Wednesday, 28 July 2010

"The Road"... and the cracks in it

Haha, Philip Challinor - the excellent author and sharp-edged political commentator - takes a chunk out of Cormac McCarthy's "The Road". He is right. I find myself being in the camp of being a fan of "The Road", and remaining a fan, even though the perceptive and enlightening criticisms of it that I have read seem totally correct also. Naturally, part of the issue is that Cormac McCarthy is a huge literary name and that he receives the kind of praise and worthiness that surely needs to be taken down a peg or two. [1] I dig McCarthy. But Challinor is very right on the issue of the moral challenges of the novel: namely, that if you are looking for that, "The Road" cops out. What follows, then, is my acknowledgement of Challinors correct deconstruction of "The Road", or at least its lofty status, and also my defence, rationalisation and allowances of the novel as a fan. I am hoping not to lapse into excuses.

I like that Challinor puts "The Road" in its proper context - science-fiction, if not horror - and grades it accordingly. Challinor's opening is a fine slice of iconoclasm:

"If you'll pardon the blasphemy, Cormac McCarthy's The Road is not a very good book. It is not an uncompromising vision of the Apocalypse; it is not a brutally realistic vision of the end of civilisation; it is not more frightening than the most frightening horror story; it is not more convincing than the best science fiction; and it is not a brilliant allegory of parenthood in the dangerous twenty-first century."

And here we shall differ, because I think it is and remains a good book, despite the flaws. Challinor's key argument seems to me to be that it does not go far enough; or rather, does not go far enough to warrant it's reputation of incomparable bleakness. Whenever a true moral dilema comes up, McCarthy throws in something new to divert the true test of the father's "goodness" and paternal love. He never really has to decide should I kill and eat another human being to keep myself and my child alive?

To me, "The Road" is a little by-way off of the true uncomprosing, brutally realistic vision of the Apocolypse and one of the most chilling horror stories and allegories ever: Robert Kirkman's "The Walking Dead", which I consider to be one of the greatest slabs of horror and humanitarian writing in genre fiction. Yes, I am going to add ever to that too. I have a hard time imagining how McCarthy might have stumbled onto "The Road" without at least someone having mentioned "The Walking Dead" to him. But it is then not so much the plot and its convulutions that generate the truth of the grim reputation of the novel so much as the context, conceit and sparseness of prose that create the harshness. It is in the atmosphere and execution. The feel of the novel alludes to the worst happening to the father and son at any moment, even if the magic of storytelling intercepts at just the right moments to pull them back from the brink. This aftertaste of a crumbling natural world and civilisation holds up long after the convenience of discovering a bunker stuffed with food (which, of course, is a moment designed also to provide our protagonists with a moment of reprieve and civility: for the father, it is the memory of civility and for the son a fleeting introduction. It is meant as a contrast to the outside world, evidently, and the episode would perhaps be successful at this if the father was faced with scenes that truly test his humanity. Just how hungry are they? We don't see them at the stage of eating algae or dry leaves for sustenance, for example). The mood triumphs.

Challinor does not believe that the boy would be the herald of the virtue in a world overrun by cannibals. Challinor on the scene where the son chastises his father for the way he treats a thief that tries to steal from them: "A child in a highly dangerous post-apocalyptic landscape, with only its father to rely on, would join its father in humiliating and murdering the thief, and give the corpse a good kick in the face to show it just how good the good guys can be." But, indeed, not every scenario has to be that way, surely? Not every child needs to be barbarous to make a point, and surely the challenge McCarthy sets himself is not to have a barbaric child, and the quest his father undertakes to keeps him from that barbarism. But I would say that Challinor presents an unassailable argument as to why McCarthy fails this challenge: as he puts it, something always comes along to circumnatigate the father away from the truly messy choices.

Again, I see no need to turn every child into a stray from "Lord of the Flies" in such a scenario, and I can swing with the idea that, with only his father's evangelical stress on being "the good guys" and keeping him away from any other survivors, the son may well find himself the bearer of conscience and the desire for a better world that came before... especially when: something always comes along. I would also suggest that the paradox of children is that they are as innately sweet as they are barbaric, and that some fall more one way that the other due to character, environment, influences, etc. They are naturally as fascinated with being good as they are with bad behaviour.[2] Under the sole, stifling influence of the father, why should this not be so for the son?

