Saturday, November 04, 2006

"Constructed of breath": An incomplete reading of The Road

(Note: This post has its origins--as well as a good bit of its text--in my two comments on Joel Mathis's post on this novel over at his fine blog, Cup o' Joel. (Aside: something that probably interests only me: Are residents of Lawrence called Lawrentians?))

(Another note: Randall of Musings from the Hinterland has begun a series of posts on The Road; here is the first one. Go read it, if only because he's finished reading it.)

The cover for Cormac McCarthy's new novel, The Road, is, hands down, the bleakest cover ever for a McCarthy novel. So of course, McCarthy fans are buying this novel for the artwork alone, knowing they won't be disappointed by what they find inside.

Long-time readers of this blog know that I'm not merely a huge Cormac McCarthy fan, its very title is a poor pun 'pon McCarthy's extraordinary novel, Blood Meridian (Cormac, esteemed sir, if you're reading this, I do apologize and hope you won't beat me up should we ever meet). So, it may come as some surprise to my reader(s) to learn that I have not yet bought The Road. Instead, somewhat homeless-person-like, I've been visiting my favorite Barnes & Noble and reading it until a member of the staff comes over and says, "C'mon, buddy--either move along or buy a latte." Not to worry, good people: this coming payday will make me an honest man.

At any rate, Joel says, and I agree, that The Road is not exactly a butterflies-and-moonbeams kind of novel (All the Pretty Horses is probably the closest he'll get to that sort of mood). But there IS more than despair here. Indeed, this novel has something in it that I truly don't recall ever having seen in a McCarthy novel before: an insistence the power of human love to transcend even the very bleakest, most desperate of circumstances.

It is no accident we find this insistence in a post-apocalyptic novel, whose setting makes Blood Meridian's look like the Garden of Eden, that McCarthy, at age 73, has dedicated to his (very) young son, John Francis.

Below the fold, lots of blithering fandom and, I hope, some worthwhile observations. As the title of this post suggests, I haven't finished reading it, so there's no way I can spoil the end for you.

The plot is very simple: It is some months after an apocalyptic event has occurred. The landscape is literally ash-covered, winter is coming on, food is all but non-existent, and some of the few people alive are cannibals. A father and his pre-adolescent son, the mother having abandoned them some time ago out of her despair over their plight, are heading south out of the Tennessee mountains of McCarthy's childhood. Just, you know, trying to stay alive, just like the rest of us. They have a pistol with them; they had started out with two bullets. Where I stopped reading yesterday, they were compelled to use one of those bullets. Oh--and they've just run out of food.

Yes. As bleak as the cover.

Still and all, I have so far found myself struck and moved by the father's repeated gestures of tenderness for his son transcending the desperateness of their situation. Indeed, it is what keeps him from just giving up. To be sure, the mother's leaving them--she had come to such despair that she decided she would rather die than work for her survival--shows just how fragile love is; no one condemns her for her choice, and the father acknowledges in various ways that continuing to love is, in this world, an act of will and not a spontaneous welling up of emotion. These things are, as the father thinks at one point, "constructed of air." Nevertheless, "tenderness" and "McCarthy novel" are not, in this case, mutually-exclusive terms.

Some readers have seen only the bleakness in this novel, and I'm not at all saying that that bleakness is absent from McCarthy's vision. In this novel, he's literalized the end that he sees us heading for as human beings, no question. But whereas in a novel like Blood Meridian it's hard to see anything other than a despairing nihilism in the human condition, in The Road McCarthy (so far as I've read, at any rate) seems to be making the case that, despite that end, so long as, somewhere out there, someone sees embodied in his children a better future than the present in which they find themselves, there is hope--or at least a source of strength to keep going, to keep trying. McCarthy being McCarthy, he doesn't make seeing this or believing this at all easy. But it's there, as it has never been present before in his work. Moreover, it's all the more persuasive a vision, coming as it does from a writer whose works have historically been so bleak.

The other thing that pleases me about this work is that its language is that of the McCarthy of old. Imagine a fusion of Faulknerian vocabulary and Hemingway-esque economy and you have some sense of McCarthy's style: a prose that, to my ear, begs to be read aloud; at its best, it's as though he has the King James Bible's language in his head as he writes. That voice makes its return here, sounding much more powerful and committed than in his last two novels, Cities of the Plain and No Country for Old Men. It's a bit more spare but otherwise is easily on a par with what are in my opinion his best two novels, Outer Dark and Blood Meridian. Neither of those novels is for the physically- or philosophically-squeamish, either, but each of them, as Joel says of The Road in his post, renders the most horrific stuff in such beautifully-crafted language that they end up revitalizing that older meaning of "awful"--"full of awe." We cannot help but look, no matter how much we might want to turn away.

McCarthy finds difficult but vital truths in such moments and does not glibly gloss over them. He is fearless that way, and he makes us braver about getting on with the business of living for having dared read him.

One final thing: As I read McCarthy yesterday, I kept finding myself thinking of the speech that Faulkner gave when he accepted the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950. It seemed to me, sitting there, that McCarthy's novel might be taken as an allegorizing of Faulkner's claims. You can find the complete text here, but I have in mind specifically the speech's last two paragraphs:

Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only one question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat. He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid: and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed--love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, and victories without hope and worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.

