Tuesday, September 22, 2009

the last book I read

The Road by Cormac McCarthy.

We're in the former United States after some unspecified apocalyptic event. No details beyond a vague flashback reference to "a long shear of light and then a series of low concussions", but whatever it was has cast a pall of ash into the atmosphere that has blocked out the sun and caused the death of just about all plant and animal life except a tiny remnant of the human race scratching out a pitiful doomed existence on the blasted remains of the planet.

Through this desolate landscape trudge an unnamed man and his unnamed son (whose age is never specified, though I would guess around ten). With them they drag a cart containing all their worldly possessions, which comprise a gun with a couple of bullets, a few blankets and whatever food they've managed to scavenge recently. As there's no plant or animal life and everything is still covered in a film of soot this means whatever tinned supplies they can loot from the former homes of those who died in the event or its aftermath, the bleached and dessicated bodies of some of whom still litter the roads and houses.

Desperate times lead to desperate measures, and while there aren't many other people about, some of those who do remain have resorted to the unthinkable to stay alive. There's a brief encounter with a cellar full of people who we assume are being kept alive for food, some of whom have even had limbs amputated, and a gruesome discovery in a wooded clearing of a skewered human infant on a spit over an abandoned campfire.

Then again, what would you do? The available stock of food, fuel, ammunition is so tiny that if you meet another traveller on the road with supplies that you want, taking them from him could be the difference between life and death for you. What then? Do you preserve your lofty moral principles and condemn yourself to a slow lingering death from starvation? Or do you do what needs to be done? And if you do, and you cling to the notion that you are "the good guys", what would you not do to survive? And what will you do when you meet people who will do those things, and more?

There's no miraculous happy ending here, though to be honest it's a good bit more optimistic than I expected. Dad, having been coughing up blood for most of the book, eventually succumbs to whatever respiratory thing has been ailing him (Pneumonia? TB? Radiation sickness?), and the kid is forced to place his trust in some strangers; an unaccustomed thing to be doing after the months on the road.

So, following on from the brief discussion in the previous post, I ask you this: is this science fiction? It's got the post-apocalyptic setting familiar from, say, Stephen King's The Stand (although that was a virus rather than a nuclear conflict and at least left some plant and animal life around), and the thin-veneer-of-civilisation-peeled-back-to-reveal-the-primal-urges thing from Lord of the Flies. It's an unfamiliar world, isn't it? And if we're only saying that it isn't science fiction because McCarthy is in the rank of authors that we arbitrarily deem to be "literary" and therefore above that sort of thing, well, where does that leave us?

Science fiction or not, what it is is extraordinarily powerful writing; all the more so for being (like Strandloper way back in the early days of this blog) pared down to the bare minimum of expressiveness - it's almost entirely made up of short paragraphs, made up in turn of short, matter-of-fact sentences; there are almost no chapter breaks that I can recall. If this book were any more distilled down to its bare bones it would literally disappear off the page in front of your eyes. Despite that, or possibly because of that, it's both unrelentingly gripping and remarkably optimistic, considering the unremitting hopelessness of the setting. It's simultaneously a big story (in that it's about the end of the world) and a small one (in that it's really about the unbreakableness of the human spirit and the bond between parent and child). What I'm basically saying here is that it's sensationally good and you should read it.

Among those august bodies agreeing with my assessment were the committees awarding the 2007 Pulitzer Prize (so you can add this one to this earlier list) and the 2006 James Tait Black Memorial Prize (don't think we've done this one before, so my list goes like this: 1924, 1934 (both), 1948, 1981 #2, 1982, 1989, 1990, 1994, 1996 #1, 2002, 2005, 2006). Also, The Road features at number 1 on this Entertainment Weekly list of the best novels of the past 25 years. A list whose credibility is only slightly dented by having Harry fucking Potter at number 2. Other notable inclusions are the aforementioned Neuromancer at number 26, and other previous books in this series at numbers 13 and 50.

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