Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Road Not Taken

I've been reading Cormac McCarthy's The Road.  It's not good.

It's just so damn... melodramatic.  And downright hokey.  I mean, it's a POST-apocalyptic world.  So the melodrama has already happened, you'd think.  But no, this is a world in which roving bands of cannibals are attacking anyone they can get their hands on.

Children are especially appetizing, of course. 

Everyone seems to fall into one of two categories: the eaters and the soon-to-be-eaten.  There are "the bad guys" and "the good guys."

I mean that literally.  That's what McCarthy has his main characters call them, in order to capture the beauty and innocence and goodness of the father and his son.

His son cries when they can't save people or dogs, even though he and his father are starving themselves.

McCarthy has done no research into the behavior of starving children, I think.  They can be more mercenary than adults, because moral goodness and the propensity for self-sacrifice are typically learned moral codes, not innate human behaviors.

As you can see from the roving bands of cannibals that people the rest of the novel, actually.

The most self-absorbed character is Mom.  After accusing her husband of being a total wuss for not putting an end to them all, she has apparently wandered off to kill herself so that she won't be raped and then eaten for dinner.

The boy, meanwhile, wants constant reassurance from his dad that they will never become one of "the bad guys" and resort to eating human flesh.

He also constantly wants to know if they're dying.  (That's his equivalent of the "Are we there yet?" road-trip question.)

Meanwhile, people are "burned" from the unmentioned apocalypse, and everything is "black" and "gray."

For the record, it seems to me to be a matter of principle that, if you have an apocalypse in your novel, you have to tell us what happened.  Vague references to "ash" are a major cop-out.

I also can't help but keep thinking, "But what about kuru and other prion-based brain diseases?"  Obviously, some people must be diseased, especially if they're "burned."

Humans eating other diseased humans is a potential set up for mad-human disease, so how can cannibalism have continued in this world for an unstated number of years?

So, I'm currently reading that novel at the pace of about 100 pages per hour.  No kidding.  This bothers me as well.  The prose is so simplistic and so cliched, that I get flat-out annoyed by it.  Incomplete sentences abound.  Just like that.  And then there's another one.  Like that.  Usually followed by some tender, wifty claims about human goodness.  Here's a sample:
"No lists of things to be done.  The day providential to itself.  The hour.  There is no later.  This is later.  All things of grace and beauty such that one holds them to one's heart have a common provenance in pain.  Their birth in grief and ashes.  So, he whispered to the sleeping boy, I have you."
At this point, I actually found myself rolling my eyes and saying, "Oh give me a freakin' BREAK..." out loud.  And I was only on page 54.  If I read a student's paper and it did this, I'd make a huge bracket around the paragraph and write, "Don't do this." (I have since tried to parse the "All things of grace and beauty" sentence and have concluded that if you do, it makes no sense whatsoever.)

This has not happened since I read the novel Monkey Bridge on the plane to California and figured out on page 5 that the girl's grandfather was VietCong, only to slog through another hundred or so pages and realize that this in fact was the grand realization that the main character would tearfully and shockingly come to somewhere around page 200.

At that point I also said, "Oh, you've got to be KIDDING me!," only to look up and remember that I was actually on a plane.  So basically, I was out in public, where people don't know me, making my usual good impression...

Sometimes, I worry about the simplicity and predictability of so much contemporary literature and art.  Film is perhaps the worst culprit.  Maybe it's just me, but I don't think they'd even make a movie like "The Big Chill" today, because it actually has more than 3 main characters.

I'm serious.  Watch a movie.  There are usually no more than 2 or 3 characters in it.  And they're always pleasant to look at, unless they go through hours and hours of special makeup in order to be distinctly unpleasant to look at. 

I'm excluding films with hundreds of troops of warriors, of course.  Or films about the devastating poverty in India that revolve around winning a million dollars in a game show, enduring brutal torture and eventually celebrating your win by joining the love of your life (who has escaped being pimped out by your brother) in a final dance sequence.

People often say that they have trouble following a plot, if it gets at all complicated.  I think fewer and fewer people enjoy reading.  It seems like they opt for more immediate visual or auditory input, instead of patiently waiting for the gray cells to fire and the wheels to turn as a result of a series of cumulative effects over time. 

Neuroscience shows that the brain is a use-it-or-lose-it organ, so if we rarely fix our attention on anything other than an Ipad, Iphone or other electronic device, I think we basically begin to lose the capacity to do so.

Sherry Turkle's studies have shown that today's teens, for example, typically do their homework with email, AOL and Facebook open, the cell phone on (and thus receiving regular texts and tweets),  the TV on and sometimes the Ipod on as well.

I have a small panic attack just writing that description.  Forget bombarding me with heavy metal music: I'd give up state secrets for sure, under those conditions.

When I finish The Road, I'm going to switch back to non-fiction and read Mississippi Mud by Edward Humes and Coyotes by Ted Conover.

I'll keep you posted...

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."