Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Mutt Ploughman: "The Best Novel I Have Read in 2006, Bar None"

"As in all the best fiction, in McCarthy's work, language is not a tool; it's an element." - Reviewer Michael Helm, The Globe and Mail (Canada)

"The Road", a new novel by one of my all-time favorite writers, Cormac McCarthy, is the best novel I have read in 2006, bar none. Yes, at least in my view, it is that good.

I'd like to present some of my thoughts about why, but in so doing I am burdening myself with two challenges. One, to keep my comments about the book brief. I don't plan to say a lot; it's just not necessary. My firm recommendation to all who read this is just to read the novel. The second challenge is not to give any of the story away.

I suppose it may be too early to begin year-end lists, but this book will not be equalled by anything I read between now and December, two months' time. With the possible exception of my annual Dickens read ("Nicholas Nickelby" this year), nothing will even be in the same class, and as great as Dickens was, it's hard to draw a comparison between McCarthy's book, which is a veritable clinic in economy and technical precision, to anything Dickens wrote, to which you couldn't possibly apply the same terms.

The bare bones plot of "The Road" has been outlined in numerous reviews and blurbs which exist in countless places already. It's some time in the future, and the world is a devastated corpse of what it once was, due to an unspecified, and probably nuclear, calamity on a massive scale. Most of the planet is charred and dead, including almost all wildlife and plantlife. Everywhere there is carrion and destruction. Through this landscape, two survivors, a father and a young son around age 10, walk alone on the literal and metaphorical "road" of the novel's title, scavenging for food, heading south for warmer weather, and trying to escape from bands of other mutated survivors who eat other people: the only steady food source still around.

Their journey is a story of survival. There are plenty of horrible sights and terrifying encounters. But their authentic and moving relationship to one another is the emotional core of this bleak but brilliant story. And the writing itself is the true treasure of the whole experience. McCarthy has been writing brilliantly about nature and about metaphysical truths for decades. Here he hones down his longer, Faulknerian passages of old for short, concise paragraphs, by turns lovely and visceral, lush and violent. Like the reviewer Michael Helm wrote above, Cormac McCarthy's use of the English language becomes in itself a force of nature. You will feel cold, desolate, hopeless and lonely when you read this book.

But through it all, especially if you have children of your own, you will feel warmth from a single source: the father's desparate and all-powerful love for his son. He will stop at nothing to protect him, and he will not abandon him short of his own death, for any reason. In the hands of weaker novelists, this element of the story would be laughable, or simply trite; in McCarthy's hands, it is literally a torch, and you will follow it willingly through the darkness of this book. There are some brief scenes that are nearly unbearable in their agony: the father cannot force himself to take certain steps that COULD help them in the long term, but may hurt or terrify his only son in the short term. His love is stronger than some of his most primal instincts.

And just when this book cannot get any darker there is a brief but hopeful conclusion to the novel that dares to offer the suggestion of victory for love and life in a world annihilated by senseless evil and death.

This novel's final paragraph is one of the most breathtaking and luminous passages I have ever read, and it's only about 3 sentences long. In it, McCarthy pulls the camera of his expansive vision back and revisits a dream-world, back when the earth was teeming with beautiful creations only a Supreme Being could have designed, and offers a single glimpse of beauty and magnificence that even today is available to everyone, if only you can pause and open your eyes for long enough to see it. It is a single paragraph that could invoke hours of discussion and interpretations, but in the end it is simply a final flourish of a haunting and lyrical literary masterpiece.


Duke Altum said...

Of course I've known Mutt forever, and I've heard him to react to lots of books, in fact, lots of McCarthy books... but something in the tone of what he's been saying about this book is different. I think it's safe to say that this novel has had an altogether different effect on him than that of all other McCarthy works. Needless to say, that alone makes me damned interested in it.

As if I wouldn't be anyway. Because of course I too and a HUGE fan and admirer of McCarthy's fiction. I think he's the greatest living American novelist bar none, and that includes Roth or Morrison or anyone else. I think he's writing on a different plane entirely, much like O'Connor and Faulkner were (but few, if any, others, in my opinion). It's no accident that all 3 of those writers were very aware of the reality of the spiritual world in their books, and its effects on the lives of their characters as they struggle through what they all portray (though in different ways) as a very broken, fallen world.

"The Road" obviously portrays our world as LITERALLY broken and fallen, and in that sense I can see why many reviewers have said that the book in some ways reads almost like the next logical step for all of his previous books. The other books, with their horrific violence and lonely landscapes, seemed to hint at the essential spiritual brokeness of things; this one seems to tear away the curtain and show us that ugliness. And yet, in the midst of that ugliness, you have this powerful love between father and son, which seems to anchor these human souls to some notion of hope that otherwise would have been lost long ago.

As a father of three sons stumbling through our own, real tormented world, I can certainly relate to such a theme. I've been looking forward to this one for a long time, but with the reviews it's getting and Mutt's tantalizing descriptions of the sheer impact of the book here, I'm starting to wonder if my "wait for the paperback" strategy is tenable... (though I would rather read it that way just for practical reasons)

Aura McKnightly said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Aura McKnightly said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.