My conclusion is doubtlessly not going to satisfy detractors, and probably not some fans either, but in light of Challinor's accurate squewering of its Achilles' Heel, I read "The Road" more as a fairy-tale. A fairy-tale in its rendering of the son as a "pure" character, as the father as a knight of sorts, both travelling in a world of monsters. A fairy-tale in that something always comes along, that convenience and coincidence always strike where most appropriate (like in those good old canonical classics!). Challinor feels it fails as an allegory, but I don't think it fails consistently or completely. For just a moment, I doubted someting would come along at the end. Of course it did and anything else would feel unbearable or take a longer novel to resolve. A more devastating ending would have the son falling into cannibalism - either as victim or feaster. As it is, he has to rely upon something always coming along which, for myself, I do not believe is such a cosy coda. But I believe it works as fairy tale, although detractors may see this as excuse-making and fans may see this as a challenge to its lauded verisimilitude.

As Challinor states, you have to go to, say, Harlan Ellison's seminal "A Boy and His Dog" to find the real moral dilemma of this scenario faced. This ground has been well covered before in science-fiction and horror, and by McCarthy himself. I propose that what was seemingly new and transcendant about "The Road" for many was that they had not read the key genre fiction that mattered, that had gone before... if they read genre fiction at all. "It's a horror novel!" I would tell people, because I read in "The Road" something that I have seen evident in mainstream cinema: the appropriation of horror motifs and excesses that had previously been found only in cult and b-rated cinema. I can see "The Road" as a crossover success, from the lowly sewers of the horror genre to the bookshelves of the literati. The literati, of course, ought to slum it a little if they liked this stuff. I recommend "The Walking Dead".

So Challinor is right, but I am a fan and, making allowances or not (as you must do with any work of fiction) I believe "The Road" still stands as an important work of post-Apocolyptic speculation, for its atmosphere, prose and crossover status if nothing else.


I recommend Phillip Challinor's anthology "Radical Therapies". The first story, "The Little Doctor" in particular is a fine example of how he deals with ethical challenges.


[1] I do not like Picador's new packaging of McCarthy's novels. The cover is a stack of words: the novel title stands out, surrounded by lines extolling the brilliance, importance, etc., of said novel. In the case of "The Road": "a work of such terrible beauty that you will struggle to look away." I will? Really? Jesus, that's a tall order and deserving of a kicking. Challinor's review certainly cleans out the works to get some perspective back into viewing the book's weaknesses and strengths. Blurb has replaced art and design on the cover. It is as if you can simply congratulate yourself and take yourself out for a celebratory meal just for buying it.

[2] I recently watched "The Girl Next Door" and was struck how the film and Jack Ketchum's source novel credibly presents a throughly good character faced with the potential of his own ability and complicity in torture and inhumanity. His goodness is innate and wins through, but not in a way I consider to be trite: characters of Goodness can be wearisome, but they do not always have to be so, for they can represent natural moral awareness, empathy and rightness of action. I believe it is possible to see the son in "The Road" in this light also, and that such a character does not necessarily have to be the representation of natural childhood cruelty; one might also argue that that might have been the easy characterisation and certainly the novel would have fallen into into the exploitation/horror genres more visibly.


Philip said...

Thanks enormously for such a thoughtful and interesting (and flattering) response. A couple of thoughts:

I'm a little uncomfortable with the dichotomy between genre fiction and literature; as far as I'm concerned, good science fiction, horror or fantasy is good fiction, period. That's why I get annoyed at critics who praise works of "serious" fiction by denigrating an entire genre, or when Kingsley Amis' The Green Man is held up as a masterpiece of supernatural terror by people who wouldn't dream of soiling their eyeballs with The Haunting of Hill House.

By the same token, I'm uncomfortable with the idea of "excusing" bad fiction on the grounds that it's "just" horror, science fiction or whatever. The idea that serious authors do a bit of genre slumming now and then, and we should all lower our standards accordingly (except for the lowly genre reader who's had his standards raised beyond dreaming) gives me a maximal pain in the gluteus. I'm not saying that's what you've done here, but it does strike me as a rather common critical attitude. I think that "A Boy and his Dog" is not only better science fiction than The Road; I think it is better fiction - better literature - because it deals honestly with the themes it has raised, which The Road does not.

You make a good case for The Road as fairy tale, although the undeniable (and shocking) physical realism and harshness in the book makes it, for me at least, rather difficult to accept as such. Perhaps my idea of genre boundaries isn't as flexible as it ought to be (although fairy tales can also be pretty merciless; see Hans Christian Andersen's devastating "The Mother"). I suspect I'm also a bit squeamish about using an ostensibly realistic future catastrophe in just that way; a long time ago I had a similar bilious reaction to Nevil Shute's On the Beach, which sentimentalises nuclear war with a Brief Encounter between a submarine captain and an Australian girl.

Many thanks for reading Radical Therapies and the very charitable comment. I confess I was tempted to slip in a mention of "The Little Doctor" as a final raspberry to The Road, but I chickened out. I don't think it's a fair comparison, to be honest: in my story society hasn't collapsed to quite the same extent, although there is every prospect of it, and the main characters are members of the elite rather than ordinary people, so they're not living hand to mouth yet.

