Monday, February 8, 2010

THE ROAD by Cormac McCarthy - lazy, flawed writing praised solely due to celebrity status.

A review of Cormac McCarthy’s ”THE ROAD”   - a unimpressed review of the pseudo-intellectual fawning over an ill written, instant award winner with a razor thin plot, a ridiculously contrived ending and enough gods from the machine to depopulate Olympus. THE ROAD is a testament to how shallow and addicted to herd thought American literary criticism is today.
If imitation is the sincerest for of flattery, then repetition must be the clearest form of vanity. Did the ink even dry on the first copy of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” before it was acclaimed and exulted? Lined up like fashion critics at the unveiling of the emperor’s new clothes, the reviews heaped praise upon the “stark beauty” “dark poetry” “grim allegory” “epic minimalism” etcetera, etcetera ad-nauseum. No one jealous of their credentials dare to challenge its power.

Well, that is where I come in. I can imagine the reception this review will get. However, I am sorry, but if I hear stark beauty or dark poetry one more time I will wretch. The amount of praise heaped on this book is as loud and uniform as the genetically enforced buzzing of drones for the queen bee as she proceeds to lead them on a chase. Not to be glib, but… if I were to patent the phrase “that’s stark” ala Paris Hilton, then I would undoubtedly be as filthy rich as she by now.

Once upon a time new authors were routinely funded and encouraged on a broad scale. Advances were a mere few thousand dollars and a hundred thousand was something reserved for epic work. Swarms of authors published and made a scratchy living - few if any were multi-millionaires. But now with the cost of mega-marketing and the expectations of mega-profits only the most bankable and pre-approved authors are cultivated. The advances equal third world GNPs and each of the handfull of authors churns out predictable clones of their first number one seller over and over. This continues until they have exhausted their fame and are finally put out to pasture or the Hamptons, if they had wise accountants.

There has always been commercialism and academic elitism. However, lately the two have merged in some sort of unholy alliance. Once an author has managed to produce a single valuable work they are swept into the pantheon of revenue gods. Their work is lauded automatically and prepaid for with huge advances and lucrative contracts. The unholy covenant is: you keep turning out work like the original and we will keep turning out the praise and publicity and the money will follow.

Having read his previous works, I took up “The Road” with the expectation that it would be dark, and thinly plotted – because that is what is expected of a McCarthy novel. It is not like I should be surprised. I mean McCarthy’s shtick is dark minimalism. Truthfully, terse dialogue is one thing and it has its place. But he has made it a cult and with this book it has really gone over the top. In fact, on opening the book, one feels there has been a typographical error. It was printed all left justified and one line of print to each line of dialogue.
“are they the bad guys?””yes”
“are we still the good guys?””yes”
“are we going to die?”
“are you lying to me?”
“would you lie if we were dying””yes”

As if death were the worse alternative in this drear and meaningless world McCarthy has concocted. One great advantage to this format is that it immediately lets you know you are dealing with “artistic” work and it quickly fills the 250 pages required to be considered publishable.

By the way – how the world got this way is never ever explained or scarcely referred to in dialogue. We are to assume that the world is swept into ruin and no one ever talks about it. This is a symptom of his inability to see life beyond his adapted western plains.
Let me assure you, that in most of the world, the end of said world, would be a topic for long and general conversation. According to the author’s website they start out from Appalachia. Obviously, he has never been to a southern funeral, much less a real civic disaster. I can assure you that southerners do not relish the soul dulling silence that Mr. McCarthy so obviously substitutes for communication and thought. Not everyone had their social mores developed in the laconic attitudes of a dusty wasteland.

The whole drama evolves in the narrow little environment of the road south and its immediate surrounding. Think of a Norse Saga – take away most of the interesting characters, all the songs, substitute cannibals for monsters, limit the dialogue to the bare minimum required to remind readers that the characters exist and place it all in the scenery of asphalt, dead trees and burned out Stuckeys.

The storyline rests upon two ideas. The first is that in the face of hopelessness, most if not all people, will revert to animals. The second is that love can survive in the face of this very same hopelessness.

The first idea may appeal to the Hobbesian elite of Georgetown cocktail parties but it flies in the face of vast swaths of human history. Yes, one can quote examples of the horrors men have wrought upon themselves when hope is lost – and those tales have been handled by many other authors. However, the human search for humanity has not reached its conclusion yet and certainly not in the dead and dying dustbowls of McCarthy’s imagination. There can be no place more hopeless than the nazi death camps and yet even here in these hells, kindness and compassion survived. They flickered dimly against the vast darkness of Nazism- but they did not go out – the light remained and remains still to this day.

The panic enduced by Orson Well’s radio play of “The war of the worlds” is widely remembered, but there was also a flood of calls from people volunteering to join the army, provide food and shelter to refuges and to offer their help in whatever way they could. Few people have as dismal view of the world as I do but I can assure you that it is not hopeless. People can cling to humanity even when everything else is torn from them – even hope.

