Thursday, May 28, 2009

Literary discussion ...

Update: I'm bumping this post up because I want to add to it a quote from the article about E.M. Cioran that I linked to earlier today, since something Cioran said seem to me to have some bearing on the post-apocalyptic literature under discussion:
“Annihilating flatters something obscure, something original in us. It is not by erecting but by pulverising that we may divine the secret satisfactions of a god. Whence the lure of destruction and the illusions it provokes among the frenzied of any era.”


R.T. of Novels, Stories, and More and I have been exchanging emails regarding Cormac McCarthy's The Road - proof positive that two people can have widely divergent views of the same book and remain on speaking terms. R.T. has just posted PART ONE – Revisiting Cormac McCarthy’s THE ROAD.
As I have already told R.T., I am open to having my mind changed about the book, but I think what will be most interesting is to see why we disagree, because I think that will lead, perhaps, to a better understanding of the book. It will certainly be fun for two people who love to read.

38 comments:

  1. I recently wrote something about this again, too. Weird. Anyway, my opinion hasn't changed.

    Except perhaps to be more cynical about a lot of the reviewers, most of whom seem to have never read a post-apocalyptic novel previously. And for those who have, such as James Wood who seems to have read A Canticle for Liebowitz at least, many of them miss the point completely.

    I'll stand by my opinion that The Road is unoriginal and derivative. What staggers me is the ignorance so many reviewers showed in that they STILL seem unaware that there's a long history of this genre of novel, whether or not one labels it as science fiction.

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  2. It's a strange book. i read it in early 2007 when i was feeling grey and miserable. Despite its considerable grimness i felt somehow vivified, like i'd had a shot of whiskey on an empty stomach. It made the world seem vivid & colourful & terrible again, rather than just banal & wearying.

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  3. I'm glad others are weighing in on the discussion, which I think has the promise of being provocative and useful. Art and Elberry both make interesting and valid points about which I will have something to say a bit later. For the time being, though, I have only a minute to acknowledge their participation. More to follow.

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  4. i've been turning McCarthy over in my mind, why i like him so much but many people whose taste i generally respect don't - i think the WAY i read him is the thing - i read him the way i read Beckett, for the atmosphere rather than the story or characters. The prose is crucial but i think one would only respond to it, feel it as 'true', if the atmosphere feels (in some way) plausible.

    My own sense of civilization is quite fragile - i always expect things to be swept away by a great flood or a nuke - i've always felt this way, so i read McCarthy with great interest - because the wildness is always eating into his world. It makes the works of civilization both fragile & wonderful - the famous Coke can in The Road, for example - like Wallace Stevens' jar. My own anxiety about civilization, my fear that it is certainly doomed, inclines me to relish McCarthy.

    While i can see how his prose might seem like reheated Faulkner for me it fits - it reminds me of a description of marauding Indians in Blood Meridian, decked out with stolen finery, lady's knickers, velvet hats, eyeglasses, jewellery, soiled waistcoats, etc. - it's bizarre & grandiose & barbarous - yet somehow it comes together, in the way the clothes are worn. But i suspect it's inseparable from the vision, that sense that civilization is about to crumble - without that, perhaps it just seems extravagant & hokey.

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  5. I think elberry, who, I have discovered, is a very bright young man (oh, "to be young was very heaven"), has made the key point: It is the way one reads McCarthy that counts. Now, if we can isolate what those ways are, we will have made a real step forward in literary criticism, or whatever.

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  6. At the risk of being redundant, I again have only a moment or two now (with other responsibilities beating at my door this evening), but what Elberry and you (Frank) say is intriguing, though literary critics would caution about your (and my) interest in the way one reads literature. In other words, many critics warn against affective fallacy--"judging a work of art in terms of its results, especially its emotional effect" (from Harmon's and Holman's A HANDBOOK TO LITERATURE); the cited Harmon and Holman cite W. K. Wimsatt, Jr., and M. C. Beardsley who coined the term to describe the "confusion between the poem and its result (what it is and what it does)." Though affective fallacy is a pitfall in the view of some, I am not certain that it deserves to be either ignored or demonized. After all, if literature only has intellectual (cognitive) impact, and if we are to ignore the emotional impact, then I think reading and reacting can become rather boring and mechanical processes. Well, enough about that for now. That gives us something else to chew on for a while. Now, though, it is back to my considerably building domestic duties (and deference to my own "she who must be obeyed"--a term which I lovingly borrow from John Mortimer's RUMPOLE OF THE BAILEY).

