book tour which included a stop at Dark Carnival, I also got to meet my childhood SF hero, Bradbury, when he was promoting the 40th anniversary edition of "Fahrenheit 451," and had him sign a copy of that edition as a gift for Mike Godwin, former original lead legal counsel for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, or EFF.org, which I was very peripherally involved in helping start during the early days of the internet (prior to browsers), in part as co-host of a hacking conference on a seminal computer conferencing system called The WELL, and on which early net activists such as Stewart Brand, Lee Felsenstein, Mitch Kapor, Bruce Sterling, et al, held forth via text only within a variety of nested, conferenced discussion groups. Ah, the old days...

Anyway, Godwin had recently suffered the loss by fire of his home in Texas, and personal library of books, so I thought, as the result of a WELL-based effort to help him restore his library, and considering the circumstance of the fire, that a copy "451" to Godwin signed by Bradbury would be an amusingly ironic inclusion. Hope he got the involuted humor of that choice...

Bradbury himself, unfortunately, at the time I met him briefly, was somewhat under the influence of the effects of having consumed the better part of a six-pack of Corona beers, and wasn't real communicative--I'd have to say a tad dazed, in fact. Probably having kind of a bad day, for some reason. Book tours can be rather tedious for authors, I assume.

I gave him a copy of an early SF story I'd written (which he tucked away for reading later) in college, as a kind of tribute, twenty years earlier, called "Poor Ray," about the dark consequences of his choice to be frozen after death (in the hopes of his someday being resuscitated in the future he wrote about), but in the story a dictator named Fortnum (a roman a clef about Nixon's Watergate period) had taken over the US, started a war and declared martial law in order to maintain his grasp on power, and thus ruined the country, and Ray's distant descendants, due to hard times, had made the decision after squabbling over his will (and following the political chaos and collapse of the post-fascist country), to sell Bradbury's organs to the highest bidders, as his books had been banned during the Fortnum regime, and thus the residue of his estate had dissipated. Again, irony.

The short story ended with Ray being unfrozen only for excision of his organs, and then reviving enough to unexpectedly wake up, writhing in horror and pain, inside the ghastly transplant "hospital" operating room, deliriously crying out phrases from his stories, like, "...a miracle of rare device!"

The story's title derived from the repulsed reaction of one of the participating medical excision "technicians," while witnessing the horror of the unintended awakening, half-way through the organ removal process, and quietly uttering the conclusive rejoinder, "Poor Ray."

I had been trying for a Gahan Wilson type of piquant style, or slightly gruesome Lovecraftian effect, and I think Bradbury may have been taken aback by the personal aspect of the plot, I'm belatedly guessing.

For some odd reason (ha!), I never heard from Bradbury (not that I really expected to), about what his reaction to my story, if any, might have been, (I speculate the mordant irony have been a bit too-- ghoulishly grim?), but I did get a nice little photo of us in the mail one day, without notation, via his publicist, of a picture we had taken standing together at the bookstore!

It would be no wonder, then, if he consumed perhaps more than his fair share of Corona's that day, if his experience with an erstwhile fanboy like me then was any indicator of the vicissitudes of a book promotion tour, eh? Oh, what the life and times of a writer must be when meeting some elements of their audience! "Sorry, Ray..." 8^}


[Yeah, I know, once again, too long a "loquaciously verbose" comment, but I don't do it very often anymore--trying to exercise restraint; somebody stop me before I become overly-Lehmbergian, please! (...just a silly little in-joke, Alfred--please don't take it personally) *Sigh.* My own blog will be premiering by mid to late August, at which time my occasionally over-caffeinated brainfire will be then exorcised there. I promise!]

Alex Moseley said...

I read _The Road_ over a year ago, and have to say, I loved it. Understanding where McCarthy was coming from as an author, writing the postmodern western, I saw The Road as a bridge (olive branch?) toward speculative fiction rather than a hack attempt at it. Damn fine book.