Gerry Canavan

the smartest kid on earth

Posts Tagged ‘Cormac McCarthy

Sunday Night Lights

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* The Wrong Side of the Heart: this weekend’s dose of vintage movie poster greatness.

* AskMetaFilter has all the huge-nerd podcasts I crave.

Dr. Metzinger first proposes his thesis: there is no such thing as the self. The subjective sense of being a conscious person – the sense of being a self that is distinct from the body and present in a single, unified reality – is not a separate, coherent brain function but rather the result of many different systems running at the same time. I was telling you people this years ago!

* Four lesser-known members of the Fantastic Four. I’d never even heard of She-Thing.

* Pension war update: “…public employees and their dominance of blue states is going to be the biggest issue in this country for the next several years.”

* Marco Roth vs. the “neuronovel.”

The last dozen years or so have seen the emergence of a new strain within the Anglo-American novel. What has been variously referred to as the novel of consciousness or the psychological or confessional novel—the novel, at any rate, about the workings of a mind—has transformed itself into the neurological novel, wherein the mind becomes the brain. Since 1997, readers have encountered, in rough chronological order, Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love (de Clérambault’s syndrome, complete with an appended case history by a fictional “presiding psychiatrist” and a useful bibliography), Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn (Tourette’s syndrome), Mark Haddon’s Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (autism), Richard Powers’s The Echomaker (facial agnosia, Capgras syndrome), McEwan again with Saturday (Huntington’s disease, as diagnosed by the neurosurgeon protagonist), Atmospheric Disturbances (Capgras syndrome again) by a medical school graduate, Rivka Galchen, and John Wray’s Lowboy (paranoid schizophrenia). And these are just a selection of recently published titles in “literary fiction.” There are also many recent genre novels, mostly thrillers, of amnesia, bipolar disorder, and multiple personality disorder. As young writers in Balzac walk around Paris pitching historical novels with titles like The Archer of Charles IX, in imitation of Walter Scott, today an aspiring novelist might seek his subject matter in a neglected corner or along some new frontier of neurology. 

Via MeFi, which also links to the Jonah Lehrer’s response.

* And what Harlan Ellison makes, the world takes. Also via MeFi.

Entropic Realism and ‘The Road’

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The following contains unmarked spoilers for Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and its film adaptation. Be on your guard!

He stood listening. The boy didnt stir. He sat beside him and stroked his pale and tangled hair. Golden chalice, good to house a god. Please dont tell me how the story ends.
—Cormac McCarthy, The Road, p. 75

From the earliest pages of The Road it is clear that we are reading the most bleakly nihilistic novel ever to grace Oprah’s Book Club. Set after an unspecified apocalypse in a ruined world populated by thieves, murderers, cannibals, a man, and his son, in which the main character’s primary inner conflict revolves around whether or not he will have the fortitude to use his gun’s last remaining bullet on his son “when the time comes” (29), The Road winds its doomed characters and traumatized readers on a path through the Cumberland Gap towards the East Coast in a kind of reverse Western Migration, in which the final destination offers neither hope nor opportunity, just dead, stagnant water, not even blue (215). When they reach the coast, it isn’t long before the father dies of the illness from which he has been suffering throughout the novel, leaving the boy completely alone in a ruined, evil world. (The father, in the end, couldn’t bring himself to murder his son before dying after all.)

Up until this moment the novel is perhaps American literature’s best example of what I call entropic realism: the ideology of apocalypse, of breakdown, of things falling apart. Entropic realism is the literary-aesthetic positionality appropriate to depressive nihilism, when God’s being dead means not “anything is possible” but “nothing matters” and “there is no hope.”

Up until this moment. But now The Road throws its reader a curveball. The boy stays beside his father’s corpse for three days, and then walks about twenty feet before discovering a substitute father accompanied by a replacement mother and two ersatz siblings who happily take the boy in and provide for his well-being from then on. The end.

This second father, and the quasi-happy ending his unexpected appearance represents, appears completely out of nowhere, both narratively and thematically. There is nothing in the book before the last six pages that suggests any sort of non-disastrous resolution to this story is possible, nothing in the world McCarthy makes that gives us license for this sort of hope. That the man would die, and that his son would be better off dead than alive without him, are both framed as inevitable, as the only possible ending for the story despite any desire that it be otherwise. True to its entropic realism, in The Road all stories end in failure and death; see, by way of example, meditations on this pessimism on 153-154, 168-169, 242-243, and elsewhere. (Please, don’t tell me how the story ends.)