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  7. Ah, R.T., I was in college when Wimsatt & Beardsley (we always thought of them as a kind of law firm) were at their peak. At my college there was actually a divide in the English department over the New Criticism. (I made my reputation as a troublesome stude by taking on one of the NC advocates in the college newspaper, of which I was then an editor (and later editor). To be fair, I learned a lot from the new critics - and from the teacher I had that little dispute with. And I understand that one shouldn't interpret a book in terms of the feelings it arouses in one. But one does have a reaction to what one reads. That is part of the facticity of reading. So if some academics would disapprove, well, they were disapproving of me when I was a student. Forward, ho!

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  8. Well, then, what about the WAY one reads Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker. Or Edgar Pangborn's Davy. Or Walter M. Miller's A Canticle for Liebowitz. Or Roger Zelazny and Philip K. Dick's Deus Irae. Or Kate Wilhelm's Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, or her Juniper Time. Or . . . well, the list is a long one.

    Again, I'm surprised that reviewers are not aware of the long history of the genre of post-apocalyptic novel. It's usually considered SF, mostly because H.G. Wells was one of the founders of the p-a genre; but then, I've argued for a long time that there's as much (or more) great writing in SF as there is "fine art literature" fiction.

    One of my main objections is that most reviewers seem to think The Road was some kind of breakthrough, or exceptional example of the genre—which it is most certainly is not. (The Coke can symbolism is right out of A Canticle for Liebowitz; even though the object is a different exact object, the trope is identical.) I can only assume that these plaudits come from ignorance, mostly.

    The affective reading argument fails utterly for me when I look at the way each of these books was written, in completely different tones and styles. So I don't buy the argument. I read Beckett too, as one of my favorite writers; and there's no comparison, I don't think. I read these different writers not only for their styles and tones; while that's part of the reading experience, it's not the only part. It has to be part of the whole gestalt, but by itself it's not enough. If a book is written in a style I am attracted to but says things repellant or uninteresting, should I therefore be supposed to like it? No.

    You see, that's the same logic that people who know I'm a Trekkie think I therefore also play video games. I don't; I view them as a complete waste of time. In other words, the two things are not intrinsically linked. Neither are style and content in literature. Which is why there can be so many post-apocalyptic novels written in so very many differing styles.

    That doesn't mean that a reader's emotional response should be ignored. Of course not! But it also doesn't mean that it's the most important or only factor by which to make a critical assessment. So, the "hey, I loved it!" argument only goes so far, and no further.

    Speaking of differing styles, Riddley Walker even goes so far as to use an invented post-Anglic language; which takes some getting used to, but becomes quite natural after awhile.

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  9. Again, I'm pressed for time, and more will follow, but I should now mention, in response to Art's most recent comments that two things are on my mind: (1) I may have not clearly stated the case about "affective fallacy," and I need to take another stab at it and present it more coherently in another post later; (2) I don't want Art to think that I have suggested anything that is dismissive about SF and PA fiction because my reading and review of THE ROAD is very much informed by my previous reading of PA/SF novels as well as surprisingly different PA writers (i.e., William Blake and W. B. Yeats), but--again--I'll attempt a more coherent presentation on that thread of the discussion at another post later. In the meantime, back to the chores. Really! (Postscript: Well, Frank, is this the kind of back-and-forth that you had hoped for when you and I began chatting about THE ROAD? It works for me.)

