11.03.2006

The Road

Has anyone read Cormac McCarthy's new novel? I finished it last week. I was pretty excited about it -- a load of glowing reviews talking about how he was getting back to his roots (whatever that means -- The Orchard Keeper, maybe?), and claiming that The Road was his greatest achievement besides Blood Meridian.

I started reading McCarthy in college, on the recommendation of Phil Jackson. This wasn't a personal recommendation -- I'd just read an article in which the Zen Master lauded some strange writer. So I picked up the first book I found at the library, All the Pretty Horses, and it stunned me: western myth, romantic, weird gnostic demons huddling in pools when characters puke, and oh those pure simple horses. Nothing personal, Grendel, but Gus McCrae just don't hold a candle to John Grady Cole. I read The Crossing and loved it, and then Blood Meridian, which still freaks me out. Then Suttree a couple years later, which sealed the deal (Outer Dark, Cities on the Plain, Child of God, and the aforementioned Orchard Keeper didn't much do it for me, at least in comparison). Anyway, McCarthy was for years my favorite living writer.

Then he stopped writing and I discovered Nabokov and I went to Iowa and one day Frank mentioned McCarthy. Frank didn't rail against CM or anything -- he just gleefully mocked him in class once, which was a little strange; but still, I thought, Blood Meridian: American Masterpiece. When that new book came out last year, I didn't read it -- it sounded stupid (a crazy guy running around killing people with a cattle prod?). But The Road intrigued me. Friends said it was great. The reviews were solid. So I picked it up.

Today, at this moment, my view has changed: I think McCarthy is at best a blip in American literature. I'm guessing other people who contribute here have always thought this -- maybe some haven't, though. I'd like to hear from anyone interested. For me, the thing about The Road (no plot spoilers, I promise) is that it's quintessential McCarthy only stripped down, and so the novel reveals the simplicity of his entire ouevre: he thinks Evil is everywhere and Good can fight it but will lose. Kierkegaard it ain't.
To me, The Road is like Blood Meridian but with only a couple 'characters', and now the physical world is itself the Judge (or maybe The Road is like The Crossing . . . or maybe Lester Ballard appears, or maybe we see the crazy killers from Outer Darkness . . . and so the derivations continue). The Road is McCarthy's philosophy -- that's a generous word -- laid out plain, and what it's made me realize is that all his books (save maybe Suttree?) are this same philosophy playing out in absurd circumstances. And also people are really good at rigging things by hand (I bet Cormac McCarthy, if he watched TV, loved MacGuyver.)

I remember another contributor on Earthgoat once being unimpressed by Borges's stories; if memory serves, he thought they were simple philosophies wrapped in fiction; but in my mind, at least Borges is playful. At least he laughs at himself a little. McCarthy is actually serious about himself. He takes his Magneto vs. Professor X vision with the utmost gravity, and now that I feel I can 'see' his project -- and more importantly, it's sad lack of complexity -- even that great book, my long time favorite, Blood Meridian, is little more than a childish indulgence.

8 comments:

Dexter said...

Childish indulgence in the same manner as Faulkner's perhaps. I was worried after reading No Country FOr Old Men that it was going to be McCarthy's swan song especially after the diminishing returns of the trilogy...I enjoyed NO COUNTRY a great deal but it seemed like whole chunks were missing or glossed over and now I feel that perhaps he was experimenting for the sparseness of The Road. I think THe Road is great book. I need to let it soak in a little more and go back for third or even fourth time before I can come up with a cogent arguement why and I also don't want to spoil anything for those who have not had the pleasure yet.

the plunge said...

The Road is a great book. Simplicity and simplistic-ness are not the same thing. It's an elegant book and certainly uncomplicated in many ways, but the small number of issues it deals with--life, death, love, and human nature--well, suffice it to say you could write a book on each of them.

Blood Meridian is a masterpiece of American language and rivals Faulkner in that arena, but it's really a lot of descriptive fireworks, and at least for me, you don't *feel* much reading it except awe.

The Road on the other hand evokes emotions that go down all the way to the bottom of our fears and hopes--not to mention pains and hungers. Dunkeys I think you're wrong that it's a message that evil wins -- the thing that sets it apart from CM's other books is that good wins here, if only in the minutest, almost indetectable way. (Part of the beauty of the victory.)

Moreover, the apocalyptic vision it presents is terribly convincing--not outlandish like Denis Johnson's or Stephen Kings or Mad Max but something that seems almost likely to happen (not saying it will, but if things went to hell, they'd look a lot like this). I think it's a major feat to pull off a non-cliche End Times scenario.

Maybe you don't like it because of the possibility the author has stepped away from the fatalistic, nihilistic worldview that's been his bread and butter and begun, in his winter years, to embrace something more humane?

Tao Lin said...

phil jackson is the coach of the scottie pippen era chicago bulls basketball team

the plunge said...

he's much more than that, depressed person.

dunkeys said...

