Friday, April 18, 2008
By Cormac McCarthy
Vintage International, $14.95 paper
After September 11, 2001, I lost my faith in fiction. What story created in the laboratory of an author’s brain could match the intensity, tragedy, sheer terror, and heroism of that day? The real story far outstrips anything I have ever read. Even the congressional report makes for edge of the seat reading.
For fiction to regain its place, I felt authors had to somehow recognize what happened on that day, at least subconsciously, even if the actual novel had nothing to do with September 11 or terrorism. Our collective conscience now included the vision of the aircraft flying into the side of those iconic buildings. Everything fictional would now be measured against that, and I could not see how fiction could best the frightening absolute truth.
Cormac McCarthy restored my faith in fiction. In his novel, The Road, he establishes a standard for fiction in an era of terrorism and post-9-11 recoil. The novel centers on a boy and his father, walking through a barren, ashen world after some kind of holocaust. Nuclear? We do not know. A global war? Nothing is certain. An environmental disaster? That is a strong possibility. The description reminds me of predictions I heard in high school at the end of the Cold War about nuclear winter, where after the weapons of mass destruction detonate, the world is left with so much debris in the atmosphere that the earth is covered in ash, lakes and rivers dry up, and nearly everything is dead or dying.
The boy and his father remain nameless throughout the story. They speak in short, elliptical phrases without quotation marks or apostrophes. Their speech contains few adjectives and consists mostly of flat, declarative sentences. It is clear from the beginning that they are the “good guys” carrying “the fire.” The others left alive are cannibals scouring the earth for victims.
“What would you do if I died?” the boy asks his father.
“If you died I would want to die too.” McCarthy channeling Hemingway in a post modern, or post, post modern world. The Road is set in a new frontier. He dares to imagine the unthinkable: what if we move past the paradigm of 9-11? What if our greatest fears were realized? This is also the soul quest of fiction: to imagine the unthinkable.
Do we think McCarthy’s imagination has run wild? Take a look at New Orleans. It does not take much to destroy the fragile infrastructure of America. We might be a first world nation, but recent events have shown us our vulnerability. McCarthy, like Don DeLillo, dares to extrapolate out beyond the news loop of towering buildings imploding, spewing the dust of human remains and a firewash of jet fuel. What will happen to us after everything falls away, the proverbial end of days?
In flashback is the moment when the world we recognize ended. “The clocks stopped at 1:17. A long shear of light and then a series of low concussions. He got up and went to the window. What is it? She said. He didnt (sic) answer.” The description is reminiscent of the 1983 film, Testament, starring Jane Alexander. The end comes with a flash on the horizon followed by a spreading death that seeps into the living unseen and takes them silently, helplessly.
The boy’s mother kills herself in a flashback. In the first agonizing days after the event, she loses hope. She cuts herself with “a flake of obsidian.” The boy realizes she is gone. Now he is with his father, and they are “each other’s world entire.”
In lean language, there are moments of ethereal beauty in McCarthy’s prose. “All things of grace and beauty such that one holds them to one’s heart have a common provenance in pain,” he writes, describing the father contemplating his new existence in this world of chaos and anarchy. “Their birth in grief and ashes. So, he whispered to the sleeping boy, I have you.”
The novel’s pacing is slow and ponderous; acts of violence and depravity are seemingly random, and sneak up on the reader. From around a bend in the road come encounters with human beings gone mad, beyond the scope of animalistic behavior.
The duo encounter a cellar used as a human meat locker. The victims crouch waiting in the sour darkness. The captors come down periodically and hack off a limb for a dinner. Human beings squat there in the cellar, waiting for death.
They pass human remains along the road, burnt to a crisp, desiccated by the dry climate and burning ash. At first the father tries to shield his son, but then both develop an immunity to the horrors. They pass the corpses like so much dead foliage.
The two also encounter remnants of human decency. On the verge of starvation, they happen upon an undiscovered air raid shelter behind a house. Inside are clothes, food, batteries, radios, a gun and other necessities for this post-apocalyptic world. The father rounds up the supplies and places them in an old grocery cart. The boy wants to thank the people who made the shelter, but he realizes they are probably dead.
In the end, what is the point of such a novel? Where is the hope? Ultimately, is McCarthy trying to show us our end, the destruction of the fabric of all humanity, all our greater notions of humanistic achievement wiped out by the flash of a splitting atom?
Novels like this are inherently hopeful, even though a hopeful word may not be found in the entire text. There is hope. Even the boy knows this. “Are we the good guys?” he repeatedly asks his father.
“And we carry the fire?”
“We carry the fire.” Even in destruction there is hope.
We must now imagine what our world will be like in the future. The “dirty bomb” becomes reality; nuclear war becomes the go-to option. How do we live with this?
Still, if we imagine our own destruction, are we not responsible for some of its architecture? The terrorists in those planes were the catalysts of destruction. They wanted the world to live in fear. In many ways, they were successful. Now we must imagine what the future might hold. As we travel this road through a new frontier, I can only hope we do not face the kind of world of the father and son in The Road. The book is quite simply stunning in its horror, devastating in its implications, but hopeful in its conclusion.