Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Book reviews: Walking through ravaged America as Cormac McCarthy dreamed it up - and a Dickens book too

I must admit I had a hard time accepting this novel, The Road (2006), for what it is. Often harrowing, it is basically a slow and subtle character-piece masquerading as an apocalyptic survival horror. A father and son travel south through a hostile, ash-covered land that was once America. They don’t have any real destination, they don’t have a hope, they just look for food – and ways to avoid the pain of losing each other. Occasionally attacked by the desperate and starving nameless, our hearts are in our mouths as we see the father trying to provide in a land with no sign of life or colour. Tense moments quickly pass and we feel the monotonous inevitability of their trek down the road and learn how they scavenge, what they talk about along the road, what the country has become.

And so it goes on. As I read it through, it seemed McCarthy (who also wrote No Country for Old Men) has a number of intentions with the book. He shocks us with an uncompromising vision of a ruined planet, and shocks us more by the convincing psychology of both characters, their trauma deftly created through suggestive phrases, the smallest of actions, or the way the father speaks about the old world or about other people. McCarthy wants us to stop and think. What is it to be a father? How do you nurture a child when all the world is lost? What would happen to us if the very earth turned against us? Where would we turn? The book is a portrait of a world without hope – revealed in bleak episode after episode of aching loneliness and difficulty. Not light reading, then.

The grey road becomes a place of danger, or, as their attitudes slowly change, a place of connection with the world, as the pair decide to leave something in the road for other travellers. The road at times too is a symbol of the father’s determination to keep going, and not give in to suicide. The man knows there is no better world for the child to hope for, but he carries on as if there might be. This makes for some powerful moments, as the weary man looks up and sees his son as “glowing in that waste like a tabernacle” (p293). This child he believes he has ruined, this child he cares for, who frustrates him, who bears with him, who is his whole world, who asks him about the past and the strangers they have seen – he is his purpose for living. He must protect this boy.

Dreams become the enemy – at least for the man, tempting him to die and go to another world. He can’t dare to hope for the future, or for death, or think of the past. He just travels the road. It must barely be possible to live like this. Just surviving.

It does raise some questions for each of us in the real world. Do we walk alone? Who do we bear our burdens for? Is there something better to look forward to? Does God care about those who are burdened, starving, living in a grey world of monotony and pain?

I thank God for the truth that though we can go through tremendous difficulty, and break our backs working “by the sweat of our brow”, one day He has promised fruition, joy and peace with Him for all believers. We are heading somewhere – a place better than our wildest dreams, with our Saviour God, if we follow Him now. We are not walking alone.

Another book I enjoyed recently is Charles Dickens’ Hard Times. Chapter 10 stood out for me as it, like much of the novel, manages to move and amuse within pages. It is a brilliantly crafted and deeply tragic episode in Louisa’s life, as she joylessly consents to an engagement with the blustering Bounderby, and her parents are pure caricatures of what it means to be absorbed by self, or blinded by a rigid worldview. Dickens creates absurd characters who show us our own faults: our pride, our insensitivity, our use of language to put down and exclude, our double standards (not necessarily to those of lower classes as pictured in Dicken’s Coketown, but just excusing ourself for what we do not let others away with) – and of course, our ambition at the expense of humanity and society.

Plenty of other moments shone in the book – but for now I will just say that Hard Times is a vastly superior novel, once you begin to care for the characters, and while it is sad, it is only bittersweet and doesn’t come with the health warning of “savage bleakness” that The Road does. Definitely recommended.

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