I was going to do a review of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road last year, but then got stuck into an email dialogue with China Mieville about it. I then started to write a revised review, but abandoned it; my views on the book had changed as a result of what China said, and it didn’t feel honest to write without some reference to the conversation. So here, in lieu of a review, is a lightly edited version of the conversation (I’ve lost the first email in which I said, as best as I remember, that I thought The Road was great, but since that was the only critical judgement that the email had on the book, I don’t think that posterity is missing out on much). CM denotes China’s bits, and HF mine. NB that this is a personal email conversation (albeit one that’s posted with China’s permission) so the tone is more conversational than it would be in a book review. NB also that spoilers abound. The rest below the fold.
CM – did just read ‘The Road’, actually, and have to tentatively differ with you. I thought it less impressive than the other McCarthy I’ve read. Of course, being McCarthy it’s fantastically written, and a hugely impressive book, and head and shoulders above most of the stuff out there, etc etc, and all the other perfectly true caveats one would rush to add, so this isn’t to say it’s bad, just that I’ve been left feeling unhappy with it somehow. I’ve been pondering why for some time, and I think there are two overlapping reasons, one fundamentally unfair and borderline tongue-in-cheek (though not entirely), the other much more serious.
Unfairly, I think part of the problem is that any writer who is so known for such a distinct prose style becomes prone to self-parody very easily. That is not the writer’s fault, but does mediate ones relationship to their work. So in this case, for example, the prose read so very McCarthy-ly, and the whole book was so precisely McCarthy-does-post-apocalypse that I found myself rolling my eyes at times. This, I repeat, is not fair. Nonetheless I can’t help it. The book didn’t at all, at any points, surprise me, and that was a disappointment.
More fundamentally (and not, I think, unrelatedly),there was something uncomfortably aimless about the book – I could never quite explain to myself quite what the point of the book was, or even if it actually had one. The reason, I think, is this – the Apocalypse (moral, personal, sympathetic-geographical, et al), is the absolute horizon of all McCarthy’s fiction. Whatever book, what glowers at you from the edge of the fiction-event is Apocalypse. Which is what gives all his work that sense of foreboding, of inexorability, of existential fear and bad-revelation. The problem with The Road is that it’s set after that Apocalypse, which makes it a very peculiar phenomenon – it is post-telos fiction. McCarthy has reached the end event of his problematic, gone past it (in fact, interestingly, leapfrogged it) and as such, the book has nowhere to go, and nothing ahead from which to fail to avert its gaze. It is virtuoso in its prose, but slightly unsure of where to put its feet.
This is what explains its (to me) aimlessness – it’s a kind of bad-numinous flipside version of the familiar problem of depicting a post-revolutionary utopia for a radical writer. Both (tellingly) avoid the rupture-moment itself, and just as there’s something unsatisfyingly banal about most utopias, there’s something, frankly, not bad enough about McCarthy’s dystopia. Formally it’s all there, of course – a kingdom of ash, darkness, cold… but, but… well, sure, but we’ve already walked through or at the very least toward a kingdom of ash, in Blood Meridian, in Suttree, in All the Pretty Horses, The Orchard Keeper, et al, so if what is there at the BAD BAD END OF THE WORLD is in that sense familiar then there’s a faint sense of disappointment.
This overlaps back to the question of prose, because if that’s the case at the level of existential thematic, then in the absence of that horizon, in a new time of post-inexorability, what the book falls back on is its – startlingly good, as ever – prose. But startlingly good ‘McCarthy-esque’ prose without the pull of that awe-ful tips over easily into a kind of stylistic kitsch.
It’ll be interesting to see where he goes next. It’ll be quite hard to step back from this, back to another pre-Apocalypse moment, however conceived. Perhaps a drawing-room comedy…
CM – I mean, didn’t you think the roasted baby was just, y’know, a little bit camp?
