Tuesday, June 26, 2007

A new book to love

For Father's Day I sent my Dad a copy of Cormac McCarthy's The Road. I know that as a (part-time) denizen of the Ivory Tower I am supposed to avoid "Oprah books," but she's been picking some really fine books. And I've wanted to read some McCarthy for a while and never got around to it. So, I also got a copy for myself. (Plus, I have a lot of trouble resisting post-apocalyptic fiction.) Dad'd finished it already, I just started.

I already wish I were teaching it in the fall.

I love the writing! I mean, yeah, it is a dark and weighty tale (and I'm only on page 35), but who can resist writing like:

In the dream from which he'd wakened he had wandered in a cave where the child led him by the hand. Their light playing over the wet flowstone walls. Like pilgrims in a fable swallowed up and lost among the inward parts of some granitic beast. Deep stone flues where the water dripped and sang. Tolling in the silence the minutes of the earth and the hours and the days of it and the years without cease. (3)


By day the banished sun circles the earth like a grieving mother with a lamp. (32)

Which is first of all a beautiful and moving simile, of course. But it also pulls up echoes of the Demeter/Persephone myth. Now, in a book about a father and son, to call on this mother/daughter myth is very interesting. But also, clearly this story takes place in the aftermath of nuclear war (or worse, I suppose) and the world is sunk deep into the worst kind of winter - it is literal winter in the opening of the story, but it is also nuclear winter. And winter, mythologically, is when the daughter, Persephone, must remain in the Underworld and the mother, Demeter, grieves and has no love to spare for the earth to let things grow. One more dimension of this allusion that interests me - the book, at least in the beginning and I suspect throughout, is full of the father's flickering faith, the suspicion that God has gone to ground (underground?) in the wake of the cataclysm.

Here is the point where, were I speaking out loud in a classroom, the students would start to look at me askance and finally some brave soul would ask if I really thought the author meant that (or, the usually unspoken corollary, am I just making that all that up)? And yes, yes, oh yes. Maybe not at first, maybe the metaphor came first, and then the echoes and then other things get built up to support it. But McCarthy does not for a minute seem to me like a sloppy writer or a thoughtless writer. I think he carefully considered every word and phrase and sentence that made it to the final draft. I think this is a book with no filler. This is a book as lean and worn to essentials as the lives it gives us.

In short, I don't just love the story, gripping from that first section of the man's dream, but I also love the writing, the way it so quickly communicates what is urgent and what the situation is, what the stakes are, and still, somehow, so sparsely, gives a reader what you often only get from poetry.

Books I would teach with The Road:
Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (not really post-apocalyptic, but similarities, and unnamed narrators)
Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake
Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower
Jose Saramago's Blindness

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