Wednesday, July 11, 2007

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.


Blogger mary grimm said...

Read Memoirs of a Survivor instead! I really loved that--did you? I didn't like the Shikasta stuff though--too heavy handed.
I've only read one Cormac--Blood Meridian, I think. I was impressed, but put off, if that makes sense.

July 12, 2007 12:49 PM  
Blogger Maureen McHugh said...

Yes! I did love Memoirs of a Survivor! It was a strange and disturbing book in all the right ways.

If there is a genre of these books, Geek Love is in there, also--although a very different book.

July 12, 2007 1:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Chance Morrison wrote a little review a few months ago. It's a locked entry, I don't know why... maybe we could convince her to unlock it.

July 12, 2007 2:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anyway, I especially liked what she had to say about McCarthy flinching at the end.

July 12, 2007 2:34 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

"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'm not sure I get this part, if only because I don't begin to understand what it means to use tropes in a "genre way", much less a "non-genre way." If we were talking about mystery or romance or (stretching the point) maybe even horror, I could see a case for there being a special "genre way" to use their tropes, not because there's anything wrong with those genres, but because part of their genre definition has to do with what sorts of plots/intended effects are involved. (So, maybe, a story about werewolves or vampires that's not supposed to be scary would be a non-genre use of a genre trope...although, of course, these days 99% of books about werewolves or vampires published within genre aren't intended to be scary, so that's probably a bad example.) By contrast, if we're talking about speculative fiction in general, what makes sf sf ordinarily doesn't seem to have anything to do with what sort of plot structures are being used or what sort of effects are intended.

In practice, there seem to be two standard ways to delineate sf from non-sf. One being that it the sf uses premises other than contemporary or historical realism, the other being that the sf is the stuff sold in the sf sections at bookstores. (The second gets some strange results, like recent Neal Stephenson being sf and recent Michael Chabon being non-sf, but it at least has the virtue of not trying to make marketing categories more meaningful than they are.) But, even granting the existence of exceptions, do most genre writers use genre tropes in some special genre way easily distinguished from the way that writers who primarily do mainstream stuff use the same tropes when they slum? It strikes me that all sorts of different genre writers use similar tropes in all sorts of different ways, and I'm not sure what pattern is supposed to emerge of special non-genre uses that the likes of Roth, Niffenegger, Attwood, Chabon and Lethem are supposed to be putting them to.

Was, say, Ian MacLeod using genre tropes in a genre way in the "Summer Isles" and Philip Roth using pretty much identical tropes in a non-genre way in "The Plot Against America?" If so, I'm not sure I grok the difference.

July 13, 2007 5:53 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

...and, come to think of it, the last vampire book I read where the vampires were actually intended to be scary was Elizabeth Kostova's "The Historian," which was published as mainstream lit. (And, if fact, Kostova wrote it for her MFA at U of M.)

July 13, 2007 5:56 PM  
Blogger Maureen McHugh said...

I'd say that one of the major differences between Not Science Fiction and Science Fiction is that in Science Fiction in a post apocalyptic novel, for example, you'd be expected to rigorously extrapolate the results of your civilization ending event--like, is the world radioactive and how did every living plant to turn to ash but the houses didn't.

In Not Science Fiction, you can say that isn't the point.

There is stuff in genre that doesn't bother (J.G. Ballard, I suspect, doesn't really care) and the whole discussion of what is and isn't science fiction is only interesting in a general sense. It isn't rigorous and breaks down at the edges of the genre. (Literary edges, any kind of edges you want to talk about.)

I actually don't believe that science fiction can or should be defined. But there are unmistakably things that I can point to and say, "science fiction!" and we all agree, do the term has some sort of use.

I mostly wanted to make the point that The Road fails me in ways that it would fail an Analog reader and in ways that would fail some (but obviously not all) people who read literary stuff that sometimes uses science fiction tropes but who would genuinely hate a lot of what is in Analog because it doesn't do what they look for in literature.

And I would argue that Philip Roth doesn't do the same thing that a lot of alternate history stories do. But I don't know that I would argue very hard because I didn't like The Plot Against America.

Current genre tropes for vampires are not that they are horrific, but that they are sexy or counter cultural. At least, that's what they were a couple of years ago. Genre tropes, you know, shift over time. :)

July 13, 2007 10:25 PM  
Blogger Christopher Barzak said...

I still think Science Fiction, despite being an imaginative genre, is still a genre more spiritually related to realism, because it calls for logic and realism in the way it delineates its futures or alternate realities. Non-genre sf is more like Kafka, or Emshwiller, which isn't concerned as much with the physical and socially-accepted realities so much as emotional realities and subjective states of mind. There are people who write somewhere in between these two poles, even, I think. I can enjoy any writing from anywhere on the pole, to a certain extent. I haven't read The Road yet, but I'm always so glad to read your reviews of books you've read. Your review of the Tiptree biography sent me out to get it right away. And I loved it for all the same reasons you did. This review of The Road has sort of confirmed some suspicions I had, which allows me to feel okay about not having run out to read it thus far, and to maybe pick it up when I can't find anything else to suit my mood. If I didn't like fiction better than non-fiction in general, I'd beg you to become a reviewer and critic.

