Gerry Canavan

the smartest kid on earth

Posts Tagged ‘entropy

Monday Morning Links!

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1476629505-20161016* My superhero identity has finally been scooped.

* Lots of people are sharing this one, on hyperexploited labor in the academy: Truman Capote Award Acceptance Speech. As with most of this sort of adjunct activist some of its conclusions strike me as emotionally rather than factually correct — specifically, it needs to find a way to make tenured and tenure-track faculty the villains of the story, in order to make the death of the university a moral narrative about betrayal rather than a political narrative about the management class’s construction of austerity — but it’s undoubtedly a powerful read.

* I did this one already, but what the hell: Ten Theses In Support of Teaching and Against Learning Outcomes.

Open Access (OA) is the movement to make academic research available without charge, typically via digital networks. Like many cyberlibertarian causes OA is roundly celebrated by advocates from across the political spectrum. Yet like many of those causes, OA’s lack of clear grounding in an identifiable political framework means that it may well not only fail to serve the political goals of some of its supporters, and may in fact work against them. In particular, OA is difficult to reconcile with Marxist accounts of labor, and on its face appears not to advance but to actively mitigate against achievement of Marxist goals for the emancipation of labor. In part this stems from a widespread misunderstanding of Marx’s own attitude toward intellectual work, which to Marx was not categorically different from other forms of labor, though was in danger of becoming so precisely through the denial of the value of the end products of intellectual work. This dynamic is particularly visible in the humanities, where OA advocacy routinely includes disparagement of academic labor, and of the value produced by that labor.

* Bring on the 403(b) lawsuits.

* On being married to an academic.

* It ain’t no use to sit and wonder why, babe: Nobel academy member calls Bob Dylan’s silence ‘arrogant.’

* Eugenics and the academy. Racism and standardized testing. Whiteness and international relations.

* Don’t drink bottled water.

* Language Log reads the bookshelf in the linguist’s office set in Arrival (out next month!).

After years of neglect, public higher education is at a tipping point.

Mass Incarceration And Its Mystification: A Review Of The 13th.

* Springsteen and Catholicism.

1476542143-20161015* White masculinity as cloning.

Balibar on exploitation.

* Parenting is weird. If God worked at a pet store, He’d be fired. Part Two. It’s a mystery!!! Wooooooooooh! The Fox and the Hedgehog. Science and technology have reached their limit. Self-destructive beverage selection: a guide. Motivational comics. Has the media gotten worse, or has society? Understanding the presidency. The oldest recorded joke is from Sumeria, circa 1900 B.C. There’s a monster under my bed.

Tenure Denials Set Off Alarm Bells, and a Book, About Obstacles for Minority Faculty.

* Trump’s Milwaukee Problem. Let’s Talk About the Senate. From Pot To Guns To School Funding: Here’s What’s On The Ballot In Your State. Todd Akin and the “shy” voter. The banality of Trump. The latest polls indicate the possibility of a genuine electoral disaster for the GOP. A short history of white people rigging elections. Having not yet won it back yet, Dems are already getting ready to lose the Senate (again) in 2018. The Democrats are likely to win a majority of House votes, but not a majority of House seats. Again. Today in uncannily accurate metaphors. This all seems perfectly appropriate. Even Dunkin Donuts is suffering. But at least there’s a bright side. On the other hand.

Slavery: Colorado

Yes, you read that right. There is a vote on slavery in 2016. The Colorado state constitution currently bans slavery and “involuntary servitude” … except if it’s used as punishment for a crime. This amendment would get rid of that exception and say that slavery is not okay, ever.

* And so, too, with the new civic faith enshrined in Hamilton: we may have found a few new songs to sing about the gods of our troubled history, but when it comes to the stories we count on to tell us who we are, we remain caught in an endless refrain.

* Speaking of endless refrain: Emmett Till memorial in Mississippi is now pierced by bullet holes.

District Judge John McKeon, who oversees a three-county area of eastern Montana, cited that exception this month when he gave the father a 30-year suspended sentence after his guilty plea to incest and ordered him to spend 60 days in jail over the next six months, giving him credit for the 17 days already served. His sentence requires him to undergo sex offender treatment and includes many other restrictions.

