Tuesday, 6 November 2007

The Road : overhyped and in a bookshop near you

I'm cynical whenever a book comes decorated with effusive, marginally hysterical praise on the inside as well as the outside of the cover (occasionally this now extends to additional pages eating into your £8.99 of paperback). It could be a work of genius, or it could be an over-hyped best-seller.

The Kite Runner was the archetypal example of the over-hyped novel, but I have just finished reading another, The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Don’t get me wrong, McCarthy is 10, make that 20 times the writer Hosseini will ever be, but the acres of eulogies were simply not justified by this rather derivative piece of dystopian fiction.

Reviewers flocked to hail this book as a prophetic tale about climate change. It is worth noting however, that nowhere in the text is it explained why the earth’s biosphere has collapsed, leaving a scorched and blackened hell of ashes over which a few human beings roam.

Without this explanation, and the author is extremely reluctant to furnish the reader with any concrete detail about characters (no names, occupation etc), geography or context in this novel, I can't see what elevates The Road above any other post-apocalyptic science fiction tale, whether it is Mad Max or Ballard’s Hello America.

The pivot to McCarthy’s story is the relationship between an unnamed father and his son. The father’s approach to the annihilated environment is suspicion and self-preservation. The son forms a counterpoint to this attitude and represents some possibility of redemption in this otherwise unremittingly bleak narrative. He wishes to reach out to other travellers on “the road”, with cooperation and kindness.

In its ethereal lack of detail and biblical allusions the novel aspires to be a mysterious allegory. The problem is that beyond extrapolating the brutality and inhumanity of mankind into a bleak parable of degeneration there seems to be a lack of any real definable message to this book.

McCarthy’s structureless prose is invoked as evidence of the writer’s great poeticism, but I found it exacerbated the sense of imprecision and evasiveness. I was irritated by his self-conscious, self-indulgent vocabulary, particularly his habit of using nouns as verbs – “glassing the valley”, “oaring arms”.

I would not deny that McCarthy occasionally happens upon a lyrical phrase, but discovering the odd descriptive gem is not worth ploughing through windy punctuationless attempts at prose poetry, still less when the unfolding tale is both derivative and uninspired. Contrast McCarthy’s novel with John Updike’s Toward the End of Time, another post apocalyptic novel, but one which presents a fully realised, original dystopia and presents it in precise but lyrical prose.

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