Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Road, Pirates in an Adventure with Napoleon

Gideon Defoe's Pirates series is uniformly hilarious; I think he's one of the consistently funniest writers since Wodehouse (Jasper Fforde is very funny, too, but more hit-and-miss).  Pirates in an Adventure with Napoleon is no exception.  Unfortunately, talking about humor tends to kill the joke, so I'll just move on.

Cormac McCarthy's The Road, on the other hand, begs for analysis, to its detriment.  Most of his oeuvre works on a symbolic as well as a literal level, but The Road falls on the far side of the allegorical spectrum.  The characters don't have names (the only character to use a name also tells us that it's not his real name), the situation is allegorical, and the characters are types.  Unfortunately, as short as the novel is (240 pages in my edition), it's still too big for the limited area it encompasses.

The story is about a man and his son traveling through a post-apocalyptic landscape, the man trying to protect the boy.  It's a dog-eat-dog world, and so the two avoid any contact with other people, even the most run-down specimens.  The boy wants to reach out and help the run-down folks, while the man (understandably) wants to protect what little food they've got. Much of the book consists of conversations, especially between man and boy.

There are two running conversations that I think provide the key to the novel.  First, the man tells the boy that they're the "good guys," and the boy increasingly questions him.  The man also tells the boy that he (the boy) is carrying "the fire."  In the end, when the man dies (of TB or something like it), the boy is picked up by another family who seem to have been shadowing them for a long time, but were afraid to make contact.  It's pretty clear that the fire the boy carries is his goodness.  Although the man says over & over again that they are the "good guys," in fact the path he's chosen leads to destruction -- he would never join with other people to create a new community.  He's not an actively bad person, but his actions lead to a bad result.  He has to die (his physical disease mirrors his spiritual sickness) so that the boy can carry the fire forward.

I felt that the novel lacked the moral complexity of McCarthy's earlier work.  His prose is still beautiful, and the book isn't bad by any means.  But if someone had never read any McCarthy before, this isn't the book I'd point them at.

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