* On Anime Feminist. (via MeFi)

* Today in the Year of Kate McKinnon: ten minutes of her Ghostbusters outtakes.

Jessica Jones’s Second Season Will Only Feature Female Directors.

* I don’t really think they should do Luke Cage season two — or Jessica Jones for that matter, as Daredevil proved already — but just like I’d love to see a Hellcat series with Jessica Jones as a supporting player I’d love to see Misty Knight guest starring Luke Cage.

* The Case against Black Mirror. I haven’t been able to tune in to the new season yet but the backlash surprises me. This was one of the best shows on TV before! What happened?

* Famous authors and their rejection slips.

* How much for a hotel on AT&TTW? AT&T to buy Time Warner for $85.4 billion.

* New York vs. Airbnb.

* “This is still the greatest NYT correction of all time imo.”

* This is [chokes] great. It’s great if they do this.

* This, on the other hand, is unbelievably awful: Thousands of California soldiers forced to repay enlistment bonuses a decade after going to war. Everyone involved in trying to claw back this money should be ashamed of themselves.

* Gee, you don’t say: U.S. Parents Are Sweating And Hustling To Pay For Child Care.

* Welcome to the Machinocene.

* I’ve discovered the secret to immortality.

* And there’s a new Grow game out for that mid-2000s nostalgia factor we all crave. Solution here when you’re done messing around…

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Written by gerrycanavan

October 24, 2016 at 9:00 am

Posted in Look at what I found on the Internet

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Wednesday Links!

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The Department of English invites candidates holding the rank of Associate or Full Professor to apply for the inaugural Stephen E. King Chair in Literature honoring the department’s most celebrated graduate.

* Next week at Marquette: Cuban science fiction authors Yoss and Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo!

2016 James Tiptree, Jr. Symposium: A Celebration of Ursula K. Le Guin.

Inside The Octavia Butler Archives With L.A. Writer Lynell George.

I am writing to apply for the job–or rather “fellowship”–advertised on your website. As a restless member of the creative class, I agree that secure employment, renewable year-to-year, can be a suffocating hindrance. And besides, you specify “tons of snacks and beverages” as part of your benefit package. As a job-seeker motivated by a combination of desperation and snacks, I am an ideal candidate for this position.

The report finds that the cost of forgoing tuition revenue from two- and four-year public institutions could run into the billions for some states: $4.96 billion in California, $3.89 billion in Texas and $2.53 billion in Michigan.

Essentially all criminal-justice policy in the 20th century has been driven by one thing: fear of young black men.

* Pence and gaslighting. Kaine’s tactical defeat. A Con Man of Epic Proportions. Donald Trump Tax Records Show He Could Have Avoided Taxes for A Mere Two Decades. The mind-blowing scale of Trump’s billion-dollar loss, in one tweet. Trump Foundation ordered to stop fundraising by N.Y. attorney general’s office. I want to believe! This seems legitimate. If Donald Trump Published an Academic Article. If you want a vision of the future.

* Scholars for Trump!

* Bananas possible endings to the election, New Mexico edition.

mars* The Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Visions of the Future.

* All told, however, Xiberras feels Louise could have done better. “We hoped for more followers to take notice of Louise’s behavior,” he says. “There were a few people who sensed the trap—a journalist among others, of course—but in the end, the majority just saw a pretty young girl of her time and not at all a kind of lonely girl, who is actually not at all that happy and with a serious alcohol problem.” 

* Here’s a piece we can all get mad about, regardless of our pedagogical inclinations: Are We Teaching Composition All Wrong?

* The Luke Cage Syllabus. 15 Essential Luke Cage Stories.

* Teaching the controversy: The Identity of a Famous Person Is News. The outing of Elena Ferrante and the power of naming. Ars longa, vita brevis.

* Yahooooooooooo: Yahoo built email spying software for intelligence agencies, report says.

Tracing the path of one of the world’s most in-demand minerals from deadly mines in Congo to your phone. More here.

* That’s a hell of an act! What do you call it? The Mets. Relatedly: in search of the Korean bat flip.

Nostalgia for World Culture: A New History of Esperanto.

