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Sunday, April 22, 2007

In a world where punctuation barely survives...

The sixteenth book we have read this year is Cormac McCarthy's The Road. We chose to read this because it was the next selection for the Literary Salon book club at our shop, not because it was one of Oprah's selections. We otherwise probably would never have picked it up.

The front wrapper of our Vintage trade edition offers this quote from the San Francisco Chronicle:
His tale of survival and the miracle of goodness only adds to McCarthy's stature as a living master. It's gripping, frightening and, ultimately, beautiful. It might very well be the best book of the year, period.
So, let us first take note that, according to the praise of the Chronicle, this book does no other thing except add to Mr. McCarthy's stature--it does not entertain, it does not enlighten, it does not sadden, it does not brighten. There is no mention of any literary merits. It is all about the glory of the author. If Joe the Unpublished Genius submitted this manuscript to Knopf, would they have accepted it for publication? I can't imagine so.

We have heard other readers wonder what befell civilization? For us, it didn't matter. We give Mr. McCarthy credit for not trying to explain too much, for leaving the past to the imagination of the reader. What should be interesting, after all, is not what happened, but what happens. Here, though, nothing much happens. A man and his son wander around just surviving. What are they trying to accomplish? Apparently just survival. The boy is smart enough to say he doesn't know what they are doing, and to realise without something to do, they might as well not survive. Papa, however, insists that his son go on, because they must "carry the fire." It seems evident, though, that they don't have the fire.

Does this novel show the miracle of goodness? Papa is intent on protecting his son from the "bad guys," and shoots one man dead and forces another to an inevitable death, yet neither men show evidence of threat. Such behavior is not a miracle of goodness. Telling his son to leave him to die is not a miracle of goodness. And if in an apocalyptic world such distinctions are no longer valid, then goodness doesn't exist. Survival is not goodness. Papa seems to have developed a messiah complex. Without giving away the end, Mr. McCarthy seems to suggest that Papa has all along stood in the way of his and his son's quest to find the other "good guys" still alive in the world.

The worst thing about this novel is the writing. If Mr. McCarthy is a living master, he ought to have been able to write evocatively, lushly, triumphantly. Instead the novel reads as if he merely transcribed his scribbled thoughts:
He lay listening to the water drip in the woods. Bedrock, this. The cold and the silence. The ashes of the late world carried on the bleak and temporal winds to and fro in the void. Carried forth and scattered and carried forth again. Everything uncoupled from its shoring. Unsupported in the ashen air. Sustained by a breath, trembling and brief. If only my heart were stone.
There are no chapters, and there are rather few complete scenes. This excerpt, which flourishes with two complete sentences, is one unit among many others just like it. We would expect a living master to take these thoughts about the events, or the emotion, or whatever the scene is meant to convey, and show it, develop it, use his skills to write several sentences into a paragraph, and then string several of those together in logical succession to form a scene or a chapter. Bedrock, this? Lazy, that.

Should anyone think Mr. McCarthy has limited range, he stretches himself to the other extreme of run-on sentences, as if he had sudden bouts of diarhhea of the ands. He also has a limited supply of apostrophes, which might be expected of a Grub Street hack, but an experienced bestselling author ought to have a larger stash, or be able to get a hold of a few more should he need them. We could have lent him some. Or perhaps he has imagined this world in which only a few humans survive as a place where only a few apostrophes have survived as well. If one intends to rekindle civilization, one ought to value communication, use apostrophes when one ought to, and avoid empty verbs like "got" which communicates nothing. Or maybe this is all just part of what the New York Times Book Review called Mr. McCarthy's consistently brilliant imagining of the posthumous condition of nature and civilization. But when one writes about nothing, and conveys nothingness is one's writing, what is there for the reader to experience and to take with her? Nothing.

Almost the entire book is written in third person omniscient point of view. At times we are inside the boy's head, at other times the man's. There are maybe three of those little units that mentions a "me," and one about a third of the way through which has a few sentences concerning "I." So who exactly is this first person who only briefly appears? Perhaps God? There are also apparent flashbacks now and again. And the final bit of confusion would be the shunning of all quotation marks. Again we have to wonder, did whatever fires that left the rest of the world in ashes also burn away all critical punctuation marks? Does Mr. McCarthy mean to suggest that these are the weakest of the punctuation marks, and were not even fit enough to survive the world's destruction like the other more robust question mark, or period? No, we do not think there is a set rule that a writer must make use of these marks. They are, however, all meant to improve comprehension and understanding, so why leave them out? I happened to flip through another of Mr. McCarthy's books and noticed a similar lack of quotation marks, so one is left to conclude either he is above them, or it is the one key that is broken on his typewriter. Or perhaps the missing punctuation explains everything: earth was hit by a giant meteor from space with brought about the near-total extinction of punctuation, and only a few stragglers hang on, and the good guys don't bother with it any more because they realise it is hardly essential to their survival, but the bad guys are punctuation bullies who demand that all surviving punctuation be put on the endangered species list, and who force others to use punctuation in unnatural ways.