July 13, 2007 10:33 PM  
Blogger DJK said...

I think you're very gently saying that maybe this isn't that great of a book--as genre or as not genre. And you're puzzled that it's gotten such a strong positive response by the wider world?
I haven't read the book...but I almost wonder if some of the positive buzz is based around the inherent thrill (grim thrill though it maybe) of the post-apocalypse scenario. McCarthy's name recognition is allowing a lot of people to enjoy this kind of scenario who normally don't have free access to it. In which case it's the power of the trope that works for less veteran readers, whatever the writer's actual skills. Which would make the ultimate irony that it is the genre elements that have the power.
Probably just a wild hair, but that's what reading your review makes me think.

July 14, 2007 2:47 AM  
Blogger Maureen McHugh said...

DJK, yes, exactly. And yes, I think that there is something in the the current times--despair over the current political situation and fear--that make an apocalyptic novel resonate with the masses.

Chris, I'm not a very good book reviewer. Once in awhile I have something to say about a book, but a good book reviewer has a whole set of chops and skills I don't. I did it once for the Washington Post, and it was an eye opening experience. But thanks. I'll continue to post when I have something to say!

July 14, 2007 9:59 AM  
Blogger Ted said...

I agree with Chris about the nature of genre SF. The more closely that a work of speculative fiction adheres to naturalism, the more it feels like genre SF. Conversely, the more that it employs a mode like expressionism, the more it feels more like fantasy or surrealism or non-genre SF.

July 15, 2007 2:23 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

Fair enough.

I suspect that a lot of the reason that the distinction is less obvious to me than it is to others is that so much of my favorite sf-published-as-sf is closer to the sensibilities of Not-Science-Fiction.

I do wonder, though, if there's an analogous distinction to be made about Fantasy vs. the Not-Fantasy published as mainstream lit, and if so, what it would be.

July 15, 2007 6:42 PM  
Blogger Crystal King said...

I had a tough time with this book actually. I read it quickly, which isn't hard because it was quite interesting to me, but I too had all sorts of questions that maybe I shouldn't have been asking. How was the child so self-aware? Some of the questions he asked seemed weird if he had grown up in that environment. And if he didn't and was only recently thrust into the nasty world from some hidden safety haven, what were the circumstances surrounding that? I also thought the ending was just too tidy. It made me a bit angry actually. They go through such hardship all along and then finally someone good comes along just when it was needed. It felt like a bit of a letdown. I mean, I wanted the kid to be ok but the way everything ended just felt too easy.

After reading it I have to admit I was a bit surprised at the reception it's received. My boss knows the person who owns the movie-rights and apparently the movie is due to start filming in the second half of 2008, somewhere in New Zealand. I just can't figure out how they are going to create a post-apocalyptic world in such a lush environment. Will be interesting to see if they can pull it off.

July 15, 2007 7:57 PM  
Blogger Erin O'Brien said...

A dark and mysterious man who is brilliant and so sexy that I take my pants off at the mere mention of his name and with whom I am secretly in love said that he might have respected the book more had the kid eaten the dad at the end.

Fourteen. Glissando. Arch. Indelible.

August 15, 2007 9:18 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Eaten the dad at the end?
Read Memoirs oif a Survivor AS WELL.
McCarthy flinched? Silliness.
the ending is terrible, haunting and void of any real hope - the departure of the father and his knowledge of what he was leaving his son to face...that was terrifying sheer of light. Eating the father at the end? Ruin the book!

August 29, 2007 12:30 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just to give you an idea of my perspective, I've been a Cormac fan since 1985 or so... Blood Meridian was new, but Child of God was my first read. I'm also a punk SF fan... PK Dick, Gibson, Sterling, Jeter, Rucker, Stephenson...

I loved The Road. Scared the crap out of me. Couldn't put it down. Knowing Cormac, was shocked by his ending. This is the first post-apocalypse novel I've read that actually made sense, that I could see as happening. Nothing rang false for me.

November 28, 2007 11:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

PS: Read this thread because I was curious who has the film rights to The Road. Just saw No Country for Old Men and was amazed at how well the Coen Bros translated Cormac's story to the screen. When I first read NCFOM it almost seemed like a screenplay - begging for Tarantino treatment. Joel and Ethan have created, IMHO, the most perfect translation of a novel I think I've ever seen... Kubrick's Clockwork Orange takes a few more liberties to good effect, but the Coens' NCFOM does an outstanding job of sticking to the orig story _and_ pulling off the vision of the novel.

November 29, 2007 12:14 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you! You articulated exactly how I felt about the book, only much better than I've managed. I just kept falling back on, "it's gray. Everything about it is gray." The story felt incredibly done to me and I just could not understand what the point was. This being the first McCarthy novel I've read, it was probably the worst first impression I've ever had of a serious author's work.

March 02, 2009 4:48 AM  
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