Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Road

Looking at ads for the movie based on Cormac McCarthy's 2006 novel The Road, Ron and I had a discussion about what we consider a new type of post-apocalyptic fiction, a modern type that has moved away from science fiction and towards horror. The author of this new kind of post-apocalyptic novel is like the torturer on Firefly who says "only in extremity do we see the real you."

But the new post-apocalyptic novel is not about acute pain. It's about the after-effects of such pain. It's about endurance. And just as one long-term effect of chronic pain on a human being is grumpiness, one long-term effect of chronic fear is aggression. The unsettling--yes, even horrifying--thing about a novel like The Road is that readers begin to admire such aggression. We know that the guy who fires first is the one who gets to live.

McCarthy, in his characteristically ruthless way, takes that idea to an extreme to ask whether in a world where aggression is essential for survival, how much meaning is left in survival itself.

In the first hundred pages of The Road, the protagonists, a man and his son, have already pared their existence down to the bare minimum. They walk south because their world is cold and covered with ash from the cataclysm that occurred on the day of the boy's birth. "They used to play quoits in the road with four big steel washers they'd found in a hardware store but these were gone with everything else" in one of their panicked dashes away from the grocery cart in which they push extra canned food and blankets. The cart contained a yellow toy truck, but the boy no longer plays with it. The man wants the boy to have something besides walking south and eating sparely from their scavenged cans of food:
"He'd carved the boy a flute from a piece of roadside cane and he took it from his coat and gave it to him. The boy took it wordlessly. After a while he fell back and after a while the man could hear him playing. A formless music for the age to come. Or perhaps the last music on earth called up from out of the ashes of its ruin."

The man tells the boy "we're carrying the fire." What that means, in practical terms, is the subject of periodic debate. The boy wants to seek out a barking dog he hears and a little boy he thinks he's seen, but he settles for the man's promise that he won't kill them. The boy wants to give their food away to those few old men they meet who appear to be less fortunate, and the man agrees, at one point, although he makes sure the recipient of their charity knows that it comes from the boy, and not him. He and one old man have a conversation about what it means to be alive:
"Suppose you were the last one left? Suppose you did that to yourself?
Do you wish you would die?
No. But I might wish I had died. When you're alive you've always got that ahead of you.
Or you might wish you'd never been born.
Well. Beggars cant be choosers.
You think that would be asking too much."
When the man brings up God, the old man tells him "there is no God."

And yet later, when he's alone with the sleeping boy, the man reverts to his belief in a God or gods. He has to believe that his survival has meaning in order to go on:
"I think maybe they are watching, he said. They are watching for a thing that even death cannot undo and if they do not see it they will turn away from us and they will not come back."

The novel ends when the man can no longer physically go on, and with the promise that the boy's life will continue. But there are things that cannot "be made right again," things in his memory that will remain there. The author has walked this fictional boy down the road of torment to see what could be most "real" about such a person, and my conclusion is that if the boy hardens himself to the suffering of others, he will become like his forbears who destroyed the world. It is his weaknesses, those impulses which could jeopardize his survival, that remain the essence of his humanity.

The Road is a movie I know I don't want to see; I don't want to see the aggression and the blood. The horror. Older post-apocalyptic fiction focused on how terrible the idea of the end of the world is, what might have caused it, and sometimes how to start again. This newer kind focuses on the horrific details of surviving the end of the world, what we face if we just can't quit, if our aggression continues to escalate until that's all we are.


Care said...

Thought-provoking review. I will likely see the movie but I'm not expecting I will be impressed. I hope the fire that they carry is HOPE.

edj3 said...

I know this will sound contradictory, but I don't know that I can read this book--and yes, that's after reading The Wasp Factory. My younger son read it and loved it, he passed the book along to my husband, who also read it and enjoyed it. But I'm not sure that I can myself.

Amanda said...

I had a very interesting experience with this book. I read the first maybe 50 pages? (can't remember exactly) and then I heard it might get gruesome, so I put it aside until I could talk to my sister in law (who had recommended it to me). Prior to putting it down, I'd been strung along by the weird paragraph/sectional breakdown. It was hard to put down. But three weeks later, after I talked to my sis and confirmed I'd be okay reading it, I was no longer interested in picking it up. I realized the story itself hadn't interested me, but that I'd been reading just because of the way the book was set up.

Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness) said...

I haven't read this book, so I'm more responding to the idea of surviving the unsurvivable. One of my favorite tv shows from a couple years ago was Jericho. In it, the United States is hit by a series of nuclear bombs, basically destroying the country. The show takes places in Jericho, a small town in Kansas that's (I think) at the geographic center of the US. The show is about how this town tries to survive and what survival means and trying to preserve a way of life as well as life itself. I thought it was a fascinating show, and fits into some of the things you're talking about. Great post!

FreshHell said...

I haven't ever been able to get into his books. I also know I am not interested in end-of-times/we're-all-doomed type books or movies. Actually, I'm looking for the opposite. I want funny. Not stupid-funny but clever-and-thoughtful-funny. I think I'll pass on this one.

bermudaonion said...

