Good Bad Dreams. Cormac McCarthy's The Road.
Cormac McCarthy's The Road, by which I am beglamoured, about which I am sceptical. Luminous Ana Mendieta. Leaves, at last.
Good Bad Dreams: Notes on Cormac McCarthy’s The Road
A book that has entered the culture. A book that was, in the critical cliché, ‘hailed on publication.’ A novel that is already a classic with a Classical severity and simplicity. A novel in a familiar tradition or set of convergent traditions so that reading it for the first time is accompanied by a sense of foreknowledge. A book that feels inevitable, that has taken its place.
Terror and liberation. They come together in this novel in which fear and fantasy are interfused. A great release, the unbinding of all the energies required for everyday life, work and politics and domesticity.
Nature has been destroyed by an event, totalised, killed entirely. The world is cold and dark, rimed with ashes; the sky is dark. A sudden death, unlike the creeping, incrememental death of our pollutions and deforestations, our floods and fires and bleaching corals. The event takes us out of the anthropocene into a new absolute end state, delivering the relief of destruction taken out of our hands. Imagine no longer having to think about the consequences of our actions, the daily pain to our consciences of plastic packaging, car journeys, energy consumption. The triviality of these acts on their own is no comfort: we know the tiny granules of poison that we scatter are simultaneously scattered by the billions of others on the planet while the big systemic actors – energy, mining, agriculture, manufacture - dump them in vastly larger amounts. We experience the miserable, helpless feeling of responsibility without the power to effect change. Set against this, the event in The Road is like a second biblical Fall and the world it creates a kind of Eden in reverse. (Genesis is certainly one of the books in the novel’s literary tradition. The stark predicaments and choices of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Abraham and Isaac, Noah and the Flood resemble those of the few humans in The Road, making their way, sharply profiled against the background emptiness). Its two central characters, the man and his son, have been remanded into an innocent state of nature, the innocence of animals, with only survival, food and shelter, to think about. The reader suffers and enjoys with them this existential clarification.
The novel knows this: ‘The frailty of everything revealed at last. Old and troubling issues resolved into nothingness and night.’ The narrative voice is austere and comprehensively intelligent. Its view of the novel’s traumatic events is always clear-eyed and steady in its witness. This offers a reassurance of its own. It holds part of the reader’s awareness safely outside the novel’s reality even as it accompanies him right its terrible events.
Whether the event is caused my man or nature is not clear. Both a nuclear exchange and a meteorite strike seem to fit. McCarthy describes the event only briefly: ‘a long shear of light and then a series of low concussions.’ ‘Shear of light’ could be a phrase from a Dylan Thomas poem; it has the quality of the poet’s phrases in that it makes immediate powerful sense and yet is not quite resolvable into a single meaning. ‘Shear’ has a number of definitions: 1) one blade of a pair of shears, 2) to cut with something sharp (as in shearing sheep), 3) to deprive of something as if by cutting (as in ‘shorn of hope’), 4) to subject to a shear force (shearing forces are a pair of forces acting on a body in different directions, like those between the blades of a pair of shears), 5) to cause something to move along a plane of contact. All of these possibilities vibrate within the vivid vagueness of ‘a long shear of light.’ ‘Concussions’ too is superb. The relevant definition is usually given as the second, ‘a violent shock as from a heavy blow,’ but the more common ‘mild traumatic brain injury’ is inevitably present, evoking the attendant human suffering. Damage or impairment shared across the human and natural worlds recurs in McCarthy’s phrase – ‘cauterised terrain,’ ‘sightless’ blackness – making palpable to the reader the universal blight after the event. Also, more subtly, it reveals the world of the novel as a psychologised whole, a single elaborated metaphor or pathetic fallacy. But here the environmental conditions are not chosen to reflect and enlarge the inner lives of the characters but a given; the characters inner lives have been subsumed within the ruined environment. The event banishes the world’s irrelevant multiplicity, its recalcitrant otherness, and co-opts everything into McCarthy’s vision of the future. The novelist’s task of defining a coherent world, drawing its contents into order and alignment, is accomplished by the disaster itself.
