Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Road: A Bizarre Pathway into the Mind of McCarthy

Cormac McCarthy has done it again, and he has done so in typical McCarthy style. Let’s define the ground rules for a CM story. First, there’s the premise--the high concept. In this case, an unknown catastrophic event has decimated planet earth, covering everything under gray ashes. Utter destruction.

The survivors at the center of this heartbreaking story: A father and son, who travel cross-country with nothing more than a wonky shopping cart filled with their meager earthly possessions, and a pistol. Crossing paths with marauders, they must fend for their lives across a desolate American landscape. Their destination: the coastal cities.

That’s the set-up. Right from the start there are far more questions than answers. We don’t know who the man and his young boy are by name or where they came from, but we are fully aware of their dire circumstances and their trek across this dystopian landscape, which, McCarthy evokes with such spare, yet striking detail. And even though McCarthy does not mention this catastrophic event by name, we know by his descriptions that a nuclear blast has ended the world as we know it.

For those of us who have read most, if not all of McCarthy’s work, we know from the outset that he is about to examine this crippled world he plunks us in, from every possible angle, as he explores every metaphor, and every minute detail to its fullest, and then some. It’s the kind of description that we followed in The Crossing, where McCarthy begins his story with a she-wolf that two brothers rescue and try to return to the northern mountains of Mexico.

He tells all about this she-wolf for an exhausting one third of the book, as if the world of endangered wildlife depends on the life and times of this very maligned and misunderstood creature. The wolf, in essence becomes a transient character in the story, and an important one at that. Its demise dramatically sums up everything that McCarthy had built up to that point between the wolf and the boy. A poignant payoff indeed.

The payoff in The Road, however, is far more poignant and heartfelt, as McCarthy expertly weaves his tale of doom and horror with McCarthy-esque flairs sprinkled throughout this haunting narrative. Passages filled with eye-opening observations and humorous description. Like this gem:

“This was the first human being other than the boy that he’d spoke to in more than a year. My brother at last. The reptilian calculations in those cold and shifting eyes. The gray and rotting teeth. Claggy with human flesh. Who has made of the world a lie every word.”

This is vintage McCarthy. Dropping in an almost comical description of a suspicious man right in the middle of all the despair he has masterfully painted up till then. Hilarious, yet brilliant, and one reason why, I suspect most McCarthy fans read his work.

If we can say anything to compliment McCarthy’s method of telling a story, it is that he commits to it wholeheartedly and without apologies. He owns and lives up to every word, big and small. Thrusting us and enthralling us with a storytelling path, we think we are familiar with, but it is a pathway that only McCarthy can traverse with his unsettling choice of words. His brand of humor and misdirection, far from the apparent tragedy he has unfurled before us.

In the blink of an eye, it becomes profoundly clear that McCarthy is orchestrating, conducting a symphony of words and mental images that coalesce into an extraordinary work, like fine art—an unlikely mix of Picasso and Salvador Dali perhaps, as he plunges us through sometimes grotesque, sometimes surreal imagery that sears our minds with the realization of uncompromising truths along the way.

A stark juxtaposition of love, despair, and tragedy, all rolled into a relentless vision that not only captivates out hearts, but brandishes our mind with a profound silence that pierces our very soul. Every McCarthy story is a masterpiece in its own time and in its own way. Each one more heartfelt than the last.

If The Road can tell us one thing about McCarthy, it is this: He is capable of so much more than thrilling westerns set in New Mexico. Lest we forget tales such as The Orchid Keeper, and Child of God. We know that the mind of McCarthy works in very mysterious ways—-sometimes predictable, sometimes enigmatic, but always entertaining, always moving us. And, if we can learn something from this story, it is that love is all there is. There is nothing left to hold McCarthy’s dim world together, nothing but unflinching and unconditional love. The kind of love a father has for his young boy, and his son evokes for him in return.

On a whole, this story resonates with many of the qualities that embody a classic story, but none more than its poignancy. The striking memories it leaves in its wake. This story’s hard-hitting premise; the plausible reality of world war three.

Yet, as profound as this story is, it is also strewn with annoying dialog that doesn’t quite ring true to life. Yes, there is always a fly in the McCarthy soup.

But, not even Cormac McCarthy is a perfect writer, although he certainly comes close. To the chagrin of many critics, evil characters still hiss in McCarthy’s world. Main characters also talk in stilted one-word sentences, and say “Okay,” a lot. And no one in McCarthy’s story’s ever knows anything, except for the all-knowing narrator who always embodies these tales from a cosmic or scientific standpoint, almost eager to share his vast knowledge of all things peculiar, albeit to mythic proportions. But for those who know something about Cormac McCarthy’s personal life, unfortunately, it is apparent that Cormac’s voice is clearly echoed behind this narrator.

At any rate, everything lends itself to a clever juxtaposition of his central characters, struggling against the world. Against themselves in most cases--a reflection of why we are but mere mortals, thrust haphazardly into this vast and unforgiving world that always seems to dominate, to prevail in one form or another.

