😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂 or possibly 😀 😀 😀 😀 😀
Ten years before the beginning of the novel, an apocalypse – unspecified but we are given to believe caused by the actions of mankind – has destroyed America and presumably the world. Now our protagonists, named only as the man and the boy, are journeying through the devastated and barren landscape in an attempt to reach the warmer climes of the southern coast before another winter sets in.
On this road there are no godspoke men. They are gone and I am left and they have taken with them the world.
As dystopian novels go, they don’t get much bleaker than this. All plant-life and most animal-life has been destroyed, and the implication is that the earth itself has been so badly damaged that nothing can grow in it. The remnants of humanity survived at first by eating any animals that lived through the disaster and by scavenging through shops and houses for canned or dried food. But as even these sources of sustenance began to run out, the survivors have formed gangs and turned to cannibalism as the only way to survive. The disaster has left the air so polluted with ash and dust that the sun can barely penetrate it, leaving the world grey and increasingly cold. Although nuclear winter is never specifically mentioned, it is implicit, with the result that each breath or drink of water is both life-sustaining and deadly, and the cotton masks the man and boy wear are seen for the entirely inadequate protection that they are. And the man is already coughing up blood.
There were times when he sat watching the boy sleep that he would begin to sob uncontrollably but it wasn’t about death. He wasn’t sure what it was about but he thought it was about beauty or about goodness. Things he’d no longer any way to think about at all.
In this desperate situation, what is there to hope for? The boy’s mother has already committed suicide and the man hopes that when the time comes he will have the courage to kill the boy and himself rather than see the boy become the victim of one of the gangs. The man and the boy are ‘each the other’s world entire’ – the ‘good guys’ struggling to maintain some kind of moral standard in this hellish existence. And there are hints that the boy, born at the time of the apocalypse, may be more than just a child – that he contains the goodness or perhaps the godship of the world, that his survival is symbolic of some greater survival. In the latter part of the book there is a curious reversal, where sometimes it is the boy who is reminding the man of what is ‘right’, and just occasionally it briefly becomes unclear which is which.
McCarthy tells the story in a kind of simplistic language for the most part, ignoring many of the rules and conventions of grammar. His sentence structure ranges from short, terse sentences to long rambling lists of actions connected by the ‘and’ word…
He took out the plastic bottle of water and unscrewed the cap and held it out and the boy took it and stood drinking. He lowered the bottle and got his breath and he sat in the road and crossed his legs and drank again.
I must admit I found this tedious in the extreme and for the first third or so of the book really had to struggle to keep going. However, there are also passages of great descriptive power that contain a kind of poetry, a poignant beauty, and gradually the overall effect becomes mesmeric. He builds up the picture of this dead world a layer at a time, like varnish, until suddenly I found I was immersed, not so much in the story as in the debate that is continually running in the man’s head – what is the right thing to do? To die together? To let the boy live and hope that somehow the ‘fire’ that he carries inside him can continue to burn? As the man’s health worsens both he and the reader know that the decision must be taken soon.
The soft black talc blew through the streets like squid ink uncoiling along a sea floor and the cold crept down and the dark came early and the scavengers passing down the steep canyons with their torches trod silky holes in the drifted ash that closed behind them silently as eyes. Out on the roads the pilgrims sank down and fell over and died and the bleak and shrouded earth went trundling past the sun and returned again as trackless and as unremarked as the path of any nameless sisterworld in the ancient dark beyond.
I can’t say I wholeheartedly enjoyed this novel. Much of the language grated, some of the references were like being hit over the head with a blunt instrument (drinking the last can of Coke in the world, for example) and the mysticism was so vague that it felt a little hollow. But by about half-way through, I had become completely absorbed by it and have found myself thinking of it repeatedly in the week or so since I finished reading it. I’m not sure it’s quite as profound as it thinks it is, but it is undoubtedly thought-provoking and full of imagery that will stay with me for a long time – images both of horror and the ugliness of mankind, and of goodness, truth and a stark kind of beauty. With just a little uncertainty then, highly recommended…
* * * * * * * * *
So…how does it fare in The Great American Novel Quest? To win that title it needs to achieve all five of the criteria in my original post…
Must be written by an American author or an author who has lived long enough in the US to assimilate the culture.
The theme must shed light on a specific and important aspect of American culture and society of the time of its writing.
I’m struggling with this. Yes, published in 2006, the book was written post-9/11 at a time when the US felt perhaps more threatened than at any other time in her history. But the apocalyptic theme seems more of a throwback to the Cold War than a commentary on contemporary fears. So unless anyone wants to convince me otherwise, I’m saying…not achieved.
It must be innovative and original in theme.
No – the theme of post-apocalyptic society is certainly not original, nor is the mystical element of the place of God in a dying society. The language ranges from overly simplistic to poignantly beautiful, but I didn’t find it innovative. Not achieved.
Must be superbly written.
Well…again the quality is variable, but when it’s at its best, the descriptive writing provides some passages of bleak beauty and unforgettable imagery. I think it might take a few months for me to know how this book settles in my head, so I’m going to give it the benefit of the doubt meantime, and hesitantly say – achieved.
Must capture the entire ‘American experience’.
One might want to argue that in some way this book represents the psychological after-effects of 9/11, and in that sense captures the American experience. One might want to…but I don’t. So…not achieved.
* * * * * * * * *
I’m not entirely sure yet whether I think this is a great novel, but with only 2 GAN flags (and one of those I’m still hesitant about) I certainly don’t see it as a contender for the status of The or even A Great American Novel. Unfortunately I can’t remember now why I added it to the original list of contenders, but I’d be most interested if anyone could explain why it has been considered in that context?
* * * * * * * * *