The problem with the second idea is simply that it is not sufficiently conveyed by the writing. I understand that the man has been reduced to blindly moving forward step by step and doing whatever necessity commands. This is clear and well represented in the book. He is reduced to an automaton heading south to a land which offers no hope but survival for one more winter. It is the end of the road in every meaning which it can convey.

In truth, McCarthy does a much better job with this concept than the first. Love is evident, especially in the character of the boy. I am sorry to keep calling him boy, but McCarthy did not give names to either character – no doubt to remind us how artistic he is, everyman, everyboy – Okay we get it. “I’ve been to college like everybody else.” But in any case, the boy obviously loves his father and demonstrates it by being the only one of the two who seems concerned with their humanity. He worries about remaining the “good guys” tries to keep his father human and seems fully aware of all the horrors they observe and how it poisons the very humanity- “the fire”, they seek to carry south.

I suppose, upon reflection, “The Road” does try, very hard, to do a good job of conveying love in the father also. However, the messianic undertone and the open conviction that god has placed the man on a mission to save his son smells more like shell-shocked obsession and compulsive action than it does love. The stumbling path south is full of determination but not hope. In fact, the only reason expressed for the migration is that they cannot live another season where they started from. I am sorry, but geese exhibit that same sort of determination: it is powerful, it may even be noble, but it is an instinct shared with all animals and not the least indicative of love or humanity.

The man may state that he does all for love, that he in fact lives for love. But his love is indistinguishable from the mother instinct of a wildebeest trying to see her young safely from the hills to the summer pastures down south. If that is what the author intended then, I must applaud him on this point if no other.

Another tiny flaw in our epic is the way it has to be rescued from its own plot deficiencies. He paints a world in which starvation is any day away and yet miraculously at the end of every empty can is yet another stache of food. This despite the fact that the road has been used for years as a route of refuge and one would assume all the convenience stores would be out of cheese crackers by then. Even better, when the plot contrivances have driven them to utter exhaustion and starvation, they stumble upon a fully stocked emergency shelter overlooked by the bands of marauders, cannibals and your run of the mill refugee. I could lecture on the illogical manner he selects items to carry with him as they flee from one deux ex machina to the next, but I am afraid the minutia would bore you. Just suffice it to say one should not tote around the guts of a gas stove when all you eat is in cans and there is no game to hunt. (Unless he was keeping his options open on cannibalism.) The final and most absurd rescue comes at the very end when for the first, and only time, a character adult, sane and humane shows up – just in time to take the boy off father’s hands when the latter dies.

Humanity may be squeezed into the dark (groan) confines of Mr. McCarthy’s world and love may be imperfectly portrayed in this book, however, there is nowhere any doubt that love exists. He himself – Cormac McCarthy: author, minimalist prophet of despair is loved and even worshiped by his critics. The NY times review has scarcely a single paragraph that does not contain the words, allegory, epic, or poetry and even less than eschew poetic anonyms of dark.

His work is counted great because he is counted great. He is chosen, elevated to idolatry because he is antithetical enough to appeal to the intelligentsia and bankable enough to appeal to the corporate accountants. Well, I am sorry, but the idol has feet of clay - or more accurately, of cash receipts, publicity and pseudo-intellectual snobbery. He is one of the preordained, prepackaged, mega-authors whose books are set out in mega-displays in mega-stores for the unwashed masses to purchase and the duly certified to proclaim great.

And so you have it: “The Road” is repetitive, monotonous rehash of a razor thin plot handled far better by others. Specifically, if one really wants to read a dark minimal work of horror and despair then pick up Poe’s “The pit and the pendulum”. I realize it is ruined for post-modernist tastes by having hope – in fact a rescue perhaps renders it unreadable to the modern taste. But it manages to convey the same nameless hopelessness in a matter of a few pages and without the clumsy plot fixes of “The Road”.

No one dares to challenge the preordained, prepackaged wonders that Oprah and Vanity fair have conspired with corporate publishing to shove down our throats. Specifically, I do not challenge the talent or worth of the early works that McCarthy - or Grisham - or King - or others, have written. I simply state that after cloning iteration after iteration they cease to become art and assume the role of decoration. Perfectly fine and suitable to read, but not art. But worse than clinging to the mantle of art, this process of milking a best seller by cloning it further creates an environment hostile to new talent. No one will invest in an unknown if they can make millions on another version of a known best seller – especially if they can get Tommy Jones to star in the movie version. Can’t there be room for some new talent? Might some of us read and enjoy- some work that may not appeal to a multi-mega audience? In today’s publishing, would we find room for Joyce or Lawrence, much less the authors of countless works that were great and beautiful and wise but would not and still do not appeal to the widest of audiences? Would the Principia be published today? In the honored words of Cormac McCarthy:


  1. Hi.
    Please read this text about The Road :

  2. So sorry, I did not see this comment until 3-29-2010. I need a system to alert me to comments better than I have. Well, in any case, I did read the text, it is very well written. But I honestly think people are reading more into this book than it contains. I feel the author has gotten lazy and complacent with his celebrity status. I admit my post was a little overly sarcastic, but the cult of celebrity is ruining american art.

    In any case, I do most value your comment and I hope I may earn your time for another post at some other time. Best wishes and thanks for commenting


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