The book hammers home, time and again, that such things as “trust,” “kindness,” and “happy endings” are artifacts of a dead world that is never to return, and any hope they might is just a fairy tale, a dream:

In his dream she was sick and he cared for her. The dream bore the look of sacrifice but he thought differently. He did not take care of her and she died alone somewhere in the dark and there is no other dream nor other waking world and there is no other tale to tell. (32)

I went to see the film last week specifically to see how this ending was played cinematically, and I can confirm it is played entirely straight: the substitute father appears out of nowhere twenty feet away, emerging not three days but seemingly three minutes after the first father has died. The end.

There is, I argue, something necessarily unsatisfying about this ending for nearly any reader of The Road. It just doesn’t make sense, doesn’t fit; it doesn’t seem “realistic.” Just where has this new family come from? How have they survived, intact and apparently secure, all this time? Why have we never seen any hint, before p. 281, that any such people yet remained alive?

The strange improbability of the ending has suggested to many readers that The Road is a book about faith being rewarded, a book, indeed, about miracles—if not a book about the literal Tribulation described in the book of Revelation. The father’s last recorded words suggest this sort of redemptive religious possibility: “Goodness will find the little boy. It always has. It will again” (281). In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.

But I would frame my reading of The Road differently. I think the ending is a kind of dare, or leap of faith, or perhaps even a sort of literary Rorschach test. After everything you have seen, can you let yourself believe a happy ending is actually possible? Can you, as they say, buy this?

The possibility that we can’t is repeatedly thematized throughout the novel. The boy is preoccupied with narratives and the problem of their realism, particularly by the growing sense he has that the actions he and his father take, and the world in which they live, do not comport with the moral fables about “good guys” and “bad guys” on which he has been raised. In one of the last lengthy conversations he has with his father this comes out explicitly:

Do you want me to tell you a story?
No.
Why not?
The boy looked at him and looked away.
Why not?
Those stories are not true.
They dont have to be true. They’re stories.
Yes. But in the stories we’re always helping people and we dont help people.
Why dont you tell me a story?
I dont want to.
Okay.
I dont have any stories to tell.
You could tell me a story about yourself.
You already know all the stories about me. You were there.
You have stories inside that I dont know about.
You mean like dreams?
Like dreams. Or just things that you think about.
Yeah, but stories are supposed to be happy.
They dont have to be.
You always tell happy stories.
You dont have any happy ones?
They’re more like real life.
But my stories are not.
Your stories are not. No. (267-268)

In these terms, of course, the ending of The Road, while “happy,” is plainly not “true”; it fulfills the structural requirement that “stories are supposed to be happy” at the cost of its own realist coherence. In its final six pages The Road unexpectedly abandons its relentless entropic realism and becomes more like a fable or dream—both words that appear on the novel’s first page, and which, especially in the case of dreams, are central preoccupation of the characters throughout.

Page 9:

He said the right dreams for a man in peril were dreams of peril and all else was the call of languor and of death.

Page 21:

And the dreams so rich in color. How else would death call you?

Page 189:

When your dreams are of some world that never was or of some world that will never be and you are happy again then you will have given up.

Page 269, just after the part of the conversation quoted at length above:

(the boy speaking) I dont have good dreams anyway. They’re always about something bad happening. You said that was okay because good dreams are not a good sign.

To accept the book’s uncomplicatedly happy ending at face value would be to ignore everything we have seen thus far, including, in the pages before the declaration that good will always win in the end, these repeated assertions that such moral fables are lies that will only make you weak. To believe in happy endings, in this particular happy ending, is therefore in the book’s terms to be seduced by what is not real, potentially at the cost of your life. If we take seriously the way the text opposes both dreams and stories against the one-way entropic directionality of “real life,” the apparent happy ending therefore becomes a deeply problematic structural excess: a miraculous suspension of the novel’s own basic law of nature.

