Cormac McCarthy's The Road
I read Cormac McCarthy's The Road this weekend.
The Road is Not Science Fiction. I happen to like Not Science Fiction books. I like Margaret Atwood's Not Science Fiction, for example. Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow is another Not Science Fiction book (although that's not Mary's decision, that's the publisher's.) I've never read Doris Lessing's Shikasta books (which she says ARE science fiction) but I've read Memoirs of a Survivor and Briefing For a Descent Into Hell. Although it has been years, I liked them, too. I've written some Not Science Fiction, not intentionally. (I thought most of my Not Science Fiction actually was sf, but hey, who am I?)
I was a little put off by the way people talked about The Road. It sounded a little like On The Beach meets Mad Max. A post apocalyptic road trip with lots of violence. I've read Cormac McCarthy--Blood Meridian, The Crossing. After Blood Meridian, I thought that The Road could be pretty horrific.
It's a slim book, big print, about a father and son crossing an ashen post apocalyptic wilderness to get to the coast, although the father is not sure it will do them any good. They travel a very specific post apocalyptic America, including places I've been. A long trip through the Appalachians. But in the end, I was disappointed. The Road is well written, but not extraordinarily well written. McCarthy's flat affect and vivid landscapes are really my kind of writing, usually. But here, the landscape was gray. A lot. Except when it was on fire. I kept thinking of the passage in Toni Morrison's Beloved where the grandmother loves the square of red on her quilt.
I found myself wondering things I don't think I should have been wondering about. All the animal life, birds, everything, is dead. As is all plant life. Bugs? I find myself thinking. Are there no flies? If something killed off all the animals and the plants, how come people are still alive? Was it radiation? But this is Not Science Fiction, and that's one of the things that Not Science Fiction does. It is unabashed about not building a consistent world. I don't mind this--most 'consistent' science fiction worlds break down pretty quickly if you look too close. I don't mind that The Road doesn't bother to explain this. Except I couldn't figure out what it was that The Road was doing.
The reviews of the book talk a great deal about the relationship between the father and the son. This is the heart of the novel. The story of a man who fiercely loves his son. I didn't quite believe in the boy. Children are hard to write about, but this child struck me as too perfect. But then, maybe, I'm thinking, the book isn't working precisely on that level. Lots of perfectly fine literature, transcendent literature, works at things other than psychological realism. (Kafka, for example. Asking why the parents in "The Metamorphosis" don't either figure it out or call an exterminator is missing the point and the power of the story.) In that case, The Road says, 'Don't Give Up!' The world may be ash, but there's hope!
There's hope? Love transcends all? Jesus Christ on a crutch, you think that there aren't people in Darfur who don't love their children? But who die anyway, and whose children die anyway? And we can destroy the whole world and say that Love transcends? Cormac McCarthy never struck me as a sentimental guy--but maybe he's just a guy who hides his sentimentality under minimalist stylistic technique.
In the end I found myself in an uncomfortably place. I get tired of hearing how some writer tried to do SF and didn't do it as well as SF does. I've heard how derivative Harry Potter is, how much better genre writers did it. The truth is, genre writing does genre better than non-genre, but while I started this post with a tongue-in-cheek description of Not Science Fiction, it's entirely possible for someone to use tropes of SF in a non-genre way. I like that stuff. (Just because someone plays with genre conventions doesn't mean that they are really writing Not Science Fiction--or it might be better to say, some people IN SF write Not Science Fiction, people like Kelly Link and Karen Fowler.) But at the end of The Road I kept thinking that this particular book has been done to death in SF.
I wouldn't say don't read it. I'm one small voice. Lots of very smart people love this book. But I didn't.