Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Zombie Adventure 3-D

A review of The Road

I have written previously, gentle readers, of the fact that we live in the Age of Zombie Fiction, and as everyone knows zombies are the foul handmaidens of Death himself, come to scour the world of all the living works of man. Of course most zombie fiction actually offers a fun and exciting world, an escape from the boring problems of the everyday to a land filled with limitless enemies and equally limitless opportunities for ingenuity, bravery, and wit. The apocalypse, in these fictions, strips away the silly problems that we have invented to spin out the wheels of our days and provides us instead with survival in its sinewy and physical glory. The tough survivors of, say, Land of the Dead, I Am Legend, or Steven King’s Dark Tower series (the last two not strictly zombie fiction), basically live enviable lives. Beneath their thin and sexy layer of grit and danger, they’re doing what we all would really prefer. What’s more fun, filling out grant applications, or knocking out the staircase so you can shoot zombies in the head at your leisure? My networking associate tMa and I have frequently discussed the escapist allure of this fiction, the jolly physical fun of testing your zeal for living against the unlimited hordes of the dead, of building a secure new fortress life without having to do anything boring or inessential ever again.

Cormac McCarthy’s searing* latest novel, The Road, shows us a dirty, scoured world where the only things men can build are stockades of severed heads and meat lockers for their slaves. McCarthy has drawn a more vivid and infinitely more hellish apocalypse than any other writer I can think of. Life for the unnamed father and son protagonists of The Road is not stripped down to its fun, video-game essentials. Each day they contend with unglamorous and agonizing death. They spend the entire novel pushing a shopping cart through the horrifying wastes of an unnamed part of America, scrounging wherever they are able for canned food, old smoked meat, anything remotely edible. They sleep most nights curled together, the boy shivering for a long while, too afraid of other men to make a fire.

The landscape which they wander is scoured of all life and likewise scours the reader: it terrifies in a way that no other description of scenery has ever done for me. The world has burned, and a thick layer of ash dances forever between the opaque sky and the dead ground. The sun is gone and with it all the natural colors. Everything has turned black and grey. McCarthy’s usual landscapes are still there, under their pall of ash, but there is not life to them.

The father and son have to struggle so constantly against the cruelty of this new world that they never accumulate any of the neat equipment that so many other post-apocalyptic narratives feature. They have a gun with only two bullets; they’re afraid even to fire it lest it bring the attention of the other survivors, vile, tough men long accustomed to eating human flesh.

McCarthy’s novel is, in some ways, rather conventional for a post-apocalyptic story: it maintains the great post-apocalyptic narrative traditions of clever scavenging, ruined cities, and insane and bloodthirsty new clans. McCarthy, with his signature skill and economy, has boiled these clich├ęs down to their bright white bones, unveiling a truer vision than many of his predecessors. McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic warrior bands have none of the panache of the usual imaginings of the end of the world: they’re not the leather-clad, sexually ambiguous monsters of Mad Max, nor the pale ghouls of Omega Man. They are mostly simply men, wrapped in layers of ugly rags against the permanent cold, bearded, armed with long steel pipes. They are indescribably more sinister and real than the more lurid imaginings of other post-apocalyptic worlds.

Out of these elements, the man and his son, the dead landscape of America, and the rapacious remnants of the rest of mankind, McCarthy weaves a graceful, moving story. The relationship between the man and his son is finely drawn and imagined in heartbreaking detail. Their constant, bitter grasping for survival repeats and repeats, but McCarthy’s unsurpassed prose skill keeps the wound fresh. Each minor victory (a few precious days spent underground in a never-used bomb shelter) and each horrifying setback (their cart stolen, a run-in with a warrior band) stings afresh. The ending, in its terse and rare beauty, is maybe even better than the finish to No Country for Old Men, itself a short masterpiece. The novel, with its bitter winds and cruel vistas, sticks in my mind, like a little snowglobe that I can shake and look into, hearing the uncaring wind and the little boy’s plaintive “Papa…Papa…” A sad, rewarding book.

PS – This Review is notable for having the most inane possible kicker in the history of the world: “Cormac McCarthy sends a father and son on the scariest road trip he can imagine. Seat belts fastened?” To me, this is equivalent to reviewing the New Testament under “God sends his only begotten son on a wild ride with an ending that will leave you on the edge of your seat!”

* The National Reviewer’s Association requires every review of this book to call it “searing” at least once.