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.

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