Book #3 (January 16, 2010): The Road by Cormac McCarthy
In his introduction to McSweeney’s Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories (see my last post), Michael Chabon muses about the elusive nature of genre, which has as much to do with publishing convention as with the actual content of those books that are published with a genre label on their spines. When Robert Heinlein speculated about the future in Time Enough for Love and Stranger in a Strange Land, it was science fiction. When Margaret Atwood speculates about the future, it’s mainstream literature. To some extent this reflects the nature of the writing. Heinlein was a hardcore, in-your-face storyteller. Atwood’s writing is subtler and heavier on interior monologue. So maybe Atwood belongs in the literature section of the bookstore and Heinlein would be out of place there. But The Handmaid’s Tale is, nonetheless, science fiction.
So is Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Not only is it science fiction but it’s very good science fiction, thrillingly conceived and beautifully written (though the ending strikes me as a little too pat). Writing in a stream-of-consciousness style that’s deliberately light on any punctuation that might slow down the flow of words, McCarthy gradually sets up a situation that not only qualifies as science fiction but as horror. A father and son wander along an unnamed series of highways across a North American landscape apparently depopulated by nuclear winter. The food chain has shut down in the eternal twilight and there’s nothing left to eat except the occasional forgotten cache of canned food. And, of course, human flesh. This is the line that both father and son refuse to cross, but plenty of other people have crossed it. The greatest threat in this post-nuclear world, other than starvation, is cannibalism and this tiny family is forced to skulk along the road, scattering into the bushes at the first sign of other humans, in order to avoid being gutted and served on a barbecue spit.
There are some terrifying set pieces in this book, like the scene where father and son enter a seemingly abandoned basement only to discover that it’s a prison for hapless captives gradually being dismembered by an extended family of cannibals. (In a world without electric power for refrigeration, it’s apparently more efficient to eat still-living victims than to kill them and let most of the food go to waste.) As a plot complication, the father is dying of some disease that causes him to go into periodic spasms of coughing. (Lung cancer? Tuberculosis?) He knows the son will have to go on without him at some point and watches the skies for some sign that the perpetual cover of stratospheric clouds is starting to dissipate, giving his child some kind of future that won’t involve perpetual flight through collapsing forests.
McCarthy’s style is straightforward but occasionally graced by images that are achingly beautiful or beautifully sad. It’s a short book, barely more than a novella, and if it interests you, you can probably read it in an evening or two. (It took me two.) Interest in the science fiction and horror genres is, obviously, not required here because you won’t find this book in those sections of the bookstore. You’ll find it in the literature section, not far from Margaret Atwood.