Thursday, January 3, 2008

Post-apocalyptic McCarthy

I wasn't sure about taking Cormac McCarthy's The Road along on Christmas holiday travelling. The only other novel of his that I've read is Blood Meridian, and while I was tremendously impressed by that revisionist western (discussed in an earlier post) it's not exactly the sort of thing for reading by the Christmas tree in the warm bosom of the family. But I put The Road in the Stack a while back on the strength of rave reviews, and I always just take the next book in the Stack, so McCarthy was my lot. Didn't read on the plane (my daughter is a toddler), but finally got in to it last night and read it in one sleep-interrupted sitting. It's a post-apocalyptic fiction, not very long at 241 pages with lots of dialogue, but plenty of the McCarthy horrorshow to be sure, unflinching assumptions about cannibalism for example. I don't go for violence in my choice of reading as a rule, but reading The Road and thinking back to Blood Meridian I appreciate the function of violence in McCarthy's fiction. Overall his theme is classically existentialist: the universe (notably including many of our fellow human beings) is completely without compassion, mercy, understanding, or any vestige of decency, and it is within that context, under that condition, that morality is possible. A merciless world is the ground of morality and character. It's Kierkegaardian, in The Road it's explicitly Christian. In Blood Meridian there are no "good guys," we stick with the "bad guys," and have to deal with the fact that his rendering is probably closer to the reality of how the west was won than all those western movies we grew up with (not that they're all the same). I was ready for the very worst to befall the two characters (a young boy and his father) in The Road, and that made the ultimate uplift of the story genuinely moving: if we thought that a "happy" ending was inevitable, the book would not achieve the effect that it does. I think I'll do one more McCarthy, his breakthrough western All the Pretty Horses, I'll skip No Country for Old Men but I'm looking forward to seeing the Coen Brothers' movie version. And if you like that one, by the way, check out their early Blood Simple, excellent movie.
Speaking of movies, it so happens that there's a post-apocalyptic movie in theaters right now (what a genre! but it is now a well-developed genre in both literature and film; I wouldn't be surprised if McCarthy was partially inspired by Mad Max). The latest Will Smith vehicle is a big-budget production on the theme of the last man (It's not getting great reviews. Suggestion: rent the movie A Boy and His Dog before going). I wanted to mention two more post-apocalyptic novels that I enjoyed over the past couple of years. First, the excellent Riddley Walker, Russell Hoban's 1980 novel is scholarly, concerned with language and with history, achieving the same sort of linguistic environment as Burgess's A Clockwork Orange while showing how apocalypse might function as a watershed for popular speech, and how damaged language damages thought. McCarthy uses post-apocalypse as a framework for working on his austere themes of violence and moral redemption. Hoban is much more interested in exploring the cultural, artistic, and other implications of the situation. A note to serious readers: I was lucky enough not to realize that my copy of A Clockwork Orange had a glossary in the back when I read it. I would have missed out on half the fun of the book if I'd used a glossary, and so I was careful not to consult the glossary in my Indiana Press paperback of Riddley Walker until I was done reading. Remember those people in high school who didn't like reading Shakespeare because it was too weird?
The other book I'm thinking of is David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, that was short-listed for the Booker Prize in 2004. It's about post-cataclysmic (anyway) futures, among other things, but it's sui generis. It's a number of narratives - an 18th century explorer's yarn, a 19th century rogue's progress, a future dystopia where the North Koreans emerged to dominate the North Pacific, and a post-apocalyptic Pacific even farther off in time, among other things. They are woven together in subtle ways, with puzzles to discover if you like that sort of thing (as I do). The virtuosity is in the accomplishment of multiple literary styles laid out side by side. A fun read.