* Harvard loses a mere $2 billion from its endowment. My favorite part of these stories is always the comparison to passive management by an index fund.

* More running it like a sandwich: More than ever, college football programs are finding it difficult to draw and retain the young fans who grow up to be lifelong season-ticket holders. In many athletic departments, the reasons can practically be cited as catechism: high-definition televisions, DVRs, diffuse fan bases and higher ticket and parking costs.

* American University Student Government Launches Campaign in Support of Mandatory Trigger Warnings.

* Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School.

* Karl Marx, Yesterday and Today.

* The last days of Robin Williams, as told by his wife Susan Schneider Williams.

‘Killer Clowns’: Inside the Terrifying Hoax Sweeping America.

* A Pretty Good Day’s Work.

* Being Shirley Jackson.

No one knew then that Springsteen, like Smith, would provide a through-line for his fans as things got worse, shifted in unimaginable ways, shifted again. Springsteen has himself changed with the times, becoming more sensitive to the issues his most-adored music still raises. Born To Rundemonstrates that. The decency at the heart of his memoir is a balm. He’s not only survived a life in rock and roll; he shows how a true believer doesn’t have to get stuck within its illusions, no matter how much they also attract him. After all, to Springsteen, a worthwhile dream isn’t an illusion; it’s a form of work. 

* Unusually Murderous Mammals, Typically Murderous Primates: You know, humans.

One of the most important lessons of Ghosh’s book is that the politics of climate change must not tiptoe around the questions posed by colonial encounters. Issues of climate justice cannot be solved without first addressing questions of equitable distribution of power, historically rooted in imperialism. And therein lies Ghosh’s disagreement with those who find the source of the problem in capitalism itself (Naomi Klein, for example). For him, even if “capitalism were to be magically transformed tomorrow, the imperatives of political and military dominance would remain a significant obstacle to progress on mitigatory action.”

Wealth of people in their 30s has ‘halved in a decade.’ Probably definitely totally unrelated: Federal student loans facilitate a pernicious profit motive in higher education.

* Leftists against Apartheid.

* Girls and Their Frenemies.

* McMansions and horror.

* Patent application for a method of curing kidney stones.

The story of D.B. Cooper, a.k.a. Don Draper, a.k.a. Dick Whitman, the only unsolved hijacking in American history.

* Why Does Time Go Forward?

* I think it’s 50/50 at this point that the Purge is a real thing before I’m dead.

* All you need to know.

* So You Want to Adapt The Tempest.

No country on Earth is taking the 2 degree climate target seriously. Climate Change And The Astrobiology Of The Anthropocene.

* The secret lives of trees.

* The secret lives of New Jerseyans.

* On our phenomenal (recent) accomplishments in space.

* And let this be my epitaph.

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Written by gerrycanavan

October 5, 2016 at 12:46 pm

Posted in Look at what I found on the Internet

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Another Very Busy Couple of Weeks, Another Absolutely Too Long Linkpost

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* ACLA 2016: The 21st Century Novel at the Limit. Feminism and New Generations of Old Media. Aesthetic Distance in a Global Economy.

* And one for NEMLA: Women Authors from the Great War.

Special Issue CFP: Queer Female Fandom.

* You broke peer review. Yes, I mean you.

* Graduate students are employees when that’s bad for them, and students when that’s bad for them.

* Last year, Yale paid about $480 million to private equity fund managers as compensation — about $137 million in annual management fees, and another $343 million in performance fees, also known as carried interest — to manage about $8 billion, one-third of Yale’s endowment. In contrast, of the $1 billion the endowment contributed to the university’s operating budget, only $170 million was earmarked for tuition assistance, fellowships and prizes.

Why financial aid might make college more expensive.

* Scenes from the schadenfreude at UIUC.

* TurnItIn doesn’t even work.

First, Do No Harm? The Johns Hopkins System’s Toxic Legacy in Baltimore.

* SF short of the month: the found footage / time travel narrative “Timelike.” “Suicidium” is pretty good too. Both are very Black Mirror.

* Salon’s Michael Berry interviewed me and a bunch of other SF scholars recently on the greatness of Dune.

* No more fire, the water next time: Ta-Nehisi Coates on Global Warming and White Supremacy.

