The Adjectives of Cormac McCarthy’s Road

the-road

 

(By/via).

Five Favorite Fictional Fathers

Literature seems to have an ambivalence toward fatherhood that’s too complex to address in a simple blog post–so I won’t even try. But before I riff on a few of my favorite fathers from a few of my favorite books, I think it’s worth pointing out how rare biological fathers of depth and complexity are in literature. That’s a huge general statement, I’m sure, and I welcome counterexamples, of course, but it seems like relationships between fathers and their children are somehow usually deferred, deflected, or represented in a shallow fashion. Perhaps it’s because we like our heroes to be orphans (whether it’s Moses or Harry Potter, Oliver Twist or Peter Parker) that literature tends to eschew biological fathers in favor of father figures (think of Leopold Bloom supplanting Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses, or Merlin taking over Uther Pendragon‘s paternal duties in the Arthur legends). At other times, the father is simply not present in the same narrative as his son or daughter (think of Telemachus and brave Odysseus, or Holden Caulfield wandering New York free from fatherly guidance). What I’ve tried to do below is provide examples of father-child relationships drawn with psychological and thematic depth; or, to put it another way, here are some fathers who actually have relationships with their kids.

Prospero and Miranda--William Maw Egley
Prospero and Miranda–William Maw Egley

1. Prospero, The Tempest (William Shakespeare)

Prospero has always seemed to me the shining flipside to King Lear’s dark coin, a powerful sorcerer who reverses his exile and is gracious even in his revenge. Where Lear is destroyed by his scheming daughters (and his inability to connect to truehearted Cordelia), Prospero, a single dad, protects his Miranda and even secures her a worthy suitor. Postcolonial studies aside, The Tempest is fun stuff.

2. Abraham Ebdus, The Fortress of Solitude, (Jonathan Lethem)

Like Prospero, Abraham Ebdus is a single father raising his child (his son Dylan) in an isolated, alienating place (not a desert island, but 1970’s Brooklyn). After Dylan’s mother abandons the family, the pair’s relationship begins to strain; Lethem captures this process in all its awkward pain with a poignancy that never even verges on schlock. The novel’s redemptive arc is ultimately figured in the reconciliation between father and son in a beautiful ending that Lethem, the reader, and the characters all earn.

3. Jack Gladney, White Noise (Don DeLillo)

While Jack Gladney is an intellectual academic, an expert in the unlikely field of “Hitler studies” (and something of a fraud, to boot), he’s also a pretty normal dad. Casual reviewers of White Noise tend to overlook the sublime banality of domesticity represented in DeLillo’s signature novel: Gladney is an excellent father to his many kids and step-kids, and DeLillo draws their relationships with a realism that belies–and perhaps helps to create–the novel’s satirical bent.

4. Oscar Amalfitano, 2666 (Roberto Bolaño)

Sure, philosophy professor Amalfitano is a bit mentally unhinged (okay, more than a bit), but what sane citizen of Santa Teresa wouldn’t go crazy, what with all the horrific unsolved murders? After his wife leaves him and their young daughter, Amalfitano takes them to the strange, alienating land of Northern Mexico (shades of Prospero’s island?) Bolaño portrays Amalfitano’s descent into paranoia (and perhaps madness) from a number of angles (he and his daughter show up in three of 2666‘s three sections), and as the novel progresses, the reader slowly begins to grasp the enormity of the evil that Amalfitano is confronting (or, more realistically, is unable to confront directly), and the extreme yet vague danger his daughter is encountering. Only a writer of Bolaño’s tremendous gift could make such a chilling episode simultaneously nerve-wracking, philosophical, and strangely hilarious.

5. The father, The Road (Cormac McCarthy)

What happens when Prospero’s desert island is just one big desert? If there is a deeper expression of the empathy and bonding between a child and parent, I have not read it. In The Road, McCarthy dramatizes fatherhood in apocalyptic terms, positing the necessity of such a relationship in hard, concrete, life and death terms. When the father tells his son “You are the best guy” I pretty much break down. When I first read The Road, I had just become a father myself (my child was only a few days old when I finished it), yet I was still critical of McCarthy’s ending, which affords a second chance for the son. It seemed to me at the time–as it does now–that the logic McCarthy establishes in his novel is utterly infanticidal, that the boy must die, but I understand now why McCarthy would have him live–why McCarthy has to let him live. Someone has to carry the fire.