I could read about the aggression and blood, but like you, don't want to see it. I guess I can tone it down in my mind.

Lenore Appelhans said...

I read the book and just recently saw the movie, and I'd have to say I found the book more horrifying than the movie (though I thought it was exceedingly well done). There are some "horrors" pictured in the movie (such as the scene with the captives in the basement), but really, it came more alive for me on the page.

Once you've read the book, I think there is nothing in the movie that can really shock you.

Jeanne said...

Jericho sounds like the old post-apocalyptic novels of the 50s and 60s with the nuclear fears. That seems to be what destroyed the world of The Road, too.

I agree with Kathy that there are things I can imagine but don't want to see.

Alyce said...

This sounds way more intense and horrific than I thought it would be. I may put off reading this one a little longer.

Jodie said...

I think you're right about new apocalyptic fiction focusing on how to survive (I think that kind of fiction has always been around but it's becoming more dominant now). Is it because that seems like a more realistic premonition of the future now do you think, or are writers aiming to warn about what could happen?

Jeanne said...

Jodie, what I'm trying to say is that I think writers and readers believe it's a more "realistic" version of the future--that we'll all have to fight for survival, individually, and the most aggressive individuals are the ones who will survive. (Think of zombie fiction.) I find the idea scary, because it's like we've already given up on saving the world; we've given up on our finer instincts.

Dreamybee said...

Interesting points about the aggression. Even after reading the book, I don't know that the reader necessarily comes away admiring aggression. The boy certainly doesn't, at least I didn't feel like he did. I think he understands it and recognizes the need for it as a last-resort self-defense, but he certainly doesn't admire it in the sense that it's something he strives for. The boy sees that you can survive without being ruthless-they give the old man food, they don't kill the man who stole their belongings, the man at the end helps him deal respectfully with his father's remains-and at the end, it seems that the boy will go on to a brighter future, maybe not a lot brighter, but brighter. At least, that's the feeling I have now after having let it sit for a while in my brain. Right after I finished reading it, I wasn't sure, but that's the impression that I have now.

I see what you're saying about this idea of post-apocalyptic fiction being scary in the sense that authors are now focusing more on what to do *when* it happens than how to survive it *if* it happens. I think I'd still like to see the movie. I suspect (and I'm basing this on absolutely nothing in particular) that the violence will be more hinted at than in-your-face and that the hope will shine a little more brightly than it does in the book. I'll let you know!

Jenny said...

I'm not going to see the movie - although I love Viggo Mortensen very much! - and I doubt I'm going to read the book either. I mean bleakness and dystopia is one thing, but bleakness + dystopia + no quotation marks? One thing too much for me. :P

Jeanne said...

Dreamybee--I thought there were things the boy was not understanding because he's not old enough, and that eventually he would learn that father knows best--eventually becoming just like his father. I don't see any hope for a brighter future at the end of the novel. There are no plants or animals--when the canned food runs out, the humans die (or they eat each other first and then die).

Dreamybee said...

I saw that you responded to my comment and I've been meaning to come back and respond, but I had to think about it for a while...and then I forgot...and then I felt weird because it had been so long...and then...well, here we are! So, sorry for the late follow-up, but I didn't want you to think I'm a hit-and-run commenter!

I totally agree that there are things the boy isn't understanding due to his youth, but I think he understands enough, enough to make his own decisions when the time comes. He's seen that there are choices, and he will have to do what he has to do to survive, but I still think he will allow humanity and mercy to guide him as much as possible.

I guess I'm holding out hope because the catastrophe, whatever it was, didn't wipe out everybody. Some people survived, and they've managed to survive this long. The man and the boy have managed to live a lot off of luck, finding abandoned bunkers and whatnot, but if enough people were wiped out initially, there just may be enough canned goods left in the world to last a good long time if people are willing to look for them rather than kill their fellow man.

Things look bleak at the end of the book, but maybe next year will be the year that grass starts to grow again. Maybe somewhere there's a school of fish living in some weird Bermuda-triangle-like part of the world that wasn't devastated. We know that life can live in the most unexpected of places, in the harshest environments-undersea hydrothermal vents, Antarctic ice-so something, somewhere, must have survived. (Did we learn nothing from Jurassic Park? Life will find a way!) Maybe some day it will all be enough.

Jeanne said...

Dreamybee, I can see what you mean, especially the "life will find a way" bit. It does seem unlikely (and maybe a bit vain) to think that man could ruin nature beyond all redemption. Now I'm thinking of Ray Bradbury's story August 2026: There Will Come Soft Rains, about the renewal of nature once mankind has blown itself to bits.

And I think what you say about the boy not growing up to be just like his father is possible. I'd like to think that. It seemed to me an overly optimistic reading when I finished with Cormac McCarthy, but now it seems a little more likely. McCarthy is so bleak that his tone might have rubbed off on me too much.

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