After putting down our thoughts about the book, we spent some time reading the thoughts of others. The worst review we could find was from a woman who complained that there was little female involvement in the story. With every review we read, our bafflement turned to frustration, and that quickly hardened into anger. The most glaring habit of the worshipful reviewers was reading into the book more than was written in it. We will follow with a few quotes, and our observations.

"We follow our unnamed protagonist and his son on their journey through a post-apocalyptic Appalachia, hunted by butchers."
--This statement is a perfect example of how so many reviews read things into this novel. And yet this same reviewer later claims that Mr. McCarthy has written everything necessary to understanding the novel. Though Papa knows of butchers and roadagents, and perhaps has even witnessed their acts or the evidence of them, we know the "bad guys" that Papa and son encounter are bad because Papa claims they are. In other words, we don't know for sure. Nothing but pap's paranoia indicates they are being hunted. Papa sees everyone else as the "bad guys" because he sees in others what is inside himself. The end of the book bears witness to this: Papa and son don't meet any of the "good guys" until after Papa dies, because the other "good guys" know he is a "bad guy" who they are avoiding. You take Papa at his word and your life will be filled with loneliness and mistrust.

"Theirs is a burden to carry the fire, that essential goodness of our common humanity, so easy to maintain in the day-to-day, but which finds itself tested when other avenues offer simpler means to live another hour."
--Essential goodness is not at all easy to maintain in the day-to-day. People constantly take the simpler means to live. Just turn on the six o'clock news for fresh proof. The miracle is that people ever choose essential goodness.

"The freshness he brings to this end-of-the-world narrative is quite stunning."
--There seems little freshness here. We have seen this world and these behaviors from other writers before. One reviewer hailed the novel as an accomplished pastiche. Another reviewer noted with pleasure that Mr. McCarthy had returned to his own familiar subjects of cannibals and dead babies. What is stunning is how anyone can think rehashing one's own work is fresh.

"I have no doubt that Oprah's audience is going to have a violently negative reaction to The Road."
--We will be surprised if this is the case. We suspect her audience might feel a little uncomfortable, but still heap high praise upon the novel and claim revelations after reading it.

Reading all these reviews drove home for us just how much a reader brings to a novel. Either we are lacking something essential for understanding The Road, or others are reading into it far more than is there. And so many of these reviews are better written and more evocative than the novel itself. For a well-written review that (no surprise) praises the novel, read Michael Chabon's "After the Apocalypse".

This is not a bad novel. With the short chunks of writing, it was quick to read. Like with much other modern fiction, we weren't gripped, and we weren't frightened. We certainly believe it could have been better. In this post-apocalyptic world we are shown the utter meaninglessness of every day events, and when the book contains little else, we are left with a meaningless book. We are willing to accept the possibility that we missed something in our reading, a critical element that would make sense of all the liberties taken by the author, something which his target audience--the Chronicle, Oprah--obviously grasps. But... winner of the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished fiction by an American author, preferably dealing with American life? We are not willing to accept the judgement that this novel is worthy above all others for such an award. This is a signal that there is something seriously wrong with the literary community as a whole, from authors who presume to write poorly, to publishers who think such writing is worthy of publication over more well-written and original manuscripts, to critics who heap praise with nary a dissenting voice, and to readers who lap up any tripe that is set before them. Modern American fiction is in a sad state, and Oprah's judgement is once again proven erroneous.

UPDATE: By coincidence, last night we watched the 1998 film Six-String Samurai, in which a man and boy travel along a road in a post-apocalyptic America. Though it riffs off other films (Wizard of Oz, Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, Mad Max)--or perhaps spoofs them--it is also full of creativity. Mr. McCarthy could use a Spinach Monster in his book.


  1. I read it when it first came out and again the week before Oprah and the Pulitzer picked it. It was as good the second reading as the first. No need for punctuation after the apocalypse. Long live Cormac.

  2. River, I applaud you for reading my thoughts and for reading the book twice.

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