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The Road, by Cormac McCarthy, Alfred A. Knopf, 2006, $24.
Salon Fantastique: Fifteen Original Tales of Fantasy, edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, Thunder's Mouth Press, 2006, $16.95.
In Other Words, by John Crowley, Subterranean Press, 2007, $35.
IF YOU READ one grim, soul-sucking novel this holiday season, make it The Road, Cormac McCarthy's unrelentingly bleak vision of a post-holocaust world where the question of human existence seems to be summed up in the question "How many doomed souls can writhe on the end of a pin?" Answer: Two—until the last few pages, when the answer becomes One.
The bare bones plot of The Road really is bare bones. A nameless man and his nameless son, so emaciated they resemble concentration camp victims, stumble across a nameless landscape scoured utterly by a nameless environmental cataclysm. Their aim is to live long enough to reach an unnamed coast before winter arrives.
With the first gray light he rose and left the boy sleeping and walked to the road and squatted and studied the country to the south. Barren, silent, godless. He thought the month was October but he wasnt sure. He hadnt kept a diary for years. They were moving south. There'd be no surviving another winter here.
The countryside McCarthy evokes (presumably somewhere in the Appalachians, the author's home ground) has been so blasted by a nuclear winter that the coast is never held out as a blue vision of hope; more like one of the still-burning outer suburbs of Hell, rather than the charred cold ruins of its downtown. Almost nothing has survived the global disaster; no animals, no plants, no aquatic life. Nothing moves in the sky save ash and black snow. The only living vegetation is a handful of morels the man discovers in a scorched wood.
Still, like cockroaches, a few members of humankind have survived, if you consider cannibals and the near-dead to be human; I personally would rather spend my Last Days with the cockroaches. The nature of the causal event in the years-long chain of catastrophe is never made specific, but nonetheless seems clear, familiar from countless doomsday scenarios in genre novels and movies—
The clocks stopped at 1:17. A long shear of light and then a series of low concussions. He got up and went to the window. What is it? she said. He didnt answer. He went into the bathroom and threw the powerswitch but the power was already gone. A dull rose glow in the windowglass.The man survives. His pregnant wife lives long enough to give birth to their son, but before the novel begins she has killed herself. The man and his child walk the road of the book's title, a highway to Hell if ever there was one, and scavenge what they can find in abandoned houses and stores and vehicles. Canned vegetables and fruit and moldering grain are their staples, along with brackish water. A backyard bunker, miraculously undespoiled by looters, is the closest the novel comes to a depiction of paradise on Earth: man and boy enter it and view its wonders with the same transcendent joy and disbelief that Schliemann felt upon discovering the ruins of Troy.
Mostly, though, The Road is a Cook's Tour of Gehenna. In McCarthy's hands, Hell is not necessarily other people—the boy is luminous with grace, the man a loving, literally self-sacrificing father. Instead, Hell is what mankind has made of the Earth, without any divine or demonic intervention. There are scenes of graphic, appalling cruelty—shackled men and women being kept alive for food, among them a man, also still alive, whose legs have been neatly stripped of flesh; an infant skewered over a firepit. The novel's protagonists share the road with few other travelers, which is a good thing—most are cannibals who travel in packs, armed with weapons forged from scrap metal, and accompanied by captive women and catamites, as well as prisoners who pull carts full of even less fortunate captives who will end up as food. The old Soylent Green formula has been reduced to its most basic elements. The boy's father calls these folks "the bad guys," a designation few readers will disagree with. The boy constantly seeks reassurance that the two of them are "the good guys," and seeing as there's no one else around, the answer to that seems pretty clear, too.
The Road is written in McCarthy's customary stripped-down prose, complete with eccentric punctuation. It's a style matched perfectly to the skeletal world he describes, beautiful, often heartbreaking, with a chill detachment reminiscent of Samuel Beckett, although there is barely a trace of humor, mordant or otherwise, in The Road. The tale's deceptive simplicity lends itself to multiple interpretations. The Road can be read as a straightforward account of what it would be like to die, slowly and painfully, of starvation, as well as a warning of our own imminent destruction, helped along by global warming and nuclear catastrophe. It can be taken as a fable of how culture arises from the wreckage of a civilization, not as a green sprig but a wrinkled gray fungus that, despite its unappetizing appearance, can both survive and sustain life.
And it can be read as a tale with Biblical resonance—the golden child, the suffering father, the mother whose sole purpose is to give birth then disappear. When the boy and his father meet a person with whom they actually have a real conversation, a genuine human encounter, it is in the guise of a man named Ely, whose resemblance to the prophet Elijah does not go unremarked. The novel's odd, elevated diction gives the scene a weight that is at once mystical and a wee bit pretentious. It also lends itself rather easily to parody. There are echoes here of all sorts of unhappy males walking in lockstep to their doom, from George and Lenny to Ratso Rizzo and Joe Buck, and especially Vladimir and Estragon in "Waiting for Godot."
This suggests a dire coda to Beckett's famous lines: "I must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on before somebody eats me."
The Road has become a bestseller, and it deserves to be read. It's a chillingly beautiful book, though its tropes will be familiar, perhaps overly so, to genre readers, or anyone who's read A Canticle for Leibowitz, Damnation Alley, The Stand, Engine Summer, "A Boy and His Dog," and especially Riddley Walker. The stylistic austerity of The Road makes one visualize it in black and white: it's a cautionary tale set in a world where Sauron has won: Earth has become Mordor, the orcs have slaughtered almost everyone. Oh, and Sam Gamgee dies.