It's odd that you mentioned Mad Max, because The Road TOTALLY reminded me of that movie; and, too, Cyborg. Anyway, I agree that simplicity and simplisticness are different -- one of my new favorite books is Bright Lights, Big City, and it certainly ain't Henry James. But I think The Road is simple in execution and content both.

I don't think I was disappointed in it in that it's a departure from CM's books -- I think The Road conveys exactly the same world view as his other books. I agree that the end is minutely happy . . . but to say 'good wins', even slightly, is to forget everything but the conclusion, isn't it? The world he's spent two hundred plus pages conjuring still exists, so even if the end is a departure from the evil, I usually have problems with endings that seem to forget all that proceed them.

I don't see any complexity in the depiction of human nature -- the circumstances and the characters are too extreme. He *does* do a great job with hunger -- I'm serious -- but I'd disagree with love and life and certainly human nature. Love, for instance: he chooses a very simple version of love -- father for son. It's pure unconditional love; it's never challenged. In terms of human nature, I also see no complexity, and I don't think we're supposed to: The Man. The Boy. They get scared when scary things happen; happy when good things happen. There's maybe one moment where a character is compromised and in response, the boy refuses to accept this and just sees the compromise as 'wrong'; since he's the novel's moral center, this seems to imply that CM is just as against human complexity and is, again, arguing for 'pure' goodness.

Maybe I'm just overreacting against my own former enthusiasm for McCarthy; it is a habit of mine, to be honest. But still, I don't see much complexity in the novel. Not in the characters, and also not in the world of the novel. As strange as WF's characters are, they are for me so much more realistic than McCarthy's -- as are the worlds around them. Even if their minds are screwy and set in the past, they still have to deal with Canadian roommates and brushing their teeth. How are these characters complex? Or CM's depictions of human nature? I don't see it.

But hey, unless someone decries against spoilers, I'm more than willing to hear examples to the contrary.

the plunge said...

Interesting, Sr. Dunkwell. You are asking me to explain how the thing I am claiming is simple and powerful is also complex. I don't know that it is...I, like you (I think?), like my art complex and heady, but I don't think complexity is necessary for power. In fact, I think it gets in the way of it. Faulkner is most powerful when he's not bushwhacking through his own (awesome) prose. I love powerful/complex language but it's no substitute for a powerful subject. In walks Pynchon, titan-genius of wordcraft, slayer and rebirther of language. But the stories beneath are kind of, uh..., dorky?

I know what you mean about the value of nuance - it gives a story dimension and prevents it from being cookie-cuttered. In some ways The Road is cookie-cutter - it DOES kind of resemble Mad Max on the surface. It definitely borrows from apocalyptic archetypes. But that's what Shakespeare did, didn't he? He took cookie cutters and made human flesh cookies. So goes The Road. Takes a cliche, and makes it feel real, true, probable. And more than that, makes a metaphor out of it. It's not really a story about End Times after all. This is the road of life. It's a barren, sunless world-- but look closely and you'll see the gossamer threads that connect us all. They are even more beautiful than they are fragile.

I think you're right that there's little complexity in the book's depiction of human nature. But there is clarity.

dunkeys said...

That's excellent about Pynchon! I agree and envy your '. . . dorky?' because that's dead-on. Great writer, goofy view of the world; I'd say the same about McCarthy. One could apply that to Kafka and also be right -- but somehow his goofy view of the world is 'better' and more relevant than theirs. Odd. I'd have to think about this more.

As far as liking art that's complex: I think I do, too, usually . . . but then 'complexity' is such a tricky way to designate art. I think "Big Two-Hearted River, part II" is an amazing story and in many ways it's simple, but the simplicity is a thematic decision there; a complex one, even. In visual art: Rothko's paintings -- are they complex? Depends who you ask, right? Aren't they in some ways less complex than "magic-eye" paintings?

In literature, I'd say 'complex' art isn't always better -- it's just more often accurate, or more often appropriate. I feel like I'm stumbling into an understanding of my own reaction to McCarthy, which is a rejection of his world view (too simple) and the presentation of that world view (because, too, the characters and settings are too simple). I'd categorize him as a fablist with a huge vocabulary, when it comes down to it; and fables don't reveal much about human nature.

I'm conflicted on Shakespeare these days because I watched a bunch of adaptations recently, and I hesitate in holding him up as the king of making cliched characters individuals -- maybe he is, maybe not -- but anyway, I'm not sure that's his strength: language might be. It's interesting that you say you like Faulkner when he gets out of his own way (what would be an example?), which sounds like a recent discussion on here: your preferring The Wire to Deadwood. The problem with focusing on 'subject' over 'presentation' is that a subject can cease having relevance. And I imagine that (losing relevance) could easily happen to The Wire; but Deadwood has the pure gleeful beauty of language on its side, which gives it staying power. I'm not 'siding' with Deadwood, nor with 'beauty,' but it's just a thought.

Dexter said...

Amusing poke at McCarthy here...

http://mcsweeneys.net/2006/11/3kennan.html