Britain's first book blogger (November 2000)

Monday, June 18, 2007

The Road to nowhere

The weekend before last, I picked up a library copy of Cormac McCarthy's The Road. I do this quite often when much-talked-about novels appear on the shelves. Usually, I read a few pages and then chuck them aside, pleased and disappointed that once again my prejudices have been confirmed. But this time, I read every page, almost in one sitting. I didn't want the book to end. I would have been happy with 500 more pages of the boy and the man trudging through the grey dust in search of the future. Maybe I should try The Border Trilogy again. But I think it was the treatment of the subject that I enjoyed above all.

A couple of months ago, Ed Champion complained that McCarthy's mainstream prominence with this book, and Roth's with The Plot Against America, has a strong element of critical hypocrisy. Both writers, he says, "use genre" to "sustain their literary worth" yet "critics and enthusiasts" are "now in the practice of declaring genre lesser or worthless". I wrote a comment that I quarter-regret. McCarthy is worth reading.

While The Road begins with a post-apocalyptic scenario, it is no more genre than the same scenario in Beckett's Endgame. We're not told why the world is the way it is. That's not important. McCarthy maintains an admirable resistance to explanations. Flashbacks to a better life are minimal and nowhere in their wanderings do the man and boy meet communities of studded-leather wearing bikers or any blood-thirsty tyrant with servants summoned with two claps. I dreaded the resort to character and plot invariably assumed by such a scenario. But it never came.

The book does have its faults, entirely in the poetic interludes. One paragraph includes a reference to "mummied" figures (rather than "mummified" - though perhaps that is an Americanism) that were like "victims of some ghastly envacuuming". Some critics and enthusiasts might assume these constitute the necessary disguise of literary fiction, but the lack of an explanation is the truer distinction.

3 comments:

  1. "Mummied" isn't an Americanism.

    The OED's kind of interesting: first entry is as an obsolete version of "mummified" (from 1611 in Coryat's Crudities); second is "In extended use" (Hardy in Return of the Native: "They were the mummied heath-bells of the past summer, originally tender and purple, now washed colourless."); third is the use of "mummified" as in fruit ("dried and shrivelled, esp. as a result of brown rot"). Maybe McCarthy means the second or third? I haven't read the book, so I can't say.

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  2. "While The Road begins with a post-apocalyptic scenario, it is no more genre than the same scenario in Beckett's Endgame. We're not told why the world is the way it is. That's not important. McCarthy maintains an admirable resistance to explanations."

    Then by this standard, to use a commonplace horror film, George Romero's "Night of the Living Dead," by way of failing to explain why the zombies have risen from their graves, is also not genre. Because Romero does not tell us "why the world is the way it is" and one can argue, as Stephen Harper at Bright Lights Film Journal (among others) has, that the apocalyptic scenario is merely a prism with which to view race relations and social changes through a Swift-like metaphor of cannibalism.

    The point of my post is that plenty of metaphors and literary value can be found within so-called genre fiction, if one looks hard enough. There is a long history of innovation along these lines that has been overlooked because genre has been ghettoized through extremely odd qualifiers -- such as your notion that conditions which remain unexplained therefore make a novel "literary."

    So if a novel along the lines of Richard Flanagan's "The Unknown Terrorist," which is deliberately literal but has much going on underneath its surface (including very explicit parallels to Heinrich Boll), should we throw it into the pulp pile?

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  3. Well I don't think I was being prescriptive in what separates "The Road" from the penny dreadfuls of our age. Its refusal of explanations is part of that separation.

    I haven't seen "Night of the Living Dead" but I'm quite prepared to believe that it is as Stephen Harper says it is - but that doesn't make it literary, as such social criticism can be applied to every item of culture. What separates "The Road" and "Endgame" is that such explanations don't suffice.

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