Monday, January 21, 2008

Haunted by the End of the World

As I get older, I tend to feel more drawn to non-fiction than novels. Life and parenthood have a lot to do with it. Nonfiction is just easier to put down when a flight or something else to do pops up. And, when I get engrossed in a novel, even just an okay novel, I don't want to do anything else. I've always had a tendency to live in my head anyway, and when combined with my ability to suspend disbelief--Hollywood writers no doubt wish everyone was like me--relating that I get immersed in a novel is probably an understatement.

So, my novel reading has been episodic throughout adulthood. It's just too hard to put them down. I might read a novel or two a week for a few weeks, but I've also gone months without picking one up.

Still, like many of my gender, I've always enjoyed science fiction. In particular, I've liked post-apocalyptic fiction since, oh, junior high or so. When I was fifteen, I saw The Omega Man twelve times. (Yeah, I thought Rosalind Cash was hot, but that only had a little to do with it.)

My late brother-in-law, Nolan, had the biggest collection of post-apocalyptic novels I've ever seen. (Actually, he had one of the biggest collections of paperbacks I've ever seen, period.) Yeah, he had most of the classics of the genre, but also lots of cheesy, pulp kinda stuff. Stuff you'd be hard-pressed to find nowadays. Stuff that was prone to being thrown out by wives and moms. It was wonderful. He was one of the most intelligent and insightful people I've ever known, but the twelve year-old inside him never went away. We had lots of fun talking about end-of-the world novels: Warday; Alas, Babyon; Lucifer's Hammer; On the Beach; The Stand; Earth Abides; I Am Legend; The Postman. And, of course, all of those cheesy, pulp kinda novels in his bookcase that I'd never heard of.

I would sometimes reflect on why I enjoyed the genre so. Was it because I enjoyed the idea of the human race being nearly wiped out? Nah. I like people, for the most part. I suppose what attracted me most to the stuff was much the same as what attracts folks to westerns: the rugged individual prevails against overwhelming odds, and preserves hope for his town, his country, or humanity itself. It was the adventure element of the genre, and the underdog standing of the typical post-apocalypse protagonist that lured me.

But then, I always wondered: Why doesn't the end or near end of humanity bother me, even in a fictional context? Am I secretly anti-social? Or, am I simply a mean bastard wrapped in a veneer of civility? I harbored a mild conflict between enjoyment and vague guilt when reading or watching the end of the world, but I suppose that conflict only added spice to the allure.

There was, and is, another element: the need to face my fears, especially fears that lurked in the shadows. I grew up in a time when nuclear conflict between the U.S. and the Soviet Union was an all-too-real possibility. I remember the drills in elementary school, and I remember the thoughts that would come to me as I sat beneath my school desk. They were thoughts like, "If this was for real, I might never see my mom, dad, sister, or dog again."

How much did those years emotionally brand folks of my generation? What lingers in the heart and the guts? I don't know. But I do know that I feel sorrow that we had to spend our childhoods with an awareness that we could be incinerated before the day ended. How very sad. Our biggest worry should have been whether we'd get grounded for some misdeed upon returning home from school.

My wife once gave me some good-natured ribbing over my fondness for the end-of-the-world stuff. Maybe my mild but undeniable fixation on post-apocalypse stuff is a little warped. All I know is that things that scare me are even more scary if I leave them in the shadows.

Several days ago, I was browsing through Amazon, reading customer reviews of a few post-apocalyptic novels I've yet to consume. While reading about The Last Ship, I noticed a link to a book by Cormac McCarthy, The Road. I knew I'd heard McCarthy's name bandied about, but I wasn't familiar with him. I soon learned, thanks to Amazon, that he wrote No Country For Old Men, recently released as a movie.

McCarthy, it seems, is held up by the cognoscenti as a beacon of modern-day American literature, a "living master," according to the San Francisco Chronicle. He's written eleven novels, and has won the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. The Road was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Here's the topper, though, the one that I'm sure inspired McCarthy to do handsprings: The Road earned a spot on Oprah's Book Club.

Now, I'm a bit of a contrary son-of-a-gun. I've never rushed out to buy a book upon learning it was awarded any prize, and I don't like it when Oprah tells me what to do. But sheesh, a post-apocalypse novel winning the Pulitzer Prize? How does that happen? I ordered the book from Amazon.

From the back cover of The Road:

A father and his son walk alone through burned America. Nothing moves in the ravaged landscape save the ash on the wind. It is cold enough to crack stones, and when the snow falls it is gray. The sky is dark. Their destination is the coast, although they don’t know what, if anything, awaits them there. They have nothing; just a pistol to defend themselves against the lawless bands that stalk the road, the clothes they are wearing, a cart of scavenged food—and each other.