But other sorts of readings do present themselves. Instead of accepting that The Road ends happily, despite its own self-prophesy, we can reject the apparent happy ending and conclude (for instance) that everything that happens after p. 281 is merely the father’s interior dream as he dies.

Now, this is so dramatic a manipulation of the text’s surface meaning as to be fairly described as willful misreading. I was first exposed to this alternative ending by my mother, who considered it the plain meaning of the novel until I told her most people don’t actually read the book that way. But as I reread The Road to write this post I found more and more evidence of this possibility staring me in the face: why else, we might well wonder, is the novel so preoccupied with the father’s belief that a man close to death has happy dreams? And when I’ve brought this reading of the novel up at academic conferences I’ve seen the same reaction in others: a sense that this reading may in some sense be better than that the straight one, that it alone accounts for the novel as a totality.

Now of course I don’t actually believe in the dream ending either. This is a fan rewrite, something akin to The Phantom Edit. I certainly don’t think it’s what Cormac McCarthy “intended”—though, with so many references to dreams, death, and the problem of endings, who can say? Rather, I perform this self-conscious misreading as a way of making clear that at the end of the novel The Road is divided against itself: it becomes a site of indeterminacy hovering between two possible end states, almost like a thought experiment out of quantum mechanics. The boy is simultaneously rescued (and we happy, if naive) and doomed (and we sad, but wise); the boy is both at once, suspended permanently in a zone of interpretive indecision.

It seems impossible not to choose one or the other, but I think the novel may be best if we decline; that very indecision, the impossible demand that an ending somehow be both “happy” and “realistic” at the same time, is itself the novel’s crux.

The Road, in essence, provides us with a happy ending we cannot believe and sadder endings we do not want to accept, and dares us to choose between them. In this way I think The Road is best read as a deconstruction of the evaluative terms by which we normally judge stories—a refusal, that is, of the very possibility of narrative closure altogether. Midway through the book the usual flow of narration suddenly breaks to assert this very point directly:

Do you think that your fathers are watching? That they weigh you in their ledgerbook? Against what? There is no book and your fathers are dead in the ground. (196)

Life, would that it were otherwise, is not a story. In its ending The Road embodies the conflict between the ordered teleology of story and the disordered antinarrative of life as it must actually be lived. The entropic realism of the text is necessarily in irreconcilable tension with its own miraculous ending; we simply can’t have both. Please, the novel seems to say to us, and we to it: don’t tell me how the story ends.

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January 7, 2010 at 10:36 am

‘Dystopia and the End of Politics’

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…genre fiction doesn’t exist in contradistinction to literature merely because of stale language, secondhand insights, or hackneyed plots. The larger difference is a failure or—less judgmentally—a simple setting-aside of the moral imagination. The literary novel illuminates moral problems (including sometimes those that are also political problems) at the expense of sentimental consolation, while genre fiction typically offers consolation at the expense of illumination. It doesn’t alter this proposition that science fiction and especially crime novels sometimes traffic in the idea that all people are at bottom equally evil and all history in the end equally nightmarish, since this sort of nihilism moots moral judgment altogether and is therefore its own kind of consolation.

Other people quicker on the trigger have already covered much of the necessary ground on Benjamin Kunkel’s provocative but incredibly frustrating Dissent piece on “Dystopia and the End of Politics.” What’s good about this article is largely masked by Kunkel’s strange decision to rehearse for the millionth time the high/low culture divide in the context of works (Children of Men, Oryx & Crake) that plainly obliterate it. (Just for starters: In what sense is the father of The Road best described as a primarily instrumental character? The Road is not a perfect book, but that is not among its flaws. And so it goes through the entire essay; in nearly all cases Kunkel’s classification of a work as science fiction inevitably determines the discovery of its asserted essential generic flaws.) Kunkel briefly pretends to take SF seriously so that his later refusal to take it seriously will carry more rhetorical weight—but he never means it, and his contempt for SF is palpable, and annoying, throughout.

I’m also not fond of arguments of the form “All X are essentially Y. Here are my three examples.” Kunkel, in contrast, appears very fond of such arguments.