McCarthy’s style is known for its combination of Hemingwayan declarative directness, occasional antiquarian or recherché vocabulary and sudden rolling cadences redolent of the King James Bible and the American preaching tradition. In The Road this rhetoric is appropriately bitten back, delivered typically in short phrases of single thoughts that recall sometimes Samuel Beckett’s prose, the internal monologues of minds making sense and incremental progress in difficult conditions. The whole novel is made of an accumulation of short sections, many a single paragraph. One effect of this is to break up the passing of time. In the post-event world, the ordinary flow of time is irrelevant, the days, the weeks, are shaped only by the variety of these isolated significant instants noted in their separate paragraphs. They are the stepping-stones of the characters’ survival.
‘The day providential to itself. The hour. There is no later. All things of grace and beauty such that one holds them to one’s heart have a common provenance in pain. Their birth is grief and ashes. So, he whispered to the sleeping boy. I have you.’ Providence. Grace. McCarthy’s vision, unlike Beckett’s, is a religious one of a grand and simple kind. The man and his son refer to themselves as ‘carrying the fire,’ and seem to mean by it both the pristine virtue they find in no one else they encounter and the memory of that force at work in civilisation. At times, they pray. There is good and evil. God is to be believed in and railed against. It is in part the fierce old morality of the Wild West. There are good guys and bad guys. The father and son seem to be the only two wearing white hats though it is the father’s faith that there are others out there too.
The sacred idiom. The novel describes and endorses religious characters but is itself agnostic. The fire that they carry is a language, a set of behaviours, an idiom. ‘The world shrinking down about a raw core of possible entities. The names of things slowly following those things into oblivion. Colors. The names of birds. Things to eat. Finally the names of things one believed to be true. More fragile than he would have thought. How much was gone already? The sacred idiom shorn of its referents and so of its reality. Drawing down like something trying to preserve heat. In time to wink out forever.’
The characters’ virtue is repeatedly demonstrated by their refusal to ever countenance eating other people. Cannibalism comes up frequently in the novel; at one point they discover a dark cellar full of people being kept for food. There never seems any reason to doubt that they will maintain this strict moral binary, in part because they never seem to get dangerously hungry. In fact, their lucky finds of tinned foods and other supplies allow the novel to be punctuated with very appetising meals, the campfire fare of bacon and beans and hot coffee or cans of preserved fruits. It is in this and other ways that the novel reveals itself as in part an adventure story in the American tradition, Tom Sawyer in the underworld. Their intervening hunger is a given, a premise, referred to but barely described, and lacks the documentary harshness of the pages devoted to the Holodomor, the Ukrainian famine of 1932 and 1933, in Lev Grossman’s Everything Flows or even the self-inflicted ravening in Knut Hamsun’s Hunger. Their lack of food does not reduce them mentally. They do not become automata of survival in the way that people are seen to do in Everything Flows for whom actions become unconscious and who seem incapable of even conceiving questions of moral choice. ‘The whole village was howling, without mind, without heart. It was a noise like leaves in the wind, or creaking straws.’ This is one of the ways in which McCarthy’s novel is covertly comforting. In The Road, we are not allowed to slide down the biological continuum to this mindless state. Morality remains clear and stable. We’re with the good guys and don’t have to imagine ourselves in a state where that clarity is lost, unable to walk, eating dirt, eating people. Whereas, in Grossman: ‘I understood then that every starving man is a kind of cannibal. He eats the flesh off his own body. He leaves only the bones. He consumes his last droplet of fat. Then the mind goes dark – he has eaten his own brains. The starving man has eaten himself up.’
