Friday, January 29, 2010

January's Book I don't expect to like: The Road

On January 6, I announced that my New Year's resolution was to read some books I didn't think I would like and write about my reaction to them. I'm going to try to read one a month. I gave a large list of categories of books I wouldn't normally read and asked for suggestions, but truth be told, I already knew what January's book would be. At Christmastime, my father-in-law had mentioned that Cormac McCarthy's The Road was one of his favorite books (he might have said his favorite) and said he'd be interested to hear what I thought of it if I ever read it.

For those keeping track, The Road is a travelogue of sorts and it fails the Bechdel test*, and yes, it's the sort of book I generally would not expect to like. I have what I think are good reasons for not liking what I don't like. I don't expect every book to grant me an epiphany about how wrong I was to dislike its genre, though I won't be surprised if that happens once or twice. Mostly, I'm going to read with an open mind and see what I discover.


In college, I took a class where we had to watch 2001, a Space Odyssey and write a reaction paper to it. I wrote in my paper that I thought that Kubrick was very clever to put the space-ballet-like scenes of outer space with lovely classical music in and have them go on for so long. Surely, I thought, the viewer who was sitting in a movie theater watching this would be at first transfixed, then as the minutes passed find their attention fading until even the beauty was monotony. The would shift in their seats and reach uneasily into the popcorn bucket, waiting for the dragging loveliness to end.

I allowed as to how if there's a better brief introduction to what years of space travel must feel like, I haven't seen it. I recall getting a rather nasty comment in the margins of that paper. Apparently the professor didn't share my interpretation.

One of the reasons I don't like travelogues is that often the journey is treated as all one needs for a plot structure. It's a wire on which the story's sometimes interchangeable events can be neatly strung. Like 2001, McCarthy has characters on a journey, and like 2001, the story's very monotony gives a vivid sense of what the journey must be like, though "vivid" seems like a strange word to apply to a novel that is so fundamentally bleak. It's not a long novel. I read 3/4 of it in a Starbucks while my husband made an especially lengthy trip around Home Depot. But that time passed very slowly.

The Road is about a father and son who are walking across what seems to be to be the southern part of a post-apocalyptic America, though I'm not sure the geography actually fits unless their journey is much longer than the book makes it seem. The apocalypse, whatever it is, has taken the lives of almost everyone in America and left a thick cloud of dust and ash blocking out the sun. Almost all forms of life are gone and the father and son survive by scavenging. They are walking toward a better life that may or may not exist and trying to avoid cannibals. Stuff happens to them. Sometimes they find food, sometimes they don't.

They spend a lot of nights shivering and holding each other in ways that might have seemed maudlin if this book were about a mother and child, but work given the father's manly stoicism. Somehow he's allowed more melodrama than would have worked with a mother character. Which is not to say that I appreciate what happened to the mother. I don't and I think this otherwise fine book deserved a better written characterization of her. But I don't have to like the way gender is used to understand that it is used effectively in this case. The dynamic of youth vs. maturity is also used well as the father saves the pair's bodies over and over, but the son saves their souls, constantly asking why the pair can't help every desperate person they find on their trip. It's a question that hangs in the air as one reads, yet the father's pragmatic point of view is perfectly understandable.

It felt like I barely took my eyes off the book. McCarthy's lyrical prose reduced my world to the book's. I've read a lot of books where a main character's victories have not brought me nearly the delight or relief that I felt when the father and son find a few cans of vegetables. But the book strongly implies, at least, that every can of vegetables consumed takes the human race a few steps closer to extinction. The father and son do not actually consume other people, but the book doesn't shy away from the fact that their survival almost certainly comes at the cost of the next people to venture down that road and search those cabinets.

Yet at the end, there's a bit of hope.

I started The Road expecting not to like it. Now I'm asking myself if I did and finding the question superfluous. It's like asking oneself if the Rocky Horror Picture Show is a "good" movie.

Sometimes the simple questions just cease to apply.

We will see what February brings.


*The Bechdel test, usually used for movies, is

1. There must be at least two women
2. Who have a conversation
3. About something other than a man


Strange Attractor said...

I had the opposite experience. I expected to love The Road and was surprised when I didn't. It is just too bleak for me. I don't need happy endings all the time, but the overwhelming & unrelenting despair was too much for me. I think my brain recoils from a world without better moral choices. It was actually upsetting to read.

kimc said...

Joyce just read it. I think she liked it. Doesn't sound interesting to me.
I'm reading American Gods by Neil Gaiman. It was recommended to me by a friend I trust, but so far it's not my kind of book. Too dark.