Until he learns these things, he will write as though he stood among and watched the end of man. I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal because he will endure: that when the last ding-dong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking. I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet's, the writer's, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet's voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.

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Camille said...

hey John,

Thanks for sharing that Faulkner speech. I was just sitting here idly, thinking about my own writing.

Since reading your article, I have even more to think about, and that is a fantastic state of affairs.

Joel said...


I've said a lot over at my place, but I thought I'd add this over here:

There's a lot of talk in the book about who the "good guys" are. But we never really meet any other people deemed to be "good guys," and good guyness resides not so much in being good by any standard we're familiar with, but by being less bad. Or, more bluntly, by being us.

Put another way: No, father and son are not cannibals. They commit, generally, no sins of commission. But the father makes a practice of sins of omission -- chooses the omissions, makes it his lodestar -- even though the son is pleading otherwise.

There's an assumption, in other words, that because the other guys truly *are* bad — though the sins of commission are committed for the same reasons as the sins of omission; we're just picking poisons here -- that them being both other and bad somehow makes *us* automatically good. And I don't think that *necessarily* bears out, within the novel.

So I'm not sure I agree with you that McCarthy is offering hope for the future. He's merely offering the future — without which there's nothing. The choice might be between nihilism and suicide. He chooses nihilism.

In any case, thanks for back-and-forthing with me on this. Even though I've been through with the novel for a week, I've continued to engage it, and deepen my understanding and thoughts of it. Thank you.

John B. said...

Thanks to the both of you for stopping by and commenting.

The Faulkner speech may be the single best thing he ever wrote. I'm glad it gave you some things to think about in connection with your writing.

You're right in drawing my attention to the very hard decisions the father has to make; those are things I didn't even mention in the post, and including them certainly would complicate what I say here.

I will almost certainly write about this novel once I finish it, but for now I'll offer a tentative response to your suggestion that the father commits sins of omission. Sin occurs when one has a clear choice between/among possibilities for action AND has the freedom to act as one sees fit. As I understood the early scene where the father decides not to try and help the dying man, it's not that he isn't willing to do so, it's that he determines that there's nothing they can do to help him: the man is already about to die. The father's hands are tied, both by the dying man's condition and the father and his son's plight. I would argue that his choice is not a sin. Given the totality of their plight, the man feels he has no choice.

R. Sherman said...

Hey, John. Because of you "Blood Meridian" is on order and this one is, as well. In my copious free time.

I've been busy, but have been sitting on some thoughts on apocalyptic fiction which I may post.

Thanks for pointing me to these works.


Anonymous said...

The book is McCarthy's second masterpiece. His first is Blood Meridian. I was reading a reader's guide to it at The Road shows McCarthy at a tender moment. This book although bleak and post apocalyptic is also hopeful. You have to consider McCarthy's life situation. He is a man in his 70's who has a son younger than 10 whom he will not see as a man. The Road is his attempt to deal with this issue. Unlike Blood Meridian where McCarthy was a young angry man and could offer up his nihilism complete and unforgiven, The Road is suffused with morality and hope. A great book. Haunting and elegaic.

Matt Snowden said...

When I read the novel I thought of John Updike's words on receiving the Campion medal in 1997. Updike credited the Christian faith revealed in Barth's theology for telling him, as a writer, "the truth is holy, and truth-telling a noble and useful profession; that the reality around us is created and worth celebrating; that men and women are radically imperfect and radically valuable."

McCarthy's words reveal both the brokeness and value of humanity. As a Christian minister I wept at the beautiful use of language and the naked hope celebrated in the novel.

Thanks for the review.

John B. said...

Thank you for visiting.

Incidentally, Matt is apparently too modest to link to it, but I'll go ahead and do it: his own very thoughtful review of this novel is here.

Anonymous said...

I have to agree that there is hope here. In fact, a lot of hope. I'll post some of my own, more extensive thoughts after finals (sometime after Thanksgiving). But in response to the goodguy/badguy question. Yes, the father does actually do things that leads to the death of others, but what is so remarkable is the boy's challenges. In every single case where a "sin" has been, or might have been committed, the boy challenges the father. Think about this in context. The child has been raised in this absurdly bleak world and yet he has within him an undying, unflinching sense of morality, particularly the value of human life. Which, among other things, makes me struggle to read this as nihilistic.

emawkc said...

I'm late to the conversation I know, but after finishing the book this past weekend, I wanted to add my thoughts on Joel's thoughts.

"So I'm not sure I agree with you that McCarthy is offering hope for the future. He's merely offering the future — without which there's nothing. The choice might be between nihilism and suicide. He chooses nihilism."

I'm not sure McCatthy is offering the future or nihilism. My takeaway was that the post-apocolyptic world ws kind of the backdrop (or lack there of) for the interaction betweek the man and his son. A kind of shaking of the metaphorical etch-a-sketch so that the real story could be set against a background with litterally no distractions.

Anyway, thanks to both Joel and John B. for recommending this book. A ripping good yarn if nothing else.