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  10. It is exactly what I had in mind. People passionately interested in books expressing that passion - and being civil about it. My college Latin teacher introduced me to A Canticle for Leibowitz the year it came out. I haven't read it since, but it certainly put me on the ground floor of post-apocalyptic fiction. Maybe that's one reason The Road didn't impress me.

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  11. It might take me a bit of time, and effort, but I'd be willing to back up my points about the history of the (sub-)genre with a list of titles. If you think that would be helpful, that is.

    Criteria and/or definition of terms: "post-apocalyptic" is the generic sense of meaning "after the fall of civilization" or "after the end of the world." That sort of thing. This is not in fact need to involve any theological criteria, or religious usage or definition, and doesn't need to be, I don't think.

    Frank, I have also been thinking about your previously coining the term "pornography of despair" in the context of your earlier review(s). I think that's a topic very much worth delving into. It gets at not only the literary and philosophical aspects of this discussion, but actually gets at the roots of any questions we might have of the p-a genre as a whole.

    I have been saying for some time now that I don't believe in apocalypse, I believe in apokatastasis. And there are literary sources I can cite along those lines, too, if anyone's interested.

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  12. What I liked about The Road was the relentlessness of its vision. That it's not original is beside the point, for me. I have not read much P-A fiction, so I have to read the book in the context of what I have read. The book is figuratively and literally as dark as McCarthy could make it, from the beginning, and it only gets darker. It's exhausting, harrowing in that relentlessness. My only objection was to the (relatively) Hollywood nature of the ending, which undercuts what comes before. Why even one tiny ray of hope? As I've written elsewhere, No Country For Old Men was written for the movies, and the end of The Road was too.

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  13. I just remembered another antecedent to the Coke can -- the needle in Walter Van Tilburg Clark's classic P-A short story, The Portable Phonograph.

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  14. Riddley Walker is well cool - the strange dogs are particularly good, the "Burnt Arse Pack".

    Another reason McCarthy puts me in mind of Beckett in this book - i feel he wants to push the grimness as far as he can, to see if the human spirit can endure, can sustain some kind of integrity. Beckett creates utterly surreal worlds of destitution & loss; McCarthy uses the building blocks of post-apocalyptic fantasy - but i think the general spirit is the same, a testing of the spirit.

    And in both cases i take heart, it seems generally optimistic - that is to say, the human spirit can endure just about anything. That a man looks after his son, and that after his death a stranger adopts the boy - that's enough.

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  15. Art, though I do not think you can separate apocalypse from religion (Judeo-Christian impulses), I would like to have you say more about apokatastasis.
    Elberry, I agree with comparing Beckett and McCarthy's THE ROAD. My fascination and familiarity with Beckett (especially WAITING FOR GODOT and KRAPP'S LAST TAPE, two productions I was involved with as an undergraduate theater major) probably influenced my reading of THE ROAD.
    Christopher, literature written with an eye to it becoming cinema, or literature heavily influenced by cinematic techniques has become rather common, especially in popular fiction; McCarthy's cinematic technique in THE ROAD, though, seems to rise above the run-of-the-mill variety, and his approach has much to do with his careful manipulation of diction and imagery as well as his original figures of speech (though Frank has pointed out that there are at least several examples of McCarthy's figurative language that bother him).
    More to follow in longer post over at my own blog site in another day or so.

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  16. Christopher Guerin11:30 AM

    I agree that literature employing cinematic techniques is common, but I can't think of another book by a major literary artist being written so clearly for the screen as No Country for Old Men. The Road seems less so (though it's been filmed too), and therefore more true to its own vision, except, as I said before, for the ending.

    Not a movie I'm likely to see, btw. Hard to imagine how it can be anything but a horror movie.

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  17. Actually, the whole trope of An Object Representing What Has Been Lost is part of the Coke can, phonograph needle, etc., thing. In many different novels it's different things, but the literary of the archetype of An Object is found a lot of the time.

    Christopher, no offense to you personally, and you made my point for me when you wrote: "That it's not original is beside the point, for me. I have not read much P-A fiction, so I have to read the book in the context of what I have read." That's exactly the point I'm making: a lot of the reviews of this book have exactly the same attitude, and therefore miss many of the book's problems as a result of NOT knowing the genre's history and context.