HF- My take – it does go over the top in some ways, but is still brilliant (albeit not up there with Blood Meridian, which imo is the best thing he’s done). But the flaws that I see are a little different from the flaws that you see. I agree on the campness of the broiled baby, and even more so of the amputees in the cellar. The latter annoyed me, in part because my sfnal instincts made me ask practical questions- how is this kind of cannibalism sustainable – presumably you’ve got to feed your victims something if you want to keep them alive, which sort of defeats the purpose of the thing (far smarter, if you adopt the logic of the cannibals to just butcher em and smoke em). But some of the other stuff you said, I disagree with. First, the prose – it seemed to me that for large swathes of the book at least, this wasn’t McCarthy-doing-post-apocalypse, but an interesting progression. He managed to subordinate the baroqueness of his earlier work within the clear, simple sentences of his later stuff – it’s still there, but it’s tighter because it’s under control. More generally, I think he managed to do something in the book that he hasn’t before – that is, to combine the more intimate style of All The Pretty Horses etc with the larger canvas of Blood Meridian. As I say, Blood Meridian is utterly staggering in a way that this isn’t – but it doesn’t have anyone who even approaches being a well developed character (the kid is pretty passive; the Judge is magnificent, but he’s a personification, not a person). This does rather better, I think. I’ll admit that it hit me hard in part because of the father-son relationship – I was reading it in spurts in between looking after our ten month old, and doubtless prone to a certain sentimentality because of that.
But onto the more serious point – I didn’t find the book aimless at all. In fact, the parts that I thought didn’t work were bad not because they were aimless, but because they were too unsubtle in their aim. Here, I think Kennedy’s review in the NYT had it at least half right – this is a weirdly religious book. It’s a sort of messiah-story. Where Kennedy gets it wrong, I think, is that he expects that there’s some sort of redemption that’s going to happen after the book is over. What I think McCarthy is trying to do is to figure out what kind of religion is possible when there isn’t any redemption, there isn’t any future. I think he’s been a religious writer for a long time, in the sense that say Kafka or Beckett are religious writers; not because they believe in God, but because for them it’s an important, fundamental thing that there is no God. The key passage for me in the book is on p.158 of the US edition where the father finds and abandons a horde of books in a ruined library when he realizes that they’re meaningless.
He’d not thought the value of the smallest thing predicated on a world to come. It surprised him. That the space which these things occupied was itself an expectation. He let the book fall and took a last look around and made his way out into the cold gray light.
These sentences, for me, are classic McCarthy. The religious and the profane are both contained in the phrase “world to come,” but the latter undermines the former – the promise of religion is really, when you look at it hard, premised on the idea that there is going to be a secular future in this world. And there isn’t going to be that kind of future, not for anyone. The book seemed to me to be a working out of this theme – what kind of faith is possible in a world where there isn’t any future to believe in? McCarthy’s answer is a version of “I can’t go on, I’ll go on” elevated to a religious creed. Preserving the small things in life, the simple kindnesses, for as long as you can, is all that you can hope for. There isn’t going to be any redemption at the end of days where the world is transcended. The transcendent world was the physical world that has been completely and irrevocably lost, the world of trout streams and boat journeys made in silence with older men.
Thus, I think that the book has a structure, for all its apparent aimlessness. It’s a parody without laughs of the 40 days in the desert, but one where the messiah isn’t going to come back from the wilderness and gloriously redeem everything. The wilderness is all that is left. It’s pretty clear that the son is some kind of messiah-figure, but his miracles consist of staving off the inevitable, and preserving a space for the small human decencies. And here too, is where I think the book’s flaws lie. Not in its aimlessness, but in the seriousness with which the father and son repeatedly talk about “how they are carrying the fire.” Religious camp, as opposed to horror-camp.
CM- Your countercrits are well taken, and I certainly agree with your view of it as a religous book. I still stand by it being post-Telos, however.
As to your thing about fatherhood, I think I probably have the opposite reaction. Not being a father, and having grown up without a father, i have a kind of knee-jerk loathing for anything which smells of father-son sentimentality. This as you can imagine gives me a problem with many Hollywood films… In this case, for example, I found the use of the term ‘Papa’ absolutely sick-making. This, I freely acknowledge, is probably my problem. However, I still maintain that the sentimentality of that relationship tipped over too far.
(And also with the religiosity it tips over sometimes – ‘we carry the fire’ – ew.)
There was also a cheat – the kid, who grew up under this post-apocalypse deadness, is emotionally a child from now. His horror at, for eg, the cannibalism, his empathy with the old man, etc, were not the reactions of a child who had grown up in that place. He was looking with our eyes. Now I know that makes sense in structural terms – the messianism. However, it doesn’t, I think, make sense in emotional terms.
HF-The bit about the kid’s falseness is interesting. I hadn’t really thought about it, but if it’s right (and I think it is), it defeats McCarthy’s purpose of arguing that something carries on, even without the hope of a future. If the only way that you can have that something carrying on as you would like to is to slip in a ringer, then it really suggests that he is, in the end, consoling himself, even as he thinks that he’s being admirably tough and brutal.