All that said, when Kunkel does get down to business and takes dystopian and apocalyptic fiction seriously, he does rather good work, worth quoting at length:

In short, the contemporary apocalypse pits family values against the cannibal universe—the good guys versus the bad guys, in McCarthy’s unironic terms. And so, with the end of civilization, the age-old conflict between sexual love (eros) and love of one’s neighbor (caritas) also disappears; and the grown-up Jesus’ exhortation to his followers that they leave their families if they wish to pursue righteousness is as little remembered as among Christian fundamentalists today. No one pauses to reflect that in our civilization, pre-collapse, it was invariably the defense of the individual household that justified a nation’s warlike international posture or its profligate use of energy. Nuclear war might be averted, went the insipid Sting hit of the late cold war, if the Russians love their children too. But if global warming is not arrested, it will be because we (and the Russians) want for our children everything we have and more.

To be as schematic as possible: in the neoliberal dystopia a totally commodified world transforms would-be lovers into commodities themselves and in this way destroys the possibility of love. In the neoliberal apocalypse, on the other hand, the wreck of civilization reveals the inherent depravity of mankind (excepting one’s loved ones) and ratifies the truth that the family is a haven in a heartless world. Both the neoliberal dystopia and the neoliberal apocalypse defend love and individuality against the forces threatening to crush them; the difference is that the clone novel sticks up for humanity from the standpoint of an implied or explicit critique of neoliberalism, while the apocalypse narrative (whether in prose or on film) tends to reflect the default creed of neoliberalism, according to which kindness may flourish in private life but the outside world remains now and forever a scene of vicious but inevitable competition.

That’s a good and interesting binary absolutely worth thinking about. It’s just too bad he felt like he had to take a shower afterwards. And worse that he had to let us know he was going to take the shower after, that he was about to take the shower, really, just as soon as he stopped writing, because obviously he felt as dirty writing about SF as we must have felt reading about it.

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December 31, 2008 at 5:01 am

The Zeitgeist

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If artists depend on angst and unrest to fuel their creative fire, then at least in one sense the 43rd presidency has been a blessing. Eight years is an eternity in the life of a culture, and when we look back on an era, we do it through pinholes: a movie here, a book there. What will stand out, decades from now, as the singular emblems of this moment in history? Newsweek asked its cultural critics to pick the one work in their field that they believe exemplifies what it was like to be alive in the age of George W. Bush.

Battlestar Galactica
American Idol

Jeff Koons’s Hanging Heart
The Corrections
Black Hawk Down

Cohen’s Borat
Green Day’s American Idiot
Far Away
Rick Warren’s The Purpose-Driven Life

Battlestar is a decent if limited pick, and Idol a fairly inspired one, though not for the reasons given—but the exclusion of The Wire is simply criminal, not to mention Sopranos and Deadwood, and (yes) 24. For film, it might actually be The Dark Knight, or else There Will Be Blood. (Maybe Children of Men?) For books—surely the hardest category—it’s probably The Road, for a few reasons. I’m too illiterate in music to even begin to answer: the best I could manage would be a half-serious suggestion of Gnarls Barkley, or else just name a Springsteen album because that’s how I roll.

Via The Chutry Experiment, who points (among other things) to the unforgivable omission of viral video.

Written by gerrycanavan

December 16, 2008 at 1:55 pm

Google Lit Trips

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GoogleLitTrips.com has helpful Google Earth maps of the routes taken by the characters of various literary texts, especially to helpful to persons like myself who will be teaching The Road in a couple weeks.

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June 10, 2008 at 8:23 pm

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A Few Random Links from a Day without Blogging

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* The latest culturemonkey post is all about monkeys. More culturemonkey coming over the next few days. (See, we didn’t forget about it.)

* The Rake does what the Rake does best, tearing Nick Hornby a new one over his failure to read.

* The Village Voice talks Diary of the Dead.

* Projection Booth reviews the full cut of Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof.

* Paul Krugman is blogging. The free world rejoices. Thesis from the inaugural post:

For now, though, the important thing is to realize that the story of modern America is, in large part, the story of the fall and rise of inequality.

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September 21, 2007 at 12:47 am

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Filming Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, at McSweeney’s.

Will need good sound bites for trailer. Maybe at one point son is sad about something stupid and father says, “It’s not the end of the world!” Then son gives him ironic look. Love it.

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August 24, 2007 at 2:36 pm

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