Sunday, June 10, 2007

The End of The Road--My Final Rebuttal

It all started with my comment on Frank Tempone's Fitzgerald vs. Chabon post. I suggested Cormac McCarthy instead. Which led to this, followed by my defense of The Road here. Tempone retaliated with a one-two punch. The spectators of this battle are divided; some agree with my observations, while others...also agree with my observations...and yet others want to read the book for themselves now that they've read our little back-and-forth.

But can a winner truly be declared in any war? Yes. And it is me.

(But it never was really a fair fight. After all, I had Oprah on my side.)

But just to ensure the knock-out punch, I will respond to Tempone's final barrage of comments. He basically has three criticisms of The Road, which boil down to the following: 1) It isn't much of a character study; 2) It resorts to existentialism; and 3) It's cryptic and ambiguous. I'll respond to each:

It isn't much of a character study. I agree. But so what? Just because some "glowing reviews" called the novel a character study doesn't mean that the novel is required to live up to that expectation. And that's sort of the core of Tempone's argument anyway: the novel didn't live up to his expectations. He's constantly judging it based on what it's NOT, rather than analyzing what it is. I do this sometimes, of course, because it's impossible to suppress your expectations completely, but I make an effort to avoid such an approach because it's just not fair to the work. If you judge a work of literature based on what it's NOT, then every work is a failure. Hamlet sucks since it doesn't have as much ninjitsu as I expected. Moby Dick sucks because it didn't sensitively explore the relationship between Starbuck and his wife, like I thought it would. The Road sucks because it wasn't a character study. You can see how that type of illogical analysis isn't very useful. Tempone, of course, could counter (but he won't, because he's sick of writing about a book he doesn't even like) by saying that it's absurd to expect ninjas and romance in Hamlet and Moby Dick, respectively, but it's not absurd to expect something as basic as character development in a novel. I disagree. You shouldn't expect anything more from a novel than what the writer gives you. Cormac McCarthy violates a number of novel-writing "rules" in The Road and that's one of the reasons it's so great. He challenges expectations. He makes his own rules. He doesn't have to give you what you expect from a novel. Read the book for what it is, not for what it isn't.

It resorts to existentialism. Right. And that's bad why? Tempone repeatedly uses "existentialism" as a criticism of the book, but what's wrong with existentialism? It seems like a pretty freakin' appropriate philosophy for life after the apocalypse, doesn't it? All the father and son have is the fact that they exist. Their existence is their world. They have no other cultural markers to hold on to. Even when they visit the father's old home, none of it has much meaning in the new world they inhabit. Tempone criticizes this bit of dialogue "--Who is it? said the boy. --I don’t know. Who is anybody?" He calls it "zen Buddhism, with a side of fried existentialism." I call it a significant thematic passage. After all, identity is so dependent on our position in society, so it's worth questioning the concept of identity when society as we know it no longer exists. The traditional roles no longer apply. The response, "Who is anybody?" is not, as Tempone implies, an open-ended question that "hovers over the reader while he chases his tail," it's a question-as-statement. The father phrases it as a question, sure. But it's an answer. And the answer is: we exist, and that's all we know.

It's cryptic and ambiguous. Tempone must realize that he referred to the same novel as both "painfully linear" and "cryptic and ambiguous." Which is it, Frank? Well, you know what? I can see how the novel could be both. They aren't mutually exclusive, even though simplicity and ambiguity seem like opposities. But, in The Road they cohabitate. The plot is simple and linear. The language is ambiguous. But, as with most of Tempone's observations, I just don't see the problem. Ambiguity is essential in a work of art, isn't it? What good is a novel that can be clearly defined and delineated? Isn't ambiguity of meaning one of the things that great literature does well? Tempone might argue that overall ambiguity is good, but ambiguity of language is just sloppy writing. Once again, I disagree. I think they go hand-in-hand, and in a novel like this, in which the father fails to make a great deal of sense out of the world in which he and his son now live, it's not surprising that the language might be more than a little ambiguous at times. But, then again, Tempone's example of cryptic and ambiguous language doesn't even prove that the language is ambiguous anyway. He cites one particular passage: "When he rose and turned to go back the tarp was lit from within where the boy had awakened. Sited there in the darkness the frail blue shape of it looked like the pitch of some last venture at the edge of the world. Something all but unaccountable. And so it was." Tempone's comment is, "I have no idea what he's trying to say in this one." Well, I do! It's an image of the boy in a tent, camped out at the end of the world. That's pretty easy to figure out, since that's what the words say, and Tempone is a smart guy, so I assume his confusion comes from the last two sentences: "Something all but unaccountable. And so it was." McCarthy indicates that the father finds this situation difficult to account for. He sees their whole existence as unlikely, and no doubt has the hope, however slight, that this "last venture" of theirs has to do with keeping his son alive. The final sentence: "And so it was," is not an ironic comment in the manner of Vonnegut's famous "and so it goes." In this novel, "And so it was" indicates two things: that the image of the small tent full of life surrounded by desolation is an unlikely image AND it's yet another iteration of the (quite relevant) existential theme. As unlikely as their situation is, at least they have their existence, for whatever it's worth (and since it's ALL they have, it's worth a lot).

Ultimately, I think this novel is a masterpiece for many of the same reasons Tempone criticizes it. Have I convinced Frank to like the book more? Probably not. Has he convinced me that it has deep flaws? Not really. So, if it's just a matter of taste, why did we bother this whole thread of discussion? Because literature matters. It should be thought about deeply, and I'm glad that at least one person has been prompted to pick up the novel because of our observations. (Not that the book hasn't sold ten bazillion copies already.)

Now I challenge Frank to recommend a novel to me, and we'll see if I can evaluate the novel for what it is, rather than for what I expect it to be. You up for another round, buddy?


Karissa Chen said...

a successful piece of art/fiction/whatever sometimes is its ability to incite debate. what is BAD is something that is so boring that no one cares either way. but hate it or love it, the road has obviously been affecting. and anyway, everyone will take away from the book what they will. maybe i loved it so much because i had no expectations whatsoever of what it "should" be, so everything i got out of the book was completely unbiased and uncolored. thanks for the debate.. reading it was really fun :) as was, somewhat, participating in it.

Anonymous said...

Literature does matter. And a literary duel, as a spectator sport, can be fun. It doesn’t do anything to change the opinions of the duelers, but it might influence the spectators. The only Cormac McCarthy novel I’ve read is Child of God, which was weird, hair-raising, and well written. I took The Road off the B&N shelf a couple of times. I read the jacket, said “Oh, a nuclear holocaust novel,” and put it back. Later, I paged through it and read a few things. Nothing grabbed me. Both sides of your blog exchange (yes, both sides) have persuaded me that I wouldn’t like it. TC, your intellectual, Nabokovian, “fiction-is-all-about-the-language” approach may ultimately persuade us that it’s a good work of literature, but it will never make anyone love the book who wasn’t grabbed in the gut by it as a reader. The discussion is over, anyway. Serve up another novel; I’ll look forward to reading that one and weighing in myself.

BTW, “scrabble” and “sorrow” as verbs aren’t strange. In my dictionary, anyway, scrabble is defined only as a verb. Sorrow is also defined as a verb, but only as intransitive, so McCarthy’s usage is unusual. “The intestate world” isn't bad, though.