The Road — Vasily Grossman

I’d never heard of Vasily Grossman until Timothy Snyder referred to him, briefly, as a Soviet journalist who published some of the first unflinching reports of atrocities committed by Nazi soldiers and Hitler’s secret police during their conquest of eastern Europe. In Bloodlands, Snyder lauded Grossman as a reporter guided by a clear moral vision and a keen understanding of the tenuousness of human life.  A Ukrainian Jew who rhapsodized the Red Army’s defense of Stalingrad and then followed it all the way to Berlin, he built a literary career under the Soviet system before passing away with little fanfare. Although his early novels sold in the millions, at the time of his death in 1964 his reputation in his homeland was shattered, his health had deteriorated, and his final novels were blacklisted.  He could count himself lucky to have lived through a number of purges of the U.S.S.R.’s literary elite.  Edited and compiled by Robert Chandler for the impressive New York Review Books imprint, The Road collects of a number of his short stories, essays, letters, and articles in one well-curated volume, an excellent introduction to an important but neglected voice.

Organized chronologically, Grossman’s stories are separated by brief biographical notes thoughtfully included by Chandler. Although the selections fall into early, middle, and later works, it becomes clear that Grossman’s life as a man and as a writer (at least how it is presented here) can be broken up into distinct periods marked by increasing dissatisfaction with life under Soviet rule. Chandler labels the periods, from earliest to latest: “The 1930s,” The War, The Shoah,” and “Late Stories.”  The works in this collection are sad—truly sad—but throughout he returns to remembrances of love and small gestures of tenderness.  He is marked by the excesses of the totalitarian regimes he waged war upon and lived under. As a result, his writing demonstrates an appreciation of kindness that could only arise from a true comprehension of both humanity’s potential for cruelty and the limitless power of an autonomous mind.

The first short section, “The 1930s,” collects three concise stories concerning the creation and dissolution of family bonds.  “A Small Life” describes a couple that decides to foster a child from their village orphanage who ultimately finds them weird and boring, while in “In the Town of Berdichev” a rough female commander in a military unit must take a forced leave when her pregnancy makes it impossible for her to fulfill her duties to her company. She fondly remembers the father who was shot down in battle, but struggles to balance her duty to protect her child against her duty to protect her county.  Perhaps the most striking of the three stories is the last, titled “A Young Woman and an Old Woman.” The title characters are both rewarded by their state employers with a free trip to a seaside resort and share a train cabin as they journey to the coast.   They talk.  The young woman, enjoying her rise through the Soviet system, befriends the older woman who has been saddened by the surprising detention of her daughter and her own stalled professional ambitions. These two subtly drawn characters never fully understand the hidden mechanisms behind their fleeting instances of happiness. Perhaps these mechanisms have been hidden by the totalitarian state or, maybe because they’re people, they will always be doomed to wonder.

As the book transitions to its second section, Grossman seems torn between his duty as a reporter to inspire his fellow citizens to sacrifice for the greater good and his need to rail against the injustices perpetrated by warring totalitarian regimes. Like “In the Town of Berdichev,” “The Old Man” finds Grossman adopting a tone that might almost be described as propagandistic. A quiet old man, a beekeeper whose livelihood requires patience and silence, overcomes a lifetime of reticence by braining a German soldier with a shovel.  Much better is “The Old Teacher,” a story about a village’s elderly teacher, a Jew.  Distraught by what he sees as Nazi soldiers advance on his town—long simmering feuds settled by prompt denunciations, families thrown out of houses, all sorts of groveling and obsequiousness—the old man reflects on his failings and his fleeting successes.  The teacher and the town’s other Jews are forcefully marched to a ravine.  There they are made to lie down and wait for the firing squad, positioned above them on a hill, to reload.  The victims, in their last moments, see brave assertions of individual dignity, dole out small kindnesses, and console each other with the hope that others will not suffer similar fates. “The Hell of Treblinka” and “The Sistene Madonna” close this section. The former is Grossman’s terrible and moving account of the discovery of the death camp at Treblinka, written while reporting the westward march of the Soviet Red Army. The latter is an attempt to explain the power of Raphael’s rendering of The Sistene Madonna. The Madonna and her child symbolize the universal mother’s struggle to  protect a child —  a child she must relinquish to the world. For Grossman,  the mother and son are recurring historical figures who reappear wherever human life is reduced to a simple mathematical calculation: at the death camps; in blackened cities throughout Europe; in the famine-ravaged Ukraine; at Hiroshima. Freedom requires individuals to confront existential fears — “Their human strength triumphed over the violence. The Madonna walked toward the gas chamber, treading lightly on small bare feet. She carried her son over the swaying earth of Treblinka.”

