Thursday, December 13, 2007

Literary Smackdown by Alison Ross

(Well, at least that I’m aware of)
(Review of In the Country of Last Things versus The Road)

Apocalypse Later
by Alison Ross

Apocalyptic novels, it seems, are in no short supply. However, it appears that there is a dearth of GOOD doomsday dramas. Such Paxil-n-Prozac propaganda, it seems, takes a singular talent to craftily create. There are lots of fine authors, sure, but only a few, it seems, with the technical facility and imaginative ingenuity to balance lucid realism with lurid dystopianism.

Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006) and Paul Auster’s In the Country of Last Things (1987) are two novels that attempt to narrate and encapsulate an unfathomable apocalyptic reality. Only one novel of the pair, however, wins on this front; the other simply flails in overreaching ambition.

In McCarthy’s The Road, the story concerns a journey across the Southeastern United States a nameless father and son take after a catastrophe of some sort has ravaged the land and destroyed most life on earth. The humans who remain are scavengers and cannibals, while plants and animals appear to have died out altogether. Along their journey, the father and son encounter many threats to their survival, and the father is fairly adept at helping his son navigate this treacherous terrain. Nonetheless, the characters face quite a bit of hardship and uncertainty.

In Auster’s The Country of Last Things, a young character by the name of Anna Blume has ventured into an unnamed city that bears an eerie kinship to NYC. The city has mysteriously devolved into an anarchic dystopia. As in The Road, many survivors are scavengers, who collect objects to resell as a means of survival. There is still government, but the body’s main focus is collecting human waste and corpses for fuel. The story concerns Anna’s search for her missing brother and her multiple travails along the way.

Both Auster’s story and McCarthy’s tale concern near-future scenarios that take place in hostile environments and and involve characters stripped of basic human dignity and reduced to primitive behaviors. The Road is a more spare, minimalist novel than In the Country of Last Things, although neither rely on dense details to tell their stories. However, in The Road the minimalism seems contrived to create mystique, whereas in The Country of Last Things such a mysterious mood seems more authentically, organically grown. Both novels intend to cultivate a milieu of haunting elusiveness, and both novels want you to imaginatively fill the void, as it were. Both novels also intend to be universally symbolic, and the precise naming of place and time and certain other details would interfere with that aim. Nonetheless, The Road almost appears to revel in withholding details as a clever plot device rather than serving any hidden motive.

McCarthy’s book, in short, feels more forced than Auster’s novel. Auster’s novel is a tantalizing if terrifying taste of a post-apocalyptic world, whereas The Road left me meandering in search for concrete meaning. There are haunting moments in The Road, to be sure, and the relationship between the father and son can be emotionally submersive, but as a cautionary tale it’s a hollow affair. Indeed, The Road has all the pretentions of being a grandiosely grave apocalyptic warning, but these very haughty aspirations are what douse the novel’s ominous effect. The Road is paved with good intentions that are never fully realized because the author’s ego keeps getting in the way.

But perhaps I have missed the point. Or, more likely, McCarthy simply failed to engage me existentially and only succeeded in narrating a mildly interesting tale that was quickly forgotten once the book was finished and shut. On the other hand, Auster’s book had a tormenting affect on me throughout the days that I read it, and continued to haunt me after I finished it - so much so, that I read it twice.

Interesting it is, then, that McCarthy’s book earned has earned univeral critical and popular acclaim, and that it received a prize, whereas Auster’s book, while revered by critics in its way and while of course adored by Auster’s cult following, barely registered with mass audiences.

It’s a shame, really, because in this literary smackdown, Auster’s book crushes McCarthy’s.

Proof that literary brawn is no match for literary brains.

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