Friday, February 20, 2009

BOOK REVIEW - Cormac Mc Carthy - The Road

Yes, yes, I know I gave up on the last one in complete exasperation with its lurid violence, overwrought, overwritten and completely plot less narrative. Even the friend from whom I borrowed this book said 'I don't know whether you'll like this, considering your comments about 'Blood Meridian'. I have to say, this is almost like it was by a different writer. 'The Road' is sparse, beautifully composed, touching, yet totally unsentimental. This is a hard, unyielding petrified world, informed by panic, that he takes you into. If all society and culture completely collapsed,and the earth was so poisoned that little could be cultivated, what would happen to our civilisation, to our very humanity? What would we turn into under such circumstances? McCormac writes so convincingly and with such a compassionate gaze about this plight. It really is no surprise that the book won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2007.

A man and his son (again the central characters are nameless like in BM) are travelling in a unnamed, barely recognisable country, that may or may not be the US. There has been an apocalyptic catastrophe, at times it seems the cause might have been total environmental breakdown, a military or nuclear disaster or disease epidemic,or all of these things combined. What was the cause and what the symptoms of it, is never made entirely clear. The remaining landscape is irredeemable bleak, with a strange ash covering everything. There are no animals, no birds, only matchstick trees frequently burnt to a cinder. This blackened crucible of the world is er beaten by the weather, at times it seems to do nothing but snow or rain, perpetually and heavily. For some reason the man believes it will be better down south. They have a map, a cart and a few dwindling possessions and provisions. All the time they scavenge for food, constantly teetering on the edge of starvation. The man, touchingly, protects and tutors the young boy in the dangers of this new and hostile world, whilst trying to instill a sense of hope, something he himself has almost lost. His only hope is the boy. They are 'the good guys,' but 'the bad guys,' well they seem to have descended to the most brutal level of survival of the fittest - unbridled cannibalism.

Mc Cormac springs a few graphic 'shock' surprises along the way, that communicate how depraved and deranged humankind has become as a result of this nameless 'catastrophe.' The book is not without event, but these are small in scale, there are no large dramatic crescendos. Throughout there is just a palpable tension, of lives in constant peril. A weariness and wariness seeps through the novel like a rotten stench that penetrates everything. At any moment, in the midst of a cautious exploration of an abandoned farm house, looking for food, things can slip into edge of the seat terror. One moment of unawareness, one misjudgement, or miscalculation of risk, could be a fatal error. In a second their lives could be taken without thought or mercy.

This novel has been made into a film starring Vigo Mortenson. Though its not yet been released yet in the US, so when it will appear here, who knows? It's in the more than capable direction of John Hillcoat, who made Nick Caves, recent grim western masterpiece 'The Proposition.' So he knows how to maintain a prolonged sense of tension and menace, whilst dealing with the numerous grotesque details that creep into McCormac's novel like virulent rats. Hopefully, the Hollywood executives will keep their hands off, and not try either to sweeten the story, nor ramp up the gore/horror elements. In the end this novel is simply a very personal story about the struggle of hope and compassion to survive - the thing both man and boy refer to as 'the fire.'

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