Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Reader's Diary #278- Cormac McCarthy: The Road (FINISHED)

When I first discussed this book, I was at the halfway mark and sitting on the proverbial fence. I've since reluctantly climbed down and I'm sitting in the shade on the positive side.

Maybe I've been reading too many books that seem to try too hard to deliver a message, or not hard enough to hide behind a pretence. The Alchemist, Never Let Me Go, and Lighthousekeeping all fell into this trap. I'm sure some would argue that Sarmago's Blindness does as well. But unlike the first three, I didn't feel the same sort of smugness from Saramago; the same condescending feeling that some profound advice is being imparted by the world's greatest sages. I'm not against messages in books, what art doesn't have something to say? I usually take more to books that don't take on too much, that don't try to solve all humanity's ills. But even then I have exceptions. I love Orwell's Animal Farm and Golding's Lord of the Flies for instance. No one can argue that these two authors were not making rather large, rather loud social commentary. But these two, to me anyway, did it without the air of superiority. So where does McCarthy stand?

First off, I don't think there can be much debate that McCarthy was trying to do more than tell a story, more than just entertain us. Like Blindness, the characters are not named; they simply went as "the boy" and "the man". This time around I wasn't as crazy about it. It's one of the novelties that seem so refreshing at first. It's like stories that go in reverse. I forget the first time I saw that done, but I do know I was delighted. Hey, we don't have to be hung up on chronological order! Then it showed up books, movies, videos and even sitcoms. Enough! Not so creative when everyone does it. Again, had I read The Road before Blindness, this may have been a very different post. Keeping the characters a little vague of course, has the appeal of making them seem like it could be anybody, could be you the reader even, plus it smacks of allegory. McCormac pushes that angle even further with stock symbolism: apples, snakes, and so on.

However, if it was an allegory, I'm unsure of what for. If he was trying to convey a message, I'm not clear on what that message was. I wasn't completely sure in Blindness either, but in that book I still felt there was one (or many) messages up for grabs and I'm compelled to read it again some day. I can't say the same about The Road.

I might be able to argue that it is a metaphor for parental insecurities. Parents (self-included) often want to protect their offspring from the dangers of the world. As that protective instinct kicks in, rationality and mistrust of the world has the potential to spiral out of control. What can be beneficial to the child, might also be detrimental. This theory, albeit a pretty literal take on the book, is the only way I can come to terms with the ending. Without spoiling the details, it seemed abrupt, convenient, and somewhat confusing in light of the earlier story.

This seems to be a simple metaphor in itself and if I am right, McCormac certainly had a penchant for the grandiose. Does parenting need to be explored in a post-apocalyptic landscape filled with cannibals and Biblical overtones? And is this the condescension I was afraid of?

As I write this, I'm quite aware that I began by saying I feel positive about the book. I still do, perhaps slightly less now that I have my thoughts in order, but despite all of its flaws (or as I perceive them to be), I was still entertained and enjoyed assessing it when it was all over, just as I enjoy a good debate even though it means someone doesn't agree with me.


Anonymous said...

When you first mention that you were "on the positive side" I was thinking that we've now agreed twice in one day (Never Let Me Go being the other)! But then you started to sound not so positive. Oh well, I guess it's a start. :)

You keep comparing Blindness to The Road, which I can understand because you read them close together like I did. But I just don't associate them, partly because they were released over ten years apart and because I just don't see that many connections storywise. Anyway, always good to read differing opinions!

John Mutford said...

Matt, I'm sort of glad someone called me to task on comparing it to Blindness. You're absolutely right that the stories were not similar at all. I should have made that more clear. Though, that there's been an unexplained global tragedy is similar. Most of the similarities I saw were stylistic ones: in particular, the liberties with punctuation and the ambigious character titles. Really though, most of the similarities that I reported are probably common in all works of dystopian fiction. I really don't think McCarthy tried to plagiarize or even mimic Saramago. Perhaps I just need to take longer breaths between such books.

Imani said...

Funny you mentioned the air of superiority in Ishiguro's novel. I didn't pick that up, frankly, but I still left the book unimpressed because of the writing. I like a writer with style and, if that's not their thing, a really strong "voice". Ishiguro had neither so while I was gripped by the story -- I did not know about the big "secret" going in -- that was pretty much all that was holding me to the very end.

I don't read a lot of dystopian fiction (well, any) or science fiction so that aspect was fairly novel for me.

I don't even own the Ishiguro anymore, bartered it at a used book store.

Kelly said...

I am on the fence as to whether or not to read this one.

John Mutford said...

Imani, I felt that too often Ishiguro toyed with the reader and too blatantly at that. Ever see a bully hold a kid's lunch money up in the air and then laugh at him when he jumps? I imagined Ishiguro as said bully with me as the victim. But he only took about $1.25 from me so I ended up just walking away 'cause the tire swing was finally free. (Okay, so I get carried away with my analogies.) Also, there were times I thought he was using the characters simply as mouthpieces for his own views (especially on teachers).

Myutopia, I know a certain talk-show host that thinks you should. I say you'll have to decide for yourself. If you do though, I'd love your thoughts.

Dewey said...

I felt very ambivalent about this book too. I certainly don't consider it Pulitzer material though I do have SOME positive feelings about it.

Chris said...

The style bothered me for several reasons. It's that I don't "get" or read modern fiction or that I found it difficult (in fact, it was a very quick read). What really bothered me was that the style and POV had, to me, no attachment to the story. It was obviously "narrated", but by who? Who was telling the story and why was he telling it in that way. All post-apocalyptic stories, from On The Beach to The Road Warrior are about the same themes. Was there anything new here? Did the modern lit-fic style contribute anything? I don't think so.

Here is my full review

John Mutford said...

Here's the review from The Inside Cover.