There is an old, fibrous part of our brain that is deeply assuaged by images and stories of survival: campfires, meals, dry places to sleep hidden away from predators. It is entrancing to watch the simple practical skill at staying alive shown by the man and the boy and to follow its details, fires lit, cans cut open, the occasional bath and cleaning of clothes. This is a common feature, a reliable genre pleasure, of the adventure story, found in Robinson Crusoe, Huckleberry Finn or Fennimore Cooper’s Natty Bumpo novels. Typically there is a small amount of essential, well-enumerated equipment and apparel – a knife, a rifle, flints or matches, provisions of tinned and dry goods and so on – which acquire a kind of gleam and vibrancy of use and importance. In Elizabeth Bishop’s poem in the voice of Robinson Crusoe, ‘Crusoe in England,’ she has him say of his knife: ‘it reeked of meaning, like a crucifix. / It lived. How many years did I / beg it, implore it, not to break? / I knew each nick and scratch by heart.’ Looking back on his time on the island, Crusoe misses that simple, vibrant urgency. ‘Now it won’t look at me at all./ The living soul has dribbled away.’ The Road has its own short inventory of vital possessions: the pistol, the shopping cart and tarp, the man’s parka coat. They are part of the book’s iconography, now widely familiar from its 2009 film adaptation. The image of the actor Viggo Mortensen, haggard in that parka, pushing the shopping cart through the dead land, is frequently seen on social media as an adaptable comment for every kind of dire predicted future or present catastrophe. It is proof that in The Road, Cormac McCarthy achieved a sharp crystallisation of a varied literary tradition in the salt solution of our fears. In the man and boy, he produced a simple and memorable picture, a new archetypal image with a grip on the imagination like that of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza riding across La Mancha or the wandering old man in Chaucer’s Pardoner’s Tale, yearning for death, tapping the earth with his stick and calling, ‘Dear Mother, let me in.’
The gun. How the gun nestles at the very centre of the American imagination. The Road is decidedly an American novel, its extremis an extreme of American cultural norms. A masculine world, armed and independent, pioneering through the wilderness. For the man and boy together, only they are self; everybody else is other and a potential threat. Families are natural and righteous, communities deeply suspect. Those communities that do appear in the novel are coercive and depraved, systems of absolute power and subjection. ‘The boy lay with his face in his arms, terrified. They passed two hundred feet away, the ground shuddering lightly. Tramping. Behind them came wagons drawn by slaves in harness and piled with goods of war and after that the women, perhaps a dozen in number, some of them pregnant, and lastly a supplementary consort of catamites illclothed against the cold and fitted in dogcollars and yoked each to each.’ (McCarthy is not averse to these lurid, exciting horrors, which punctuate the novel and conform roughly to a law of escalation, for example the dark cellar filled with people kept for food is followed later by a scene of a newborn baby roasted over a fire). At the end of the novel, when the man dies, the boy is rescued by an improbable stroke of good fortune into a family with a tough, trustworthy father and physically affectionate mother who talks about God. They are the hoped-for religious, white-hatted good guys. The father ‘carried a shotgun over his shoulder on a braided leather lanyard and he wore a nylon bandolier filled with shells for the gun.’ This is a material improvement on the man’s pistol and few remaining bullets and part of the novel’s “happy ending” for the boy. The boy has a safer future in part because they have more ammunition. We can all gaze fondly at the weaponry and relax.
The man and boy need the pistol, to kill attackers to avoid being taken captive and killed themselves. Tender to each other, to outsiders they conform to the classic American ethos D. H. Lawrence found in Fennimore-Cooper’s Natty Bumpo novels: ‘The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer.’ Their violence would be absolutely justified; their moral goodness ensures that the reader can watch them kill and imagine killing in their place without feeling any guilt and is free to enjoy doing so. There is a reason ‘license to kill’ is one of the most famous phrases in movie history; here that license is granted to the man and boy by the survivalist situation in which they live. Resources are dangerously limited in a zero-sum world. Man is a wolf to man. This is convincing in the post-event world McCarthy creates. It is strange how many people think this way about the actual world in which we live.
