Thursday, January 22, 2009

A Dead End

I finished a couple weeks ago 2008's Pulitzer Prize winner for literature, Cormac McCarthy's The Road. This was intended to be light vacation reading, which shows one how cursorily I scanned the cover before buying it for this purpose. This is a vacation book like a camping trip to Auschwitz is a vacation activity.

We don't really know what's going on. The book begins at no particular point a decade or so after some calamity has befallen the Earth--presumably a nuclear holocaust, though it's not made entirely clear. Everything is dead; there is no vegetation or animal or insect life whatsoever, and only a handful of increasingly desperate humans wandering the land scavenging what can be found from previous stocks of canned food. As these become almost perfectly scarce, people become more and more desperate, banding together to hunt and kill other humans for their stores of food and, well, to make food of the humans themselves. In this setting we meet a man and his pre-teen son, who are trying to make their way South (from where to where we don't quite know, though "the coast" is their destination). Each has only the other as his entire world--they know no one else, they have no home and few possessions. Society is completely gone and people live entirely on the lam, ceaselessly foraging to stay alive.

A raw human essence appears starkly against the encroaching void as the father attempts to impart the wisdom and moral compass of his experience to the son who will have no civilized world from which to learn. The boy was born shortly after the holocaust event (and the mother is not in the picture for her own grim reasons), and so he has grown up knowing only an itinerant life in a burned-out landscape, a life of constant fear, a razor's edge existence. The father's stories of a lush life of ease and abundance are the stuff of fantasy, a bedtime story for humanity itself. The father is dying of some lung ailment--I suppose related to the fact that the sun never shines and they breathe air laced constantly with the ash of everything that has burned about them--and he is trying in the time remaining to him to teach his son what it is to be good and moral and decent in a world where those things have just about ceased to have meaning. As the father fades away, the son must manage his own coming of age in the post-apocalypse.

If it sounds unappetizing, well, there it is.

I haven't the slightest clue about the criteria used to determine what warrants a Pulitzer, but I can't quite imagine a bleaker book about a bleaker subject matter than this one. The moments of tenderness and humanity are made striking by the complete absence of anything warm or human anywhere else. The love between a father and son will avail them little, because these things only (possibly) sustain an existence which itself will avail them little. The outlook for them is utterly hopeless. The prognosis for Earth and humanity itself is hopeless. And while a story might be made of the larger picture--how it happened (even what, exactly, happened), who was affected and how, what the prognosis is and how it might or might not be different than it is--we are instead treated to this little snapshot: two people we don't know and don't really get to know, living through something we only sketchily grasp toward an end the specifics of which are kept hidden from us. The story begins seemingly at a random point and ends almost as arbitrarily.

This is not a setup which I would predict might yield great literature (which fact--that I can't predict greatness in literary matters--needn't surprise anyone). And far be it from me to deny a Pulitzer Prize. But I'm a bit hard-pressed to determine to whom I would recommend this book. When it comes to music, my tastes run to quite the dark and dirge-like. Movies as well. But for me this story is just too dark to find any kind of pleasure or enjoyment or gratification in it. Maybe that needs to be its accomplishment. But I'm afraid I'm at a loss to be the one to declare victory here.


Dzesika said...

Have you read Margaret Atwood's 'Oryx and Crake'? Just as post-apocalyptic but in not quite so horrible a way. (If you want I can box it up with your CD, my copy is gathering dust!)

wunelle said...

Actually, never read any Margaret Atwood. So I'm intrigued. (Probably no reason to shell out for postage, though, since I can doubtless get it from our fabulous local library!)