And finally, thanks for the recommendation of The Walking Dead; I've never heard of it before, but I shall certainly be reading it soon.

Buck Theorem said...

Hi Philip - thanks for reading and your reply. In my eagerness to enjoy something, I can often be lax in calling upon its shortcomings, so your post inspired me to test my own initial praise of “The Road”. If you’ll indulge me...

Oh, I don't give any credence to the manufactured dichotomy between genre fiction and literature. As I perhaps hinted at, the coincidences and contrivances of much of the established canon - Dickens, for example - is just as absurd as the conceits of genre fiction denigrated by those placing themselves above it. I think all fiction has a weakness of some kind, and asks for allowances must be given (crazy coincidences DO happen in real life too! Sometimes people DO act irrationally!) - after all, I am a b-film fan. I do not expect perfection. In several cases, I come to enjoy the flaws. It seems to me that all fiction and art has flaws, but the good and great art asks at the very least that allowances may be made, indulgences be permitted, and indeed that indulgences and weaknesses by embraced. For me, it was “The Road’s” cellar-full-of-goodies moment which made me twinge, “hey, wait a minute...” and I could feel myself giving allowances to see where McCarthy took it. Yes, I believe he wanted to give an example of civilisation with which to contract the outside world, but I think you are correct in that it ultimately weakens the moral challenges and discourse (because McCarthy always keeps pulling something out of the hat elsewhere so that the cellar episode becomes the norm rather than the contrast).

I do not believe in excusing bad fiction because it is genre (I barely read modern horror because I have a hard time finding anything that is written above-average), but I do believe that occasionally the genre can explain and put into context certain patterns, tendencies, weaknesses as well as strengths (again, I am a b-film fan. And in light of the art vs genre debate, that "b" is more about the economic context of the film rather than the quality). In my case, I feel it is less about lowering standards than, shall we say, shifting the requirements. Yes, I am aware that that sounds like simply rebranding "lowering standards" to fit my agenda; but what I mean is that, for example, I expect the cliches of genre, due to genre patterns, and that is what I go to it for (what I also expect is at least an intelligent engagement and playfulness with those patterns, if not subversion). In this way, I held up "The Road" under the light of the fairy-tale genre to see if that would create a new context in which to view its structure and, yes, its weaknesses. Although I think it helps, my intuition is that close-reading might prove that the crevices between “The Road’s” apparent realism and the fairy-tale form might prove too strong to hold together, as you say.

Buck Theorem said...

“A Boy and His Dog” holds a special place in my affections. It was, indeed, one of the first true adult pieces of science-fiction that I read as, oh, a thirteen-year old, I believe. The very first was Ellison’s “Repent Harlequin, said the Tick-Tock man”, which was life-changing for me as a reader (both in a collection of best sci-fi of the decade, or something). “A Boy and His Dog” is more ostensibly pulp, and more superficially flippant due to dry wit, but it definitely holds up better under scrutiny than “The Road” does. There are more stories of Blood and Vic after that, and Ellison was going to complete a novel on them, but I am not certain that he ever did... all I have is a rather fine graphic novel adaptation of “A Boy and His Dog” plus further adventures (it features comic versions alongside original text).

“The Walking Dead” is long and ongoing. If you stick with it, it becomes exceptional (volume 8 is devastating!), but I don’t think you will find it lacking or weak in engagements with moral dilemmas and humanity. It is a zombie horror comic, and it is pure literature. Please, if you do decide to jump in, let me know what you think.

I don’t think “The Little Doctor” would be a fair comparison to “The Road” either,  but it does stand up as an example of science-fiction engaged with issues of ethics and humanity (better comparisons can be made to, of course, “Nineteen-Eighty-Four” and Koestler’s “Darkness at the Edge of Noon”).

I'll stop now. Thanks!

Paul C said...

Thanks to both of you for the perceptive comments. I haven't read The Road yet, but have made my way through three other McCarthy books with similar feelings. However while parts of his books are excellent, you get the suspicion that the whole is less than the sum of those parts.

I second the recommendation of The Walking Dead, which for all its flaws (many of which only become obvious once you read Robert Kirkman's other books) is still the best zombie movie that isn't a movie.

Buck Theorem said...

Hi Paul,

Thanks for the comment.

I know what you mean about McCarthy and I guess I would say, "yeah, but what great parts". I think "No Country For Old Men" holds up end-to-end.

Oh, I am sure Walking Dead has flaws, but I fairly oblivious to them. :) I am also pretty excited about Darabont's TV series adaptation... it looks like the real deal. If they manage to convey even half of the nasty goings-on from the comic, it will be a proper horror gourmet.