Thursday, 4 September 2008

Another Voice Joins the Chorus of Praise

by Edwin Hesselthwite

Last week, in one short sitting, I finished The Road by Cormac McCarthy...

Holy. Cow.

Let me give you some background: The Road, McCarthy's tenth novel, was published in November 2006. Before that I'd never heard of him, I have a strong suspicion that few people had. The book got ringing endorsements from the world's book reviewers (here's the rather pretentious Guardian review, here is Michael Chabon's take on it, I love that man), he bagged a Pulitzer Prize for it, and a slow rumble of praise has been building up to a roar ever since. So far this has peaked in the Coen Brother's film version of his earlier work No Country For Old Men, which won almost all the Oscars worth winning.

On a personal level, a friend whose opinions on books I trust gave him such a ringing endorsement while proclaiming his Blood Meridian a masterwork that I went out and bought it...


Unrelenting, uncompromising, unapologetic visions of hell spill from the pages of Blood Meridian; a book crafted in the most elegant prose I've encountered in years. This is not a horror story as normally described, there is no arc to this unpleasantness. Blood Meridian is simply page upon page of grotesque amoral violence in the Old West, as two repugnant characters are drawn in ever greater detail. I finished Meridian and then berated my friend for the recommendation, asking myself "Why would anyone choose to read this?"

And yet, less than a month after finishing it, I had somehow found myself lending it to two others friends. Both of whom had similar reactions.

So I picked up The Road.

The Road is a post-apocalyptic novel on the grand scale. The story of a nomadic father and son surviving on the finest of margins after after some never-explained catastrophe has left their land almost completely lifeless. Ash and clouds are the main repeating image.

The Road's total lack of background information throws a real contrast against other post-apocalyptic books I've read. Where Stephen King's The Stand's has a first third telling in detail how the world ends, or Earth Abides concentrates on the irrelevance of human life to the big picture, McCarthy has decided to ignore concept (which is often the main point of science fiction) and concentrate entirely on living. He focuses on a very specific month (although I'm not exactly sure of the length of time) in the life of this family. There have been horrible events before, and there will be more afterwards, but this is now.

It's an approach shared by Richard Matheson's I Am Legend (which I adore) and the earlier parts of Stephen King's The Dark Tower (I read six and a half out of seven huge books in that series, then gave up), but McCarthy is far more sparing with information than either. In The Road it really doesn't matter what caused the world to end, it's how the father and son deal with it that makes us care. And the influence on this relationship of the nightmares surrounding them is what gave me that "beaten up with a shovel" feeling that no book has left me with in years.

Thinking back, it's a series of revealed moments that stand out. A masterful horror writer, McCarthy paints a string of viscerally memorable scenes (the most infamous being a baby rotating on a spit, but the first sight of The Ocean is equally dramatic) that stay with the reader long after the book is put down. Where the rich language and concern for the characters draws the story along, it is these hammer-blow scenes that serve to punctuate the story and deliver the key information.

In Post-Apocalyptic fiction McCarthy finds a way to use his skills at drawing hellish landscapes without the need for the sympathy arc required in normal horror. Part of the reason Blood Meridian comes across as such a smack in the face is the lack of context for these nightmares. Post-Apoc removes this, and allows McCarthy to dwell on his ongoing themes of base humanity, struggle at the very limits of life and the American Epic. It's a very literary book, but much like Michael Chabon's (these two fill a similar role in American literature) The Yiddish Policeman's Union, it demands equal respect as both literature and genre fiction. This is better than being either.

But it is these literary elements that make it difficult to recommend as a work of genre fiction. McCarthy uses a number of very showy tricks (like minimal punctuation), and a dense but minimalist style to set the tone, and it is this tone that holds it together. There are a number of regular readers of this blog that I have so far avoided recommending McCarthy to for this reason. It's well worth a go if you can get past this.

In my reasonably extensive reading of Post-Apocalyptic fiction, I've never come across a world that has been destroyed quite so thoroughly as the America left behind by Cormac McCarthy. Buy it, buy it now, buy it from this link (we get a tiny tiny amount of money if you do). Outstanding.

Soon to be made into a film with Viggo Mortensen, probably not a good idea.


John Pash said...

I read this entire book recently on a trans-Atlantic flight and left the plane stunned. I haven't been affected by a story as much since...well never!

I whole-heartedly agree that Hollywood should stay away from this. My fingers are crossed that they don't chew it up and spit it out a soggy mess the way they did with No Country for Old Men.

Jeremy said...

Yeah, that book blew me away. Great review!