The final section contains a number of staggering stories, the type you shove into a stranger’s hand with a wild look in your eye. These are stories that remind you of the masters of the form, writers like Hemingway, Chekov, Eudora Welty, and Cortazar. “The Elk” is a fantastic rumination on illness, love, and political repression. “The Road” is written from the vantage point of an Italian mule conscripted into the war on the side of the Axis powers. As he is forcefully marched through northern Africa and then the Russian steppe strapped to heavy artillery he forgets the pleasure taken from green shoots and visions of young mares. His indifference permits his survival. In “Mama,” one of Stalin’s top advisers adopts the orphaned child of parents he may have had a hand in killing. Grossman gives his readers a glance of the luxurious and precarious lives of those residing at the very top of the Soviet system. Even Isaac Babel makes an appearance (read Red Calvary if you haven’t already).

The Road brings together a number of works by an artist who deserves greater recognition. Grossman witnessed some of worst atrocities of the twentieth century, and his writing demonstrates a need to speak out against a particular brand of cruelty.  His writing in The Road is brave not only because a number of these stories could probably have led to his imprisonment, exile, or condemnation, but also because he utilizes terrible situations to illustrate humanity’s best qualities. Without being obvious, he champions mercy, understanding, and unconditional love. Beautiful stuff. Pick it up if you can.

Biblioklept’s 777th Post Spectacular

Welcome to Biblioklept’s 777th Post Spectacular*

*Not guaranteed to be spectacular.

777 seems like a beautiful enough number to celebrate, and because we’re terribly lazy, let’s celebrate by sharing reviews of seven of our favorite novels that have been published since this blog started back in the hoary yesteryear of 2006. In (more or less) chronological order–

The Children’s Hospital–Chris Adrian — A post-apocalyptic love boat with metaphysical overtones, Adrian’s end of the world novel remains underrated and under-read.

The Road — Cormac McCarthy That ending gets me every time. The first ending, I mean, the real one, the one between the father and son, not the tacked on wish-fulfillment fantasy after it. Avoid the movie.

A Mercy — Toni Morrison –Slender and profound, A Mercy should be required reading for all students of American history. Or maybe just all Americans.

Tree of Smoke — Denis Johnson — Nobody knew we needed another novel about the Vietnam War and then Johnson went and showed us that we did. But it’s fair to say his book is about more than that; it’s an espionage thriller about the human soul.

2666 — Roberto Bolaño — How did he do it? Maybe it was because he was dying, his life-force transferred to the page. Words as viscera. God, the blood of the thing. 2666 is both the labyrinth and the minotaur.

Asterios Polyp — David Mazzucchelli — We laughed, we cried, and oh god that ending, right? Wait, you haven’t read Asterios Polyp yet? Is that because it’s a graphic novel, a, gasp, comic book? Go get it. Read it. Come back. We’ll wait.

C — Tom McCarthy — Too much has been made over whether McCarthy’s newest novel (out in the States next week) is modernist or Modernist or post-modernist or avant-garde or whatever–these are dreadfully boring arguments when stacked against the book itself, which is complex, rich, enriching, maddening.

“Apocalypse Needs A Breather” — China Miéville Riffs on Hillcoat’s Adaptation of The Road

One of Biblioklept’s favorite weirdos, China Miéville takes on a perceived overabundance of apocalypse movies in his article “The End, The End, The End, Etcetera” published in McSweeney’s #33, aka The Panaroma, aka the giant-assed newspaper issue (here’s a quick review: Jeesy Creezy the thing is massive. It’s like a bizarre aesthetic tchtochke that just happens to be overstuffed with all kinds of great writers writing on all kinds of great stuff. I’ve been trying to digest it on Sundays after breakfast with a few coffees but it’s too big. It’s really too much, and it’s also the sort of document that should tell McSweeney’s-haters to fuck off, or at least reveal them as kinda mean-spirited. It’s like a strange, thorough dream, where Stephen King writes your sports section and William Vollman does in-depth national reporting and Chris Ware handles the comics page. Hang on–that’s probably not a legit review. Anyway).