Yet, it is this very juxtaposition of man against nature, this dominant thread that permeates every McCarthy tale with such darkness. A relentless undertow with a magnitude that brings its only opponent into clear focus; the protagonist against himself.

Less is more, is clearly the strength of this story. One main character, one point of view throughout. One narrator in third person omniscient, and very little dialog. Sparse dialog because when you’re dying every minute, there is little to say. Very little to live for.

In another review of Robert James Waller’s, High Plains Tango, I had mentioned the similarities between the narrator and the author in that particular story. Unfortunately, the same holds true for this one.

I suspect it’s one of the main reasons that writers like McCarthy avoid the media for so long, to avoid comparisons to their characters. In Oprah’s interview, just last year, McCarthy admits dedicating this story to his son and that it was inspired from a dream, a vision he saw one night and just took dictation by day. (Didn’t John Milton [Paradise Lost] say the same thing?) It is clear that McCarthy’s authorial voice creeps up throughout this entire story in dialog that only McCarthy can tenderly evoke for his beloved young boy; the apple of his eye.

That’s a shame for this reader, but I quickly was able to put all that aside and enjoy the story as it was meant to be enjoyed. Savoring every word, because McCarthy never seems to run out of metaphor or bizarre adjectives for almost 250 pages. That in and of itself is an amazing feat, but nothing new to McCarthy and his loyal followers. Eye-opening passages in all the right places seems to come easy to McCarthy. In this story, the pacing of the man’s sickness, his demise, was rhythmic and delivered with a cadence that’s hard to match.

The Road is a seamless and cohesive tale, told as simply as only McCarthy can tell it. Strikingly real, despite its usual McCarthy flaws that always seem to show up in his dialog. Again, in The Crossing, it was the Indian at the opening of the story who, perhaps intentionally, came across as a comic book character. Here, McCarthy seems to delegate to each of the transient characters, a good measure of both, stupidity and poor comic timing, all rolled into one.

"Is it me, or has McCarthy revised passages from Jon Clinch’s Finn? Similarities between Finn’s “Preacher Man” and the “Lost Blind Man” in The Road seem quite obvious to me. Like bad caricatures in a Popeye cartoon, dissonantly off-key. Although, the effect that McCarthy is after here, I suppose, is that of incredulity which hopefully echoes realism. An effect beyond the suspension of disbelief."

But all those somewhat personal annoyances are one thing, and if one were to look through the eyes of a cynic, we can also see that critics and book reviewers have repeatedly and unabashedly espoused McCarthy as their hero, simply because the world of literature needs a hero, just like the NBA needed Michael Jordan.

Let’s face it, agent’s jobs depend on heroes, because heroes bring in spectators and sell tickets and books. They make things exciting, and excitement always motivates people to buy.

Does any of this diminish accomplished writers like McCarthy? That’s in the eyes and ears of the beholder. McCarthy knows better, and so do his fans.

In this reader’s view, McCarthy usually tells his tales like quasi Milton-esque poems strung between philosophical bookends. You can take a shortcut by reading the first and last chapters and still get the meaning behind all the words, but unfortunately, you would miss all the interesting words and ideas in between.

Once you’ve read much of McCarthy’s work, you find his technique. His modus operandi, if you will. The dark colors of his pallet. The broad brushstrokes and minute detail in all the right places. You begin to notice all the key words and phrasing that he so masterfully splashes across his canvas. The literary masters he revises, such as his mentors: William Faulkner (As I Lay Dying), Herman Melville (Moby-Dick), and the granddaddy of them all, John Milton (Paradise Lost).

But this is McCarthy’s tenth book, and suddenly, McCarthy must now revise (see revisionist literature) McCarthy just as other writers are now revising his work, not just for the sake of revision and homage, but for the sake of literature as an art form.

In McCarthy’s own words:

“The ugly fact is books are made out of books," he says. "The novel depends for its life on the novels that have been written.”

If this is indeed the case, and one can assume that it is, then The Road, his forthcoming novel, The Passenger, plus three other books in the works, each owes a debt to novels similar to them.

We can only imagine which novels those might be, although based on what we’ve already seen, his picks are most likely somewhat narrow and his themes maybe even predictable.

Yet, we can hardly wait for another mind-blowing adventure from the mastermind behind it all. A writer’s writer. The one with a mind all his own who writes without fear, without explanation, and without malice.

Cormac McCarthy may not be a great writer to many readers who never seem to understand his stories, but to writers, he is the epitome of a [literary] giant without boundaries.

Shouldn’t that be what all writers and all human beings aspire to?


My next Post is up in the air folks. Some of the author's I'm reading are way to complex to do them justice here. I'm talking about Norman Mailer's Oswald's Tale, or Milton's Paradise Lost.

I'm also waiting for Jon Clinch's upcoming Kings of The Earth to hit the shelves in March, I think. Check out my archives for plenty of interesting stuff in the meantime.

I'll surprise you with something next week. BTW, thank you for your comments folks, and if you want to keep on top of all these Posts, you can subscribe to this Blogspot for all the latest.