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One of the Guardian Unlimited Books' top 10 literary blogs: "A home-grown treasure ... smart, serious analysis"

The Bookaholics' Guide to Book Blogs: "Mark Thwaite ... has a maverick, independent mind"

Wednesday 22 November 2006

McCarthy's The Road

Is it worth mentioning science-fiction, worth invoking that term, when talking about Cormac McCarthy's new novel The Road? I've been wondering this whilst pondering what it is I want to say about this very gripping book. Max has already briefly reviewed the title here on RSB, but I wanted to say something myself, and I wondered whether I would have to frame what I was going to say through a discussion of "genre".

The reason one might want to invoke genre is that The Road is set in what would seem to be a post-apocalyptic landscape. In his review, Max mentions Steven King's The Stand, but "post-apocalyptic" landscapes are rife in sci-fi and beyond, from Mad Max to Richard Matheson's I Am Legend. As the man and his son walk down the mostly empty road, searching for food and for a future (and isn't searching for the future also searching for a meaning?), the event of the recent past that has destroyed (their/our) civilisation is not named. But we ourselves live in a world still full of nuclear (and other) weapons and we think we know what a huge nuclear war would do to our world. And we've seen the films and read other books and those pictures help us clearly to see the world of The Road, the sci-fi world where McCarthy's characters walk.

As soon as one invokes "genre", however, the term begins to collapse in front of you and in the face of good writing. Literature is the antidote to genre, not because there can't be good genre writing, but because writing that is true to itself must focus first on its own realisation not on its submersion within genre's commonplaces. Invoking sci-fi to talk about The Road would mean, perversely, that we were not talking about The Road and its singular effort at all.

The pace and the rhythm of McCarthy's book are extremely well-handled. Short paragraphs, verb-free sentences (compare Hemingway, of course, but also Bellow), staccato phrasing, barely a comma, or a sub-clause, in sight: all these punch the work along. But McCarthy has his clumsy moments ("In the nights in their thousands to dream the dream of a child's imaginings, worlds rich or fearful such as might offer themselves but never the one to be.") as well as his more poetic ("He thought that in the history of the world it might even be that there was more punishment than crime..."). He is also unafraid, within such ostensibly clipped writing, of working his complex lexicon: discalced; isocline; loggia; piedmont; torsional. Simple, "muscular" writing is thought to be transparent, to allow the story to the fore, but McCarthy's writing here (I don't know his other work) is not nearly as simple as it pretends. Not nearly as simple, say, as the terse conversations he reports between the man and his sometimes obmutescent son. Indeed, there is a quiet tension between their curt, taut dialogue and the novels concise, condensed yet sometimes gnomic phrasings ("The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running.") This tension is between what the man and the boy say, what they can possibly say, and what they are beginning to lose how to say (what use for the word "crow" when there are no crows in the world?) As much as anything else, The Road is about fathers and sons and what they do and don't say to each other, what they do and don't bequeath to and receive from each other.

Plot-wise there is something almost Godot-esque about the man and the boy, mendicant, starving, fearful, walking the road, making camp for the night, occassionally coming across a house or an abandoned town, sometimes finding some food, or something useful, sometimes coming across -- and having to flee from -- other "survivors". And then walking on: sleeping, waking, walking. McCarthy manages to keep his repetitious, spare plot free from tedium by keeping his language surprising, his detail accurate (the man is very good with his hands; his practicality, painstakingly described, keeps him and his son alive), and giving the narrative a sense of perilous foreboding achieved by the lack of overarching description brought about by an almost free indirect style (third-person narration so close to a character's thought and perspective that it resembles first-person telling): we are as unaware as the man and the boy are as to what may be around the next corner.

So, this is an accomplished piece. And we might well expect this. But is there more here? Max called the novel a "contemporary masterpiece" and applauded its "searing humanity and compassion", but he didn't really justify his hyperbole and I'm not sure I feel compelled to defend his words. I certainly used to feel I had to make grand judgements when I first started reviewing books (when I worked for (five long years for) Amazon), but I'm less keen to do so now. I'm happier with less conclusive judgements: art and (un)certainty and all that ...

Sleeping, waking, walking. And walking on. Sleeping and waking in the face of a disaster. And in the wake of the disaster, going on. Giving your continuing some semblance of sense by creating a goal (at the end of the road, the coast) and walking towards it. This is what we all do, how we all live. And as we walk, we talk to others -- strangers or sons -- who also walk the road, also create their own reality as they continue on. And when we talk our language is often too clumsily simplistic to explain what we really mean. And sometimes our silence is pregnant with a meaning that needs few words. It is no doubt rather pat, but we are all on the road.

But I don't want to end there. I also want to remember that on the night of February 26th 1991, at the end of the first Gulf War, Saddam Hussein's government announced that it was withdrawing from Kuwait. The surrendering soldiers, returning to Southern Iraq, down the Basra road, were massacred in their thousands by the US airforce bombing them from above. Some roads are far more dangerous than others.

Posted by Mark Thwaite

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Memorial Tablet

Squire nagged and bullied till I went to fight,
(Under Lord Derby’s Scheme). I died in hell—
(They called it Passchendaele). My wound was slight,
And I was hobbling back; and then a shell
Burst slick upon the duck-boards: so I fell
Into the bottomless mud, and lost the light.

At sermon-time, while Squire is in his pew,
He gives my gilded name a thoughtful stare:
For, though low down upon the list, I’m there;
‘In proud and glorious memory’... that’s my due.
Two bleeding years I fought in France, for Squire:
I suffered anguish that he’s never guessed.
Once I came home on leave: and then went west...
What greater glory could a man desire?

-- Siegfried Sassoon
Collected Poems (Faber and Faber)

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