Science fiction has a long history of illustrating not just the wild variety of ways in which humanity can blow itself up, but also the colorful, if sometimes unsavory, means by which we might survive afterwards. The Road doesn't offer much middle ground between utopia and gnawed human bones in a cold campfire. Granted, neither would a nuclear winter, but McCarthy's endless, ghoulishly inventive examples of barbarism might be more effective if there were some suggestion that civility might have survived too. As it stands, the novel's two protagonists carry the book's entire symbolic weight: the father is saintly, the boy angelic. They really are the good guys.
This is where I think the novel becomes problematical. With its nearly unrelieved vision of debased, barbaric humanity, The Road resembles a secular humanist version of a Hell House, those Christian fundamentalist sideshows which purport to illustrate the horrific consequences of sin. McCarthy is preaching to the choir here—it's hard to imagine too many Wal-Mart Christians among his readers, though maybe I'm wrong—but at the same time he's telling the choir they're damned, too. The sins on display in The Road, the sins implied, at any rate, are nuclear proliferation, global warming, overpopulation, human warfare, a gross refusal of our responsibilities toward our planet and all our fellow creatures. The punishment is meeting the enemy and seeing not Us, but the next stage in our evolution—
My brother at last. The reptilian calculations in those cold and shifting eyes. The gray and rotting teeth. Claggy with human flesh. Who has made of the world a lie every word.The Road is full of references to fire—not just nuclear holocaust and the fire next time but Promethean fire, the flame of human knowledge, the small warm ember of civilization that the first proto-humans carried as they migrated from Africa and which, McCarthy suggests, we may all too soon be reduced to guarding ourselves. "You have to carry the fire," the man tells his son. At The Road's end, that fire barely flickers, or seems to flicker, the faintest gleam in a world where not even starlight penetrates the abyss.
Salon Fantastique, the latest anthology edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, is what we've come to expect from the reigning arbiters of literary fantasy in the short form, a reliable collation of tales by mostly established writers, with a few newer names to season the mix. Despite its title, and a brief editorial introduction that refers to literary salons and salonniéres from Charles Perrault to the Beats, the stories in Salon Fantastique share no narrative provenance, though an air of general, mostly gentle, melancholy pervades nearly all of them. No robust sword and sorcery here, nor much in the way of unalloyed joy, either.
The stories are a mixed bag in quality and subject. Richard Bowes's "Dust Devil on a Quiet Street" is one of the best, an acidic, sharp-eyed take on H. R. Wakefield's classic "He Cometh and He Passeth By!" set in Greenwich Village. It features a marvelous cast of aging beatniks, onetime Warhol acolytes, and nouveau hipsters, whose web of shifting social and creative allegiances is woven and periodically torn apart depending on which It Girl or Boy has possession of a talismanic ring. This sly cautionary tale should become required reading for any struggling artist or writer. It certainly confirmed my worst suspicions regarding art installations.
Gregory Maguire's "Nottamun Town" is another standout. It takes a well-worn narrative device—the interweaving of folk song, memory, and actual event—and creates an achingly sad tapestry of longing, with a surprise ending that brought tears to my eyes. Jedediah Berry's lovely, understated "To Measure the Earth" makes the most of its stark, eerie Hudson Valley setting to tell a love story that, despite its supernatural underpinnings, might have been drawn from the archives of the local historical society. Catherynne M. Valente likewise puts a creepy spin on the well-worn trope of the seal-wife, in "A Gray and Soundless Tide." Paul Di Filippo's wonderful "Femaville 29" also evokes classic tales, "The Pied Piper of Hamelin" and Ray Bradbury's "A Miracle of Rare Device," in the unlikely wasteland of a FEMA emergency housing site. Lucius Shepard channels the voice of a Caribbean storyteller in "The Lepidopterist," the one genuinely chilling tale in the collection, a story with an unsettling resonance that kicks in only in its final sentences. Jeffrey Ford's "The Night Whiskey" is also framed as a tall tale, a dreamy account of an annual village ritual that inevitably evokes "The Lottery," without sacrificing Ford's own distinctive voice and take on the proceedings.
The other writers all contribute mostly fine work, but I must make special mention of David Prill, a new name to me, whose "The Mask of '67" is an absolute gem. A surreal, deadpan story of a former high school queen turned movie star, whose small-town homecoming grows increasingly bizarre and marvelously, unexpectedly touching, "The Mask of '67" is one of the most memorable stories I've read in years. It alone is worth the price of admission to this collection. Happily, the other tales found therein make Salon Fantastique well worth a visit.
In Other Words collects essays, occasional pieces, and book reviews by John Crowley, in a wide-ranging compendium that touches on writers as varied (or similar, depending on one's worldview) as Vladimir Nabokov and Pauline Réage, Robert Louis Stevenson and Anthony Burgess, Ioan Culianu and The Amazing Randi. The standout is Crowley's essay on the Romanian scholar Culianu, a modern-day mage if ever there was one, and the tragic and unsettling circumstances surrounding both his life and death; a piece that illuminates not just Culianu (whom Crowley knew) but also Crowley's own fiction, especially the Ægypt sequence. Nearly as good are pieces on various comic artists, including Winsor McCay and Edward Gorey, and especially a lovely appreciation of Walt Kelly, creator of Pogo. A number of these essays first appeared in the Washington Post Book World, although there was no bibliographical information in the galley under review; an omission I hope will be rectified before publication. Otherwise, this is an indispensable volume by one of our greatest writers.
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