So Miéville basically tells Hollywood to give it a rest with all the apocalypse movies, saying that it’s not that he doesn’t love them, it’s just that there’s such a surplus as of late. “Hollywood has studied at porn’s knee,” he writes, arguing that end-of-the-world flicks like Armegeddon, The Day After Tomorrow, 2012, Wall-E, 9, The Book of Eli and Deep Impact are “sexual fantasies . . . These apocalyptes are clearly scratching various itches.” Miéville dubs the trend in disaster flicks “bukkakalypse,” arguing that these films are “obsessed not only with the world-drenching spurt itself, but with the Face of the Earth wet with its effects, stoically putting up with the soaking.” Charming. +100 internets to any soul daring enough to google “bukkakalypse.”

Miéville focuses the thrust of his article on John Hillcoat’s film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road. His shorthand review kinda sorta captures my own ambivalence about the film: “Is The Road a good film? Sure. Maybe. Whatever. It depends on what you mean by ‘good.'” Miéville suggests that, “For all its portent, The Road displays a preemptive nostalgia perhaps even more pronounced than in its pulpier cousins.” Citing the father and the boy’s use of a consumerist emblem, the shopping cart, to move on and “carry the fire,” Miéville goes on to argue that,

The film, then, is structured around a punning triptych. There’s that good, lost consumption early on [the loss of a consumerist world]. Then, in the absence of commodity, there’s the terrible, Hobbesian predatory consumption of cannibalism, relentlessly stressed as an ultimate evil, rather than the relatively everyday sordidness it would almost certainly become. And refuse to eat each other? What then? Then the final iteration of the term. The father at last doubles up, coughing bronchially, and hawks up blood. In that shopless nightmare, what else is afflicting him but consumption.

Puns! Okay. As a committed Marxist or materialist (or whatever he is), of course Miéville’s gonna read The Road as an allegory of apocalypse as loss of consumerist possibility (he reads the whole Coca-Cola-drinking episode as a version of lost sacrament). Fair analysis, I guess–not one I particularly buy, but without getting into a whole ball of wax over the intentional fallacy and whatnot, I think that Miéville’s criticism that the film (and book) doesn’t recognize the Darwinian endgame of “Hobbesian predatory consumption” as “the relatively everyday sordidness it would almost certainly become” kinda sorta misses the whole point of the narrative. In my own review of the book, I argued that McCarthy’s refusal to give into the infanticide that the novel’s schema overwhelmingly predicated was hard to swallow (“cop out,” I believe, was my term), but it also seems to me that the moral impetus of the novel involves a refusal of cannibalism, an idea that to survive as a human is more than just to survive as a body. But back to film.

I didn’t particularly care for Hillcoat’s version of The Road, even though I wanted to, even though the actors were great, even though it looked great, etc. I don’t know what I didn’t like about it (okay, I thought Nick Cave’s score was both awful and intrusive, but that seems minor here). It just seemed thoroughly unnecessary and ultimately unfun. Miéville again, this time on an end-of-the-world film I can’t help but love:

The “hope” at the end of Mad Max: Beyond the Thunderdome is that the lost tribes have managed to turn on a few lights in Sydney. Such hankering for drab normality doesn’t have to be particularly convincing to do its rhetorical job. Just as well, really, because seriously? After all the splendidly coiffed and colorful shenanigans of Tina Turner’s Bartertown, is living in a partially revived Bondi really an improvement? Couldn’t we take everything in a different direction altogether? Do something new? The aspirational Good Futures of these Bad Futures are always their pasts–our present.

Although Miéville gives The Road the credit it deserves for being one of the rare apocalypse flicks that “evades this pre-post-facto nostalgia,” he also reiterates my own criticism: it’s just not that fun. And the end of the world should be fun. Miéville doesn’t mention films like Zombieland, a forgettable but enjoyable farce that posits apocalypse as freewheelin’ opportunity, or the self-aware (but not too-self-aware) pastiche Doomsday, a film that fuses every hoary apocalypse trope into 90 minutes of escapist, ass-kicking, thoroughly nonsensical fun. Neither film aspires to great art (unlike Hillcoat’s take on The Road), nor do these films aim for the catharsis-via-annihilation of blockbuster fare like Armegeddon. They’re just good fun, which is all I really want from the end of the world.

New Cormac McCarthy Interview

cormac-mccarthy-in-new-york11

There’s a very cool new interview with Cormac McCarthy, published yesterday at The Wall Street Journal, of all places. McCarthy speaks frankly about the movie adaptations of his work, including John Hillcoat’s upcoming (and long-delayed) adaptation of The Road. He also proffers this nugget, explaining why he prefers novels to short fiction: “Anything that doesn’t take years of your life and drive you to suicide hardly seems worth doing.” Sure. McCarthy also talks about the book he’s writing now: “It’s mostly set in New Orleans around 1980. It has to do with a brother and sister. When the book opens she’s already committed suicide, and it’s about how he deals with it. She’s an interesting girl.” But why are you still here? Go read the interview.

Five Favorite Fictional Fathers

Literature seems to have an ambivalence toward fatherhood that’s too complex to address in a simple blog post–so I won’t even try. But before I riff on a few of my favorite fathers from a few of my favorite books, I think it’s worth pointing out how rare biological fathers of depth and complexity are in literature. That’s a huge general statement, I’m sure, and I welcome counterexamples, of course, but it seems like relationships between fathers and their children are somehow usually deferred, deflected, or represented in a shallow fashion. Perhaps it’s because we like our heroes to be orphans (whether it’s Moses or Harry Potter, Oliver Twist or Peter Parker) that literature tends to eschew biological fathers in favor of father figures (think of Leopold Bloom supplanting Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses, or Merlin taking over Uther Pendragon‘s paternal duties in the Arthur legends). At other times, the father is simply not present in the same narrative as his son or daughter (think of Telemachus and brave Odysseus, or Holden Caulfield wandering New York free from fatherly guidance). What I’ve tried to do below is provide examples of father-child relationships drawn with psychological and thematic depth; or, to put it another way, here are some fathers who actually have relationships with their kids.

Prospero and Miranda--William Maw Egley
Prospero and Miranda--William Maw Egley

1. Prospero, The Tempest (William Shakespeare)

Prospero has always seemed to me the shining flipside to King Lear’s dark coin, a powerful sorcerer who reverses his exile and is gracious even in his revenge. Where Lear is destroyed by his scheming daughters (and his inability to connect to truehearted Cordelia), Prospero, a single dad, protects his Miranda and even secures her a worthy suitor. Postcolonial studies aside, The Tempest is fun stuff.

2. Abraham Ebdus, The Fortress of Solitude, (Jonathan Lethem)

Like Prospero, Abraham Ebdus is a single father raising his child (his son Dylan) in an isolated, alienating place (not a desert island, but 1970’s Brooklyn). After Dylan’s mother abandons the family, the pair’s relationship begins to strain; Lethem captures this process in all its awkward pain with a poignancy that never even verges on schlock. The novel’s redemptive arc is ultimately figured in the reconciliation between father and son in a beautiful ending that Lethem, the reader, and the characters all earn.

3. Jack Gladney, White Noise (Don DeLillo)

While Jack Gladney is an intellectual academic, an expert in the unlikely field of “Hitler studies” (and something of a fraud, to boot), he’s also a pretty normal dad. Casual reviewers of White Noise tend to overlook the sublime banality of domesticity represented in DeLillo’s signature novel: Gladney is an excellent father to his many kids and step-kids, and DeLillo draws their relationships with a realism that belies–and perhaps helps to create–the novel’s satirical bent.

4. Oscar Amalfitano, 2666 (Roberto Bolaño)

Sure, philosophy professor Amalfitano is a bit mentally unhinged (okay, more than a bit), but what sane citizen of Santa Teresa wouldn’t go crazy, what with all the horrific unsolved murders? After his wife leaves him and their young daughter, Amalfitano takes them to the strange, alienating land of Northern Mexico (shades of Prospero’s island?) Bolaño portrays Amalfitano’s descent into paranoia (and perhaps madness) from a number of angles (he and his daughter show up in three of 2666‘s three sections), and as the novel progresses, the reader slowly begins to grasp the enormity of the evil that Amalfitano is confronting (or, more realistically, is unable to confront directly), and the extreme yet vague danger his daughter is encountering. Only a writer of Bolaño’s tremendous gift could make such a chilling episode simultaneously nerve-wracking, philosophical, and strangely hilarious.

5. The father, The Road (Cormac McCarthy)

What happens when Prospero’s desert island is just one big desert? If there is a deeper expression of the empathy and bonding between a child and parent, I have not read it. In The Road, McCarthy dramatizes fatherhood in apocalyptic terms, positing the necessity of such a relationship in hard, concrete, life and death terms. When the father tells his son “You are the best guy” I pretty much break down. When I first read The Road, I had just become a father myself (my child was only a few days old when I finished it), yet I was still critical of McCarthy’s ending, which affords a second chance for the son. It seemed to me at the time–as it does now–that the logic McCarthy establishes in his novel is utterly infanticidal, that the boy must die, but I understand now why McCarthy would have him live–why McCarthy has to let him live. Someone has to carry the fire.