Tuesday, August 30, 2011

100 Books 48 - Cormac McCarthy's THE ROAD

I'm not sure what we did to deserve the punishment McCarthy has meted out to us in the form of this bleak, bleak book, but I am sure we're sorry.

Oh, there are candidates of course -- fossil fuel dependency, deforestation, soil abuse, war, industry, monoculture, nuclear energy and weaponry, your onus here -- but McCarthy has been at pains to conceal the culprit/culprits for the utter devastation of the world's entire ecosystem down to, it would seem, the soil bacteria. All is ash and ruin, a few sorta-survivors picking through the mess for canned food and gasoline and matches. We're not meant to know how or why it happened; we're meant to suffer its consequences helplessly along with the nameless man and his son as they trundle a cart full of scavenged goods along what's left of a major highway, following the ancient homing instinct south and to the sea. And suffer we do through what has to be the bleakest book ever.

I had to admire it though, even as it nearly drove me mad (both with despair and annoyance), for the artful way in which this perfect bleakness was accomplished, even as the gimmick used irritated the hell out of me. For, you see, I've probably used as many verbs in this blog post -- or will have by the time it's done -- as McCarthy did in the whole damned book; a good 85% (no, I haven't done the math; just what I feel is a fair figure) of the text is sentence fragments.* Verbless fragments. Over and over. The constant lack of verbs. The repetitiveness a constant grind. And then every once in a while a lone, complete sentence for which the reader becomes absurdly grateful. The complete sentences sparse and uncommon like cans of food in the wasteland.


But I see what you did there, Mr. McCarthy. Oh yes. That's your fancy (and absurdly difficult, as I just proved to myself above) way to convey the complete lifelessness of the landscape; when nothing lives, nothing can act, and when everything is ash, nothing can really be, either, so why muck about with verbs, which only appear in this book in the odd complete sentence in which the man or the boy or, very rarely, one of the other hostile humans they encounter, is acting or being.

I admire the patience and determination writing like that must have taken, and as ideas go it's very literary and highbrow, but in practice, as a reader, again I say: whatever it was I did, I'm sorry.**

*For a long time I gnashed my teeth at this and wanted to shake everyone who told me this was a good book until his or her teeth rattled; the same reaction I had to Annie Proulx's awful The Shipping News, a book in which Proulx seems deliberately to have used as few pronouns as possible. Did McCarthy see how much praise she got for that book, I asked myself, and decide he needed a similar reader-punishing gimmick? And the thing is, despite my eventual admiration as outlined above, I'm still not sure this isn't the case. He could have set out to write a novel with as few verbs as possible, and just happened to find the perfect milieu and material for it, for all I know. Oh, and since this is my first McCarthy book, for all I know this might be his style all the time, in which case ARRRRRRGH.

**You may have noticed my blog posts getting shorter lately. I have been diagnosed with lateral epicondylitis, aka tennis elbow but when it's an office worker like myself being diagnosed they call it mouse elbow. Whatever you want to call it, it hurts like a sonofabitch, further complicated by my allergy to most pain medication and such a bad shortage of workers available at my day gig that overtime is practically mandatory. So typing this post has taken a very long time indeed, mostly pecked out with one hand, and it seems appropriate to mention this here as I ponder this most punishing and painful read I finished today. Except, well, the read had its bleak sense of reward whereas the elbow just keeps on hurting.

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