The man and boy also need the pistol to kill themselves in the last instance to avoid being taken captive by people like that phalanx of masked figures with slaves and catamites or the unseen figures who keep the cellar full of living human meat. We watch the father at one point leave the boy with the gun ensuring that he knows how to kill himself should he need to – the barrel in the mouth pointing upwards through the brain. Gratifying for the reader to be in a world where the stakes couldn’t be higher, the choices more clear and dramatic.
The journey is an American form also. Cormac McCarthy has updated the tradition with a simple change of direction: rather than pioneering into the west or circulating like Kerouac’s beatniks in a state of random discovery ‘on the road,’ the characters in The Road are heading south, hoping to find warmth.
‘[Mankind’s] self-alienation has reached such a degree that is can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.’ This is Walter Benjamin at the end of his essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ writing about the Italian Futurists’ love of the annihilating pyrotechnics of modern war. The Road offers a different vision of mankind’s destruction, the slow entropy after the event, grey and cold and stupefying. But the aestheticization is clear: ‘He got the binoculars out of the cart and stood in the road and glassed the plain down there where the shape of the city stood in the grayness like a charcoal drawing sketched across the waste.’ This is beautiful and soothing. The lyrical and archaic ‘glassed the plain’ contributes to its sombre calm, a phrase redolent of pre-modern battles rather than future devastation.
The comfort of monochrome, of half-light. There is something soothing in the uniform greyness of this dead world. I experience the same effect when reading some of Samuel Beckett’s prose and find the world dwindling down to a manageable threadbare nearness, surrounded by vast, continuous, amniotic grey.
A necessary book. We need its control, its completeness, its schematic simplicity, its drama. We need a vision of our destruction that holds at bay the chaos of our real unknown futures. We need to feel the fear and survive it. We are happy to have some fantasies of violence, and innocence enacted.
The first fantasy that The Road invites us to indulge, the one that allows us into its entire inverted Eden and grave, grand drama, is that we will be among the survivors.
Youtube Treasure #10
The artist Ana Medieta has been much on my mind this last couple of weeks, her Siluetas in particular.
Here she is on film, almost unbearably luminous. ‘Unbearably’ because of the terrible nature of her early death, which is easy to find out about online.
11 degrees. Sun. Raccoon weather, apparently, as the neighbourhood is suddenly full of them, emerged from somewhere, stalking over lawns and down the sides of houses. That larcenous intelligence on the loose.
6 degrees. Sun. Lake Ontario is a compilation of exquisite blues, turquoise, violet. The horizon is a strong line of indigo. No boats but the sky has a flotilla of little white clouds. A pair of red-throated grebes dive and each time come up polished, lacquered, gleaming in the sunlight.
April 8th to 10th
The same conditions prevail for days, with gradually increasing warmth. Sunlight soaking in, softening. And then.
24 degrees. A sudden heat, murky with cloud. A disordered change, with high winds. This is the feeling that’s more frequent, more familiar, of too much energy the system. It will wear itself out in minor destruction, minor this time.
27 degrees. Wind flickering and gusting around the house. Burning sun, smell of burning dust.
29 degrees. More of this uncanny early heat. A plunge into summer in early spring. This lavish light and heat seems wasted, pouring through bare branches to the ground.
27 degrees. But maybe I’ve been looking the wrong way. Today I notice the first tender green budding out of the trees. Sparks of fresh colour from the wood. The first fizzing energy of growth.
24 degrees. The sunlight scarfed in haze. The cherry blossom buds have formed, wooden and scaly, cracking open. Other leaves are growing fast, as they do here when conditions are right. Small rosettes of green all along the branches.
25 degrees. Haze in the morning, clearing in the afternoon when the sunlight glows and the light green leaves are bright against the blue and everything glows like an illumination in a book of hours.
6 degrees. The highwire act of early summer falters, falls. The temperature drops. The sky comes down in cool rain. Pewter light.
5 degrees. More disorder. A backlash storm. Wet snow hardening at times to the fizzing white dots of hail. The birds quiet, waiting to make their repairs.
8 degrees. Calm. A grey start until the clouds get spacey, drifting apart. They are calm and separate in the blue. A mild spring resumes.