Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Road to nowhere

I had, actually, been planning on writing something drawing a connection between Cormac McCarthy's best-selling post-apocalyptic novel The Road (which I read a couple of weeks ago) and the recent UN Environment Programme report highlighting a bunch of very bad news about the future.

But it seems that George Monbiot beat me to it.

Cormac McCarthy's book The Road considers what would happen if the world lost its biosphere, and the only living creatures were humans, hunting for food among the dead wood and soot. Some years before the action begins, the protagonist hears the last birds passing over, "their half-muted crankings miles above where they circled the earth as senselessly as insects trooping the rim of a bowl". McCarthy makes no claim that this is likely to occur, but merely speculates about the consequences.

This is, in fact, one of the strong points of McCarthy's novel: its vagueness about the crises that led to the bleak, ash-covered world through which his protagonists travel. (However, it seems to most closely resemble a nuclear winter.)

The Road was my first McCarthy novel, and I have to say that I'm impressed. The spare, restrained language is grimly beautiful. The hushed stillness of a world that has -- except for islands and instances of horrifying brutality -- effectively come to a standstill makes even the smallest gestures of its characters somehow significant.

Having looked around a bit, it seems that there are interpretations of the book which see it as a story of religious faith and redemption. I have to say that I disagree. I admit that the ending left me a bit confused (and perhaps disappointed) at first, as it seemed to betray the novel's hitherto relentlessly hopeless logic.

However, thinking about it in retrospect, the conclusion is far more ambiguous than it at first seems. Rather than salvation, I think the novel's denouement might equally be seen as a mere prolongation of the horror.

Furthermore, its final passage, following immediately upon a character's expression of theistic hope, suggests what might be the author's more grim naturalism:

Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.

It is perhaps too simple, as Monbiot does, to see The Road as simply an 'environmental book'. It is a haunting book about the end of the environment and the collapse of, essentially, everything.

But in a wide-ranging and intriguing essay on the novel at the New York Review of Books, 'After the Apocalypse', Michael Chabon observes,

Horror fiction proceeds, in general, by extending metaphors, by figuring human fears of mortality, corruption, and the loss of self. The haunted house (or planet), the case of demonic possession, the nightmare journey to or through a charnel house, the transubstantiation of human flesh into something awful and foul, the exposed wolfishness of men, the ineradicable ancestral curse of homicidal depravity—all of them tropes to be encountered, in one form or another, in McCarthy's work—trade on these deep-seated fears, these fundamental sources of panic, and seek to flay them, to lay them open, to drag them into the light.
He concludes:

What emerges most powerfully as one reads The Road is not a prognosticatory or satirical warning about the future, or a timeless parable of a father's devotion to his son, or yet another McCarthyesque examination of the violent underpinnings of all social intercourse and the indifference of the cosmic jaw to the bloody morsel of humanity.
Chabon is right that the book is not simply about either of these, and his own focus on the novel's expressions of specifically parental fears is correct enough. But I think that in itself might be too limiting, and a strong element of that latter trope Chabon mentions is obvious: the book is not only about where we might be headed but also about whence we have come and, thus, about who we are.

'There is no God and we are his prophets', says one of the few characters the father and son protagonists encounter on their journey: 'People were always getting ready for tomorrow. I didnt believe in that. Tomorrow wasnt getting ready for them. It didnt even know they were there.'

That's the thing about the universe that many people seem to have a hard time grasping: it doesn't care about us. Human relationships and imagination do, on the other hand, provide meaning, as the book effectively and movingly expresses. But these are fragile things.

I plan to read more McCarthy soon, probably No Country For Old Men, which, I see, is soon to be a film by Joel and Ethan Coen. The trailer looks...well, terrifying. (Considering that McCarthy focuses on the intersections between masculinity and violence, I'm surprised it's taken me so long to pay attention to him. I think this was because I had him pegged as a 'western' writer, and that's not a genre that has typically appealed to me. Time to reconsider...)

One other association occurred to me while reading The Road. It called to mind somehow the music of Tom Waits, in particular his album Blood Money. (If ever there were a soundtrack to the end of the world, Tom Waits would have to be on it.)

The opening track, 'Misery is the River of the World' contains lyrics which could have served as an epigraph for McCarthy's novel:

All the good in the world
You can put inside a thimble
And still have room for you and me

If there's one thing you can say
About Mankind
There's nothing kind about man
You can drive away nature with a pitch fork
But it always comes roaring back again.

And it also contains the beautiful song, 'All the World is Green', which, in the context of The Road, comes across as a fitting lament for a lost world:

The moon is yellow silver
Oh the things that summer brings
It's a love you'd kill for
And all the world is green
He is balancing a diamond
On a blade of grass
The dew will settle on our grave
When all the world is green.

(Tom Waits, 'All the World is Green', live on the David Letterman Show, 8 May 2002.)


R. Sherman said...

I see No Country as McCarthy's statement on where humanity is; The Road as where we are headed.


J. Carter Wood said...

Thanks R.S.! I'll think about that when I get around to reading No Country. (Which will be soon.) Of course, just because The Road is set in the future doesn't mean it can't also be about now. Or who 'we' (as human beings) are. Which is all I meant.

Thanks again.

Graeme said...

Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian is quite possibly his best work, and is well worth the time. The Road was excellent, though.

I gave away my copy of The Road so I can't look up a page reference, but there was a mention of a flash of light that started the catastrophe, so it seems that the book takes place in the aftermath of some sort of nuclear conflict. That said, I don't think what caused the destruction is that important in the context of the book, and I find Monbiot's reading of it to be extremely reductive.

J. Carter Wood said...

Graeme, thanks for the tip. I'm certainly going to read it at some point. I just picked up No Country for Old Men which is excellent so far.

Yes, there is something about a flash (though my copy is at home and I'm not so I can't look it up).

I agree that there is an extent to which Monbiot is being reductive (as I mention) by seeing it as an 'environmentalist' book. It's about many things, and I think the book's suggestive vagueness about the source of the disaster (it hints at it but, in the end, it's not really crucial to know what happened) is part of its strength.

There was a book called War Day by, I think, Whitley Streiber, that I read when a teenager in the 80s that depicted a post-nuclear US. I tried to find it not long ago, but it appears to have gone out of print. I recall it as being very full of technical details about nuclear war (which is scary enough) but lacked something that gives McCarthy's book its real horror.

It's not entirely wrong to see it as having some connection to concerns about environmental collapse, though. The absolute destruction of the biosphere in the book -- as I recall, there is no plant or animal life mentioned apart from a dog and, of course, people -- is one of the most horrifying elements, as it seems to obliterate any (real) hope for improvement. (No plants, no future...)

This might have little to do with arguments over what to do about global warming (and I think McCarthy's far more interested in the psychology of his characters than in the details of the environment anyway) but I was reminded at times of Jared Diamond's Collapse.

Anyway, have to run, but thanks for the comment!