* Hobbes v. Snoopy.

* Science fiction and class struggle, in Jacobin.

* Precrime comes to Pennsylvania.

* Seven habits of unsuccessful grad students. Job market secrets from the English department at U. Iowa. How to avoid awkward interactions during your tenure year.

* Clinton’s ed plan poised to continue the bad disruptivation of the Obama administration. Yay!

Northwestern Football Players Cannot Form Union, NLRB Rules. Former Berkeley Football Player Sues Over Concussions. UNC-Chapel Hill Reports New Possible NCAA Violations.

* Coca-Cola and the denialists.

* Life extension and prison.

* Abandoned college campuses of Second Life.

Yes, your gadgets are ineluctably engineering your doom.

* What If Stalin Had Computers?

* The NLRB might (finally) shut down the temp economy.

On average, it’ll take four minutes for you to get to the end of this piece, and quite frankly you should be spending those four minutes asleep.

Crowdfunding Is Driving A $196 Million Board Game Renaissance.

* Sesame Street and neoliberalism, but like for real this time.

Why 35 screenwriters worked on The Flintstones movie.

Yes, We Have “No Irish Need Apply.”

* Epigenetics: Study of Holocaust survivors finds trauma passed on to children’s genes.

* Evergreen headline watch: “Michigan Fails to Keep Promise to Native Americans.”

UC Davis workers: “We exposed students to asbestos.”

* Understanding Neal Stephenson.

* The Bucks as case study for the stadium scam. Bucks affiliate the Biloxi Shuckers and their endless tour.

They had no inkling about what was really going on: Gubb was a serial fraudster who made a living by renting houses, claiming to be a tenant, then illegally subletting rooms to as many residents as he could cram in—almost always young women desperate for a piece of downtown living.

How a jerk scams a free quadruple espresso at Starbucks 365 days a year.

* US and Boeing developing a targeted EMP weapon. Looking forward to the surplus sale.

* Another car remotely hacked while driving. If a Cyberattack Causes a Car Crash, Who Is Liable?

How Much Of California’s Drought Was Caused By Climate Change?

By 2100, Earth Will Have an Entirely Different Ocean. You probably can’t undo ocean acidification even if you find a way to pull carbon out of the air.

* The climate hackers.

* The ice bucket challenge may have been a much bigger deal than you thought.

In just eight years, Pinellas County School Board members turned five schools in the county’s black neighborhoods into some of the worst in Florida.

* The bail trap.

* The end of Columbia House.

* An oral history of Six Feet Under.

* Death penalty abolition in Connecticut.

* Being Stephen Colbert.

* Happy Earth Overshoot Day.

* The new Cold War is a Corn War.

* Donald Trump and fascism. This is the moment when Donald Trump officially stopped being funny.

* Writing the second half of the Harry Potter series replacing Cedric Diggory with a Slytherin.

Banksy’s Dismaland.

* Twilight of the Bomb.

* Interactive widget: How to fudge your science.

* Science proves parenthood is a serious bummer.

How We Could Detect an Alien Apocalypse From Earth.

* Who mourns for the Washington Generals?

* Well, it makes more sense than the official story: ‘Aliens prevented nuclear war on Earth’: Former NASA astronaut makes unexpected claim.

* Is Howl the Netflix of podcasts? Watch Earwolf’s user base revolt.

* The kids today and the end of funny. The unfunny business of college humor.

Racial Bias Affects How Doctors Do Their Jobs. Here’s How To Fix It.

* Here comes Star Wars Land.

NBC chairman threatens ALF reboot if Coach reboot is successful. Just give them what they want! Pay anything!

Controlling the Narrative: Harper Lee and the Stakes of Scandal.

* Hell, with same-day delivery.

Locked in Solitary at 14: Adult Jails Isolate Youths Despite Risk.

* I Was a Warehouse Wage Slave.

Mars One Is Still Completely Full of Shit.

A Troll in the Lost City of the Dead.

In 2010, anonymous emails started popping up in the inboxes of Department of the Interior officials. The messages accuse museums across the country of failing to deal with their massive collections of Native American bones. Those remains are there illegally, the emails allege, and should be returned to the tribes to which they belong. They’re all signed “T.D. White.”