    Context and history are one of the chief ways critics assess literature, by placing a work in context of its lineage—not the only way, to be sure, but ignoring it also skews thing badly.

    Verifcation word was: Swear LOL

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  18. The ongoing Beckett comparison misses one very important thing:

    Beckett, even at his grimmest, was often very FUNNY. Absurd-funny lots of the time, gallows-humor at times, bizarre-humor sometimes. But Beckett was always FUNNY. There are moments where the characters fumble around with something, completely humanly, completely awkwardly—and those are the points wherein we can connect with their humanity, because we hilariously fumble even at the grim moments, ourselves. Funeral-parlor humor.

    It seems to me that McCarthy has gone far out of his way to be relentlessly NOT funny. As if that would make things grimmer and darker. Perhaps it does. But it also makes it seem more phony. Because anyone who's ever hung out with doctors and nurses at an ER or oncology ward knows from experience how much humor there is. It might be dark, but those people are FUNNY. It's a survival mechanism, a copying mechanism, a very human response. It strikes me that McCarthy, in trying to take that gallows away out of his equation, only makes it seems more artificial, rather than more life-like.

    This is not to single out McCarthy, because other writers have made this same mistake about being Grim & Serious. They don't seem to understand that it comes over as mannered rather than authentically human. (I think Norman Mailer suffered from this, among others.)

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  19. As for being written for the screen, Larry McMurtry comes to mind. Some of his novels are so cinematic, that's why they're transposed so well.

    Another writer who comes to mind is Sam Shepard. Think of "True West," a play, but a very movie-like play. Granted, I think more highly of Shepard as a writer in general than I do of some of the others under discussion here. A bias I'll cheerfully admit to. Shepard at his best, such as his collaborations with Joe Chaykin—for example, "Tongues"—approaches similar territory to Beckett et al. Shepard's collections of short stories are full of writing gems; one or two of these have been made into movies, too.

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  20. I have been toiling away at my column - and am only halfway through - but I was glad to see that Art pointed out that key difference between Beckett and McCarthy - the fact Beckett is funny and McCarthy, so far as I can tell, is humorless. Also, I think that apocatastasis is crucial to the discussion because my principal object to apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic literature is that it takes a trope from scripture and drops out its essential note - that the destruction is simply a prelude to renewal. It is fundamentally pessimistic because its premise is that this is all there is - no sense of transcendence or the eternal.

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  21. There's sometimes a grim and laconic sort of humour in other McCarthy books - it comes across in the film of No Country, dialogue like:
    - "It's a mess ain't it, Sheriff"
    - "If it ain't it'll do till the mess gets here."
    i don't recall any mirth in The Road at all. However, thinking on The Road, for me it's charged with tenderness, the love of the man for his son - which for me makes it human & affecting. i guess it may strike others as hokey or sentimental. For example, i find this wonderful, but i realise other readers might just shake their heads in disgust:

    "In the morning they came up out of the ravine and took to the road again. He'd carved the boy a flute from a piece of roadside cane and he took it from his coat and gave it to him. The boy took it wordlessly. After a while he fell back and after a while the man could hear him playing. A formless music for the age to come. Or perhaps the last music on earth called up from out of the ashes of its ruin. The man turned and looked back at him. He was lost in concentration. The man thought he seemed some sad and solitary changeling child announcing the arrival of a traveling spectacle in shire and village who does not know that behind him the players have all been carried off by wolves."

    That the man - half-starved, dying of radiation sickness - would trouble to carve a flute for his son, and the son would play it, touches me. That care, the care for little things in the midst of devastation and terror, makes the book - for me - essentially optimistic. The book is about a man looking after his son - if it were really a grim pessimistic horrorfest it would be about a cannibal leader and would detail his conquests & feasts, it would revel in demonstrating how people become as beasts (which is much closer to Blood Meridian, but even there 'the Kid' is not wholly given to evil). But it doesn't - it shows that even in