That hooked me, but also sounded a faint alarm: most post-apocalypse novels I've savored were read before I became a dad. Did I really want to take on a novel involving a father and son in an apparently doomed world? Did I really want to read it while away from my wife and son? When the book showed up at work one afternoon, I almost left it in the lounge for someone else to pick up. I have moments when I wish I'd done just that.

But, I have Scottish in my lineage, and since I'd paid money for the book, I was damned well going to read it. Yeah, I'm sensitive, but I'm cheap.

Again, I didn't know much about McCarthy before buying The Road. So, I was distracted by his tendency to avoid punctuation, flout basic rules of grammar, and leave out quotation marks in dialogue. My thought was, "Sheesh, I guess I'm really lacking in sophistication. This guy is held up as a 'modern master,' but to me, he comes across as effin' lazy. For cryin' out loud, is it really that much harder to type can't instead of cant?"

Further chapping my hide was the author's lack of character development. Little is revealed about the father and son. We don't even know their names. We don't know the boy's age, although I found myself seeing him at eight or nine. Also, little is revealed about what's happened to the earth, other than it's largely scorched.

"Hm," I thought, maybe 30 pages in. "People smarter 'n me think this novel is utterly brilliant, but it's lost on me." I felt a little like the guy standing in a museum, looking at a lauded abstract painting while thinking, "I just don't get it."

What carried me along, though, were contrasting elements of the story. The man and boy struggle to survive in a grey, desolate world where the only food available is what can be scavenged. They're heading south, because the man knows that he and his son cannot survive another winter in the north. The world seems utterly without hope. And yet, hope lives, tenaciously, in the love between father and son. The brutal, horrific portrayals of the world and its remaining inhabitants only serve to spotlight the connection between the boy and his dad. McCarthy writes, "Then they set out along the blacktop in the gunmetal light, shuffling through the ash, each the other's world entire."

When I returned to the Amazon listing of The Road, I noted that McCarthy seldom uses quotation marks in dialogue in any of his books. That bugged the hell out of me early in the book. By the middle of the book, not so much. By the end, I hardly noticed the lack. Here's a passage of dialogue between father and son.

He was a long time going to sleep. After a while he turned and looked at the man. His face in the small light streaked with black from the rain like some old world thespian. Can I ask you something? he said.
Yes, of course.
Are we going to die?
Sometime. Not now.
And we're still going south.
So we'll be warm.
Okay what?
Nothing. Just okay.
Go to sleep.
I'm going to blow out the lamp. Is that okay?
Yes. That's okay.
And then later in the darkness: Can I ask you something?
Yes, of course you can.
What would you do if I died?
If you died I would want to die too.
So you could be with me?
Yes. So I could be with you.

I read that passage during a slow day at work, while sitting in the flight planning room. I suppose it was that passage that prompted me to give Mr. McCarthy a break. In fact, I sat there with tears in my eyes, on the verge of weeping. That would have been embarrassing. I mean, I like most of the guys I work with, but I ain't necessarily comfortable crying in front of 'em. But geez, what dad could not identify with that dad's feelings? "If you died I would want to die too."

There were times, during the reading of the book, that I found McCarthy's word crafting just remarkable. There were other times I thought he came across as amateurish. What propelled me through the book, though, was how the love between father and son emanated a thin ray of hope in a dying, hopeless world.

I won't reveal anything about the ending, except to divulge that it ain't stock Hollywood. I finished the novel with conflicting feelings. The story was compelling, and yet I had some regret that I'd even started it. Through much of the book, the writer's disregard of grammar rules and conventions was distracting, and yet it somehow added to the bleak tone of the book, to the sense of utter desolation. McCarthy wasn't motivated to make this an easy read, especially in an emotional sense. The reader never gets off the hook. Escapist fare, it isn't.

Upon finishing the book, I took another look at the Amazon listing for it. I noticed that opinions on the book are more divided than your typical best seller. As I write this, there are 1,228 customer reviews of the novel. Here's an example of a five-star review:

In a barren, ashen landscape that was once the United States of America, a weary man and his young son are traveling south in search of the ocean. They scavenge for food and shelter, and they must constantly avoid marauding bands of fellow survivors who would prey on them. The one thing that sustains them on their way is their ferocious love for each other. THE ROAD is the story of their heartbreaking journey. Every now and then, when we need reminding, a great writer shows us one possible future for our species if we continue on the path to self-destruction. In 1957, Nevil Shute gave us ON THE BEACH, and now, 50 years later, Cormac McCarthy has given us an eloquent new version of the same cautionary tale. We didn't listen then. Perhaps we can learn something now. I have rarely been so moved by a work of literature. To call this the most important novel of 2006 is an understatement. Read it and weep. Read it and be uplifted. Just read it--before it's too late.