* Science proves the universe is slowly dying

* How DC has played Suicide Squad all wrong.

* The law, in its majestic equality, permits both rich and poor to sleep outside.

Dutch Artists Celebrate George Orwell’s Birthday By Putting Party Hats On Surveillance Cameras.

Ancient whistle language uses whole brain for long-distance chat.

* “We’re Fighting Killer Robots the Wrong Way.”

An early YA novel gets lost in the Freaky Friday canon.

* My dad was right! Social Security really is a Ponzi scheme.

Don’t freak out, but scientists think octopuses ‘might be aliens’ after DNA study.

* Don’t bring your dogs to work.

* Today in Wikipedia hoaxes.

* Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal continues to overthink Superman in the best possible way.

Architects are trying to raise $2.8 billion to build this city from Lord of the Rings.

You Know Who Hates Drones? Bears. They love pools though.

* Don’t say it unless you mean it.

* And we shall Truffle Shuffle no more forever.

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Written by gerrycanavan

August 23, 2015 at 10:13 am

Posted in Look at what I found on the Internet

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Before the Beginning

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Roger Penrose thinks he’s discovered proof of what existed before the Big Bang.

The Big Bang model holds that everything that now comprises the universe was once concentrated in a single point of near-infinite density. Before this singularity exploded and the universe began, there was absolutely nothing – indeed, it’s not clear whether one can even use the term “before” in reference to a pre-Big-Bang cosmos, as time itself may not have existed yet. In the current model, the universe began with the Big Bang, underwent cosmic inflation for a fraction of a second, then settled into the much more gradual expansion that is still going on, and likely will end with the universe as an infinitely expanded, featureless cosmos.

Sir Roger Penrose, one of the most renowned physicists of the last fifty years, takes issue with this view. He points out that the universe was apparently born in a very low state of entropy, meaning a very high degree of order initially existed, and this is what made the complex matter we see all around us (and are composed of) possible in the first place. His objection is that the Big Bang model can’t explain why such a low entropy state existed, and he believes he has a solution – that the universe is just one of many in a cyclical chain, with each Big Bang starting up a new universe in place of the one before.

How does this help? Well, Penrose posits the end of each universe will involve a return to low entropy. This is because black holes suck in all the matter, energy, and information they encounter, which works to remove entropy from our universe. (Where that entropy might go is another question entirely.) The universe’s continued expansion into eventual nothingness causes the black holes themselves to evaporate, which ultimately leaves the universe in a highly ordered state once again, ready to contract into another singularity and set off the next Big Bang.

As alternative theories go, it’s not without its merits, but there’s no evidence to support it…until now. He says he’s found evidence for his ideas in the cosmic microwave background, the microwave radiation that permeates the universe and was thought to have formed 300,000 years after the Big Bang, providing a record of the universe at that far distant time. Penrose and his colleague Vahe Gurzadyan have discovered clear concentric circles within the data, which suggests regions of the radiation have much smaller temperature ranges than elsewhere.

Written by gerrycanavan

November 19, 2010 at 9:52 pm

Bad News, Everyone

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The universe is apparently thirty times closer to heat-death than we thought. (via io9) This reminds me of a joke Fred told this morning in class. A kindly old woman comes up to the famous physicist after her lecture and asks her, “Excuse me, how long did you say it would be before the sun exploded?” The physicist replies, “3 billion years.” The old woman exclaims, “Oh, thank heaven, I thought you said 3 million!”

Written by gerrycanavan

February 2, 2010 at 11:27 pm

TAL: ‘Long Shot’

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I thought This American Life was especially good this week even by its usual high standards, featuring the losingest high school football team in Utah, the longest shot ever to win the Kentucky Derby, and a murderer sentenced to life in California who suddenly receives parole after twenty-seven years in San Quentin—subject to Schwarzenegger’s veto. The last of the pieces, by perennial Canavan favorite Wells Tower, doesn’t seem to have all that much to do with long shots, but it hit home for me anyway; I have more than one Close Associate who uses entropy as a maintenance scheme and everything Tower had to say I wish I’d written.

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.

Written by gerrycanavan

January 7, 2010 at 10:36 am