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When 'Art' Goes All Sci-Fi

Cormac McCarthy's 'The Road' stinks as literature and as genre fiction.

By Crawford Kilian 6 Dec 2006 |

Barring a nuclear winter, the second edition of Crawford Kilian's Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy will be published by Self-Counsel Press early in 2007.

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Cormac McCarthy: couldn't find the words?

Literary authors sometimes like to take holidays in the shabby Third World genres like romance, thrillers and fantasy. Offhand, I can think of several who've landed in my own genre, science fiction: Paul Theroux in O-Zone, Margaret Atwood in The Handmaid's Tale, John Updike in Toward the End of Time.

I can understand the attraction. These authors go straight to the usual tourist traps -- nuclear war, overpopulation, oppressive governments -- pick up some local colour, and go home with stories that will both entertain and horrify their usual readers. It's not exactly sex tourism, but it suggests that mainstream literature can be a little too genteel and boring sometimes.

The latest tourist is none other than Cormac McCarthy, who has already partied in the western (Blood Meridian) and the regional novel (All the Pretty Horses). He is an author I both admire and detest: he's an amazing storyteller, but technically he's just another dumb gringo tourist who can't hold his mescal.

McCarthy's fatal flaw is that he can't go for two paragraphs without reminding us that he's a hell of a good writer, and that makes him a terrible writer. He's like a playwright who hangs around onstage, commenting on his actors' performance and stepping on their lines.

Gore with a cherry on top

In some of his earlier novels, McCarthy has dealt with murderous brigands and hapless young Texans trapped in Mexican jails. He describes appalling slaughter and torture in a high-calorie style that critics smack their lips over.

The effect is like contemplating a corpse whose eyes have been gouged out, each cratered crimson socket filled with thick whipped cream and a fine maraschino cherry. It's a style easy to parody, but it reveals a deeper problem in McCarthy's writing.

Well, here he is in The Road, a post-nuclear horror novel that's winning praise everywhere. I'll add a little praise myself: it is one of the scariest SF novels I have read in a long time. Some of the descriptions are brilliant -- if that's the word I want for a world lost in a blue-grey twilight. I had to stay up late to finish it. Most SF novels are instantly forgettable, but some of McCarthy's scenes will stick in my memory for years.

But it still stinks as science fiction, and it stinks as plain fiction.

Let's start with its failures as SF, a genre where the story simply can't happen without some plausible application of known science. In this case, McCarthy is very cagey: "The clocks stopped at 1:17. A long shear of light and then a series of low concussions." That's all he'll tell us about his MacGuffin, the plot gimmick that launches the story.

This seems to be a nuclear war, because for the next 10 years the earth is in some kind of nuclear winter. The sun never breaks through the overcast, and nights are pitch-black. It's always cold. It rains or snows all the time, but even after 10 years people need to wear masks to filter out the ashes that drift everywhere.

A nuclear war, however, would leave radioactive ashes. McCarthy's survivors suffer from malnutrition and cold, but not from radiation poisoning.

Those survivors appear to have suffered a total bankruptcy of social capital. Some "communes" exist, but we never see any. Instead we see small groups, like the protagonist and his son, or slightly larger groups of brutal cannibals, complete with sex slaves. Everyone has been reduced to scavenging for stray cans of food or roasting babies on spits.

This is very scary, all right, but it presumes a highly unlikely failure of social cohesion right down to the neighbourhood level. McCarthy's disaster couldn't have killed off every sergeant-major and police chief.

In SF, we've been kicking these post-disaster ideas around ever since Mary Shelley's The Last Man, her little-known follow-up to Frankenstein, and especially since Hiroshima. It's just not a plausible outcome.

The curse of the missing apostrophe

Even as straight fiction, The Road runs crooked. McCarthy is fond of that sure sign of literary pretension, dialogue without quotation marks:

What is it? she said. What is happening?
I dont know.
Why are you taking a bath?
I'm not.

The hero is sensibly filling the bathtub with water right after the disaster, and he's so concerned with this job that his use of apostrophes also becomes slapdash.

This hero is nameless: he's just "the man" or "he," and his son is "the boy." His wife, until she commits suicide, is "his wife." They live in a world without names, described in prose that might be called Icelandic baroque. The flat, saga-like style suddenly erupts with gaudily unlikely expressions:

The blackness he woke to on those nights was sightless and impenetrable. A blackness to hurt your ears with listening. Often he had to get up. No sound but the wind in the bare and blackened tree. He rose and stood tottering in that cold autistic dark with his arms outheld for balance while the vestibular calculations in his skull cranked out their reckonings.

The paragraph from which I take this excerpt is typical. The average word in it has 4.6 characters, and the average sentence is ten words long. The Flesch-Kincaid readability scale says a grade 5 pupil could understand it.

But McCarthy must have his cold autistic dark and vestibular calculations -- better said, his protagonist must have them. The man is clearly very smart and very educated, a capable survivor. We see the story through his eyes and understand it with his vocabulary. Dying of TB, driven by the need to protect his son, he still thinks and perceives with a vocabulary as rich and perceptive as Cormac McCarthy's.

Absent language: a symbol of what?

The man realizes that words are disappearing; humanity is becoming dehumanized by its loss of language. (The moral significance of language is of course yet another SF convention, understood and exploited by authors from Thomas More to Kurt Vonnegut.) He has taught his son to read, and tells him stories when they've camped for the night. The two of them pore over ragged road maps as they plod southward toward the sea and some hope of warmth.

You would expect such an intellectual, especially in such conditions, to be a positive chatterbox, revelling in names, telling stories and reminiscing while he and his son push their shopping cart down the road. If the world of language was vital to the man before the clocks stopped, he should be trying to pass along to his son as much as possible of that world. Instead, his speech has dwindled to catchphrases: "We're the good guys. We carry the fire."

The namelessness of McCarthy's world makes the setting literally generic: the closest we can guess to the region is that it's somewhere in the U.S. south, where kudzu -- dead at last -- covers the blackened hills. The only place name in the novel is Tenerife, the home port of a wrecked yacht that the father plunders when they reach the sea at last. Why mention Tenerife and not the names of the Alabama or Mississippi towns they've walked through?

I could accept and believe the man as a destroyed intellectual, smart enough to survive at the cost of his language -- if McCarthy's language had only reflected that destruction. After ten years of nuclear winter, terms like "autistic dark" and "vestibular calculations" should not even occur to him.

So McCarthy won't even respect the integrity of his own protagonist's suffering, much less give him a name. All the awful events of this novel are just occasions for Cormac McCarthy to remind us that he, not his miserable cart-pushing pilgrim, is the real hero of The Road.