But then, another view from an Amazon customer:
No, I don't buy into the "Oprah chose it, so it must be good" thought. Neither do I think the Pulitzer prize means much these days. The truth is that this book did not impact me like it apparently did others. The dialogue is so overtly simple that it's painful and the descriptions are so repetitive.(Question: How many times do they say OK? Answer: As many times as he talks about the ash.) His style is so easy to copy that one wonders, "what, then, is the big deal?" This is like modern art (You know, those splatterings of paint on a canvas that people call "art" and they read into it any artistic interpretation that comes to mind, when in reality it really is just blots on canvas). This book is like that, to me. If you want to overanalyze it and call it "profound", that's fine, but the reality is that this is a poorly told story with little or not literary value. I've read "The Border Trilogy" and wasn't too thrilled with those books either. I guess I'm done with McCarthy. BLEH.

Truth be told, for much of the novel, I tended to side more with the two and three-star reviewers than those who gushed over the novel. But time has changed my perspective. When I finished the novel, it was a glass half-empty. Days later, it's a glass half-full.

I can't recall a novel ever staying with me the way The Road has. I finished it four days ago, and when I'm not flying, I find myself thinking about it, even when I don't want to think about it. It was painful to read. For all of the horrific portrayals in the book, none were more horrifying than the father's desperation. When you're a dad, what could be more terrible than the thought that if you die, your child will be left to face a nightmarish world alone?

If I were to be so long-winded about what is, after all, a book report on a blog, I kind of wish it could be about some obscure book by an unknown author. Instead, I'm haunted by a novel that won the Pulitzer Prize, has been recommended by Oprah on national TV, and is rated at number 30 in Amazon sales. Damn. That doesn't appeal to the contrary side of me. But then the central premise of the story--a father and son struggling to survive in a nearly lifeless world--has grabbed my heart.

I can't help but ponder what kind of dad I'd be in those circumstances, y'see. I can't help but wonder if I'd have the strength to keep hope alive. I can't help but pray to God that you or I will never be put to such a test.

I reflect on what I'd miss the most should I find myself alone in the world. Would I miss helicopters? Driving? Cell phones? Culture? Art? The newest iPod? Oprah's Book Club?

No. I'd miss love. I'd miss wrestling with my son. I'd miss the way my wife kisses me in the middle of the night. I'd miss sharing a beer or coffee with a friend. I'd miss the kindness of strangers. I'd miss shared experiences. I'd miss so much about this crazy, silly little life than things.

Is The Road a good book? Do I recommend it? I don't know. I really can't say. It's haunted me too much to be objective about it.

Since I've read it, I think often about when my son was a newborn. He was born healthy and robust, but suddenly, I became hyper-aware of how much I had to lose. Worries of SIDS and other agents of the Grim Reaper circled about in my mind, like vultures with blood-soaked beaks. He slept with us as an infant, and I would often sit awake at night and watch his little chest rise and fall, all the while thinking, "Please, God, just let him keep breathing."

Sometimes, I still do that, and he's seven, for cryin' out loud. Sometimes I sit awake, and just watch him breathe.

I've been cursing The Road since I finished it. But last night, I started reading it again. Over the space of a few days, that glass half-empty has become one half-full.

And, I need to chase away those shadows, y'know.


Redlefty said...

Me too! I'm reading my annual edition of "The Best SF short stories" and it's amazing how many are post-apocalyptic in nature. Each one has a different lesson of why and how we screwed ourselves, though.

Hal Johnson said...

Michael, I was amazed that you read this post and made a comment in the few minutes that I originally posted it. The only way I know to check the positioning of a video is by posting it--doesn't seem that it can be done as a draft.

Anyway, you read this piece well before I finished it. I hope the finished product isn't too long-winded.

uNCLE e said...

You know, I waffle back and forth between fiction and non. During my time in Tennessee I read two books. The first was a biography on Hunter S. Thompson entitled GONZO. Excellent rememberences by friends on the famous outlaw journalist who wrote Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas and Hells Angels.
The second, Angels and Devils by Dan Brown. About an ancient cult devoted to blowing up the Vatican. Also great.
And DAMN YOU, now that you've mentioned The Stand I'll have to re-read that sucker again! All bleedin' 1,200 pages of it. Thanks a lot, man!
And I still will check my daughters breathing when they're asleep. I don't think those fears will ever subside. You can check me on this, but I believe it's in our job description under "Parental Daily Duties Addendum 12A", paragraphs 2 and 7.

Bob Barbanes said...

Interesting post, Hal!

But truthfully, I never give the apocalypse much thought. I guess I don't believe it will happen - I have too much faith in mankind to fret that we'll all destroy ourselves. And the day of the Final Judgment does not bother me one bit either. And so I shy away from that genre of literature.

My parents and I were talking one day about the end of the world!!! and my mom said something that stuck with me. "The world *will* end...for all of us, some day." Of all the eons of generations of people on this planet, I think it would be kind of unlikely (and slightly egotistical) to think that the world will end on *our* watch, although I know it will certainly end for me in a maximum of forty or so more years.