Everyday Semiotics

Friday, September 21, 2007

On "The Road"

One recent book-on-CD selection was Cormac McCarthy's new book, The Road. I was taken with the Hemmingwayish directness and brevity of language McCarthy uses. (I certainly like it in his hands better than in Hemmingway's.) And the story was vaguely scientificticious, post-apocalyptic, but this was hardly ever foregrounded. It's not a work of speculative fiction. It's a story about a man and his son trekking through nuclear winter. It's a man versus man, man versus nature, man versus God story. It's gut wrenching.

My critical eye comes to rest on the very minor cameo appearances in the novel of the man's wife, the boy's mother (not a single character in the book has a name, by the way). By the present day of the book she's already dead, by suicide. Years after the apocalypse -- a nuclear war -- she gives up. And she wants the man to give up too. "Blood cults" roam the destroyed country now. Like Reavers from "Firefly" they rape and cannibalize anyone they find. The man and the boy are forced to become nomads, lonely good guys always in peril, always "carrying the fire," in a phrase the boy likes to repeat to reassure himself.

In a flashback, the mother says "My heart was ripped out of me the night he was born so don't look for sorrow now." She is pregnant when they see a nuclear bomb go off. The man draws a bath immediately. We're not told why, but the implication is so she can lie in it and protect their unborn child from the shockwaves. Then the child is born in the destroyed world where there is no food and no safety.

In deciding to kill herself, the mother is determined, and even a bit angry the man refuses to take his own life and that of their child's, too. "They will rape me," she says. "They'll rape him. They are going to rape us and kill us and eat us and you won't face it."

The man wants to press on, but he does not articulate why. The woman tries to elucidate her thinking to him, and she needles him:
"You can think of me as a faithless slut if you like. I've taken a new lover. He can give me what you cannot.
"Death is not a lover.
"Oh yes he is."


"Because I am done with my own whorish heart and I have been for a long time. You talk about taking a stand but there is no stand to take." (see pp. 47-50)

The woman's language in the novel is theatrical. It's how an Ayn Rand character would talk if she were intent not on joining John Galt's commune but on killing herself to escape a world dominated by mediocrity.

The language of the man, and of the novel, is gritty, terse, untheatrical. Why this shift in modes, and why the doubly-reinforcing usages of "slut" and "whorish," of all possible analogies, in the brief glimpses we get of her? The woman is clearly trying to get under the man's skin; but to what end? Of course it is a man making her speak. A man who is writing a very gritty novel about a manly man. His wife transgresses against his wishes, and so must be cast as a trollop.

This reading, though, isn't terribly instructive and somehow I don't think it's right. Is she merely a throwaway character, or is there something vital and pivotal about her. Artistic, not just masculinely pragmatic, reasons that she does not come on the journey?

Past these early appearances, the wife does not return. The boy seems unfazed, or maybe dumbfounded, when he discovers she isn't coming with them one day. The man removes a photo of her from his wallet, and tries to wake himself from dreams of her. And long before the novel is over she is gone and forgotten.

The man, on the other hand, dies of tuberculosis just as the boy is made safe, finally taken in by a group of non-cannibals prepared to care for him. He gives his life saving the child; the woman gives her life abandoning the child, but wanting to spare him the road ahead.

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Auditory reading

I'm a recent convert to the wonderful world of books on tape, er, CD. Picking out music CDs for every longish trip has always been a chore, and often once I'm on the road I wish I'd made entirely different selections, or I simply won't be in the mood for music.

So I finally got a library card at Forbes (I'd only been here a year -- what was the rush?) and started replacing music with books in my travels. My first selections, which suited perfectly my journey to Schroon Lake and back, were Steinbeck's The Pearl and Twain's "The Man Who Corrupted Hadleyburg" (which isn't very good, by the way), neither of which I'd read before. On subsequent trips I returned to familiar texts: Douglas Adams's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and Joyce's Dubliners, both of which were absolute delights to hear read aloud. I attempted Beowulf, but just couldn't do it. There's one I think I'd rather read than hear.

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