Tuesday, April 10, 2007

What I'm Reading: Cormac McCarthy

My intellectual husband suggested I read The Road by Cormac McCarthy, and I did just to prove that I can take his advice. You may have heard stirrings in the literary community about this book: it has already been shortlisted for book-type prizes, declared a masterpiece, and hallelujah! Oprah has selected it as her newest book club read.

I don't get it. The hullaballoo, that is. I'm fairly sure I understand the novel. The premise is simple: a man raises his son in a post-apocalyptic world. How the world-as-we-know-it ended is irrelevant; it is merely the setting for this novel of a father's devotion to his young son.

I didn't dislike The Road entirely. McCarthy's spare prose is a revelation. It's not terribly innovative; others have a similar style: Hemingway comes first to mind. However, I tend to read authors who fill a swimming pool with words and write like they're meandering in slow laps. Compared with them, McCarthy is a cannonball dive. His prose is piercing and direct and no less meaningful for its brevity.

Still, I don't get the POINT of this dark, depressing novel, and I've read every review I can find to see where I'm going wrong. Why hasn't anyone said that the father and son were unlucky to survive? Their every moment is a waking nightmare, a hell on earth. McCarthy hits his readers over the head with how delicate and sensitive the child is, and how every atrocity he encounters shatters him emotionally. This child was born after the apocalypse; he has never known anything other than starving, freezing, and hiding from cannibalistic "bad guys." He has no memory of a compassionate humanity. For McCarthy to assume, and expect us to assume, that the child retains his innocence for the 5, 6, 7 years (the child's age is never revealed) of his life, which consists solely of grim survival, is nonsensical.

Some reviewers are deeply moved by the care and love the father exhibits for his son. This theme did not strike me as extraodinary, but I blame this failure on my personal experience. I have the good fortune to witness this kind of devotion every day. One critic gushes over a scene in the novel where the father and son have a brief reprieve in a bomb shelter and the father gives his son a haircut. I was flabbergasted by his amazement at this simple gesture and imagined my son and how his father would tend to him in such horrible circumstances. A haircut? Oh, this and so much more.

My third and most controversial point (aren't you glad you stayed with me?) is that I don't think the father and son should be on this road at all. The boy's mother, the man's wife, concluded years ago that suicide was their best option. In a flashback, she tells her husband that all they have to look forward to is being murdered, raped, and eaten, in no particular order. She cannot face that hopeless existence for herself or her family, and she kills herself. Tragically, she does not manage to convince her husband, who carries on with his son in a state of perpetual fear and misery. Try as I might, I can find no understanding for why the father chooses this shadow of a life for himself and his son.


Nic said...

I can't bring myself to even read this book. And quite honestly, I think it stupid that because Oprah heralds a particular book as "worthy," everyone races to purchase. Like "The Secret." Ugh. I could go on and on and on...

Anyway, I love reading too and find that what the masses tend to adore, I detest. I'm reading "The Glass Castle" right now and would recommend that. -nic

Quattro Stelle said...

Thanks for the tip. I'll put The Glass Castle on my list. The Road just won the Pullitzer, did you hear? This should make me feel even more thick-headed, except I remember waiting six months to get a crack at the library's one copy of Gilead, the 2005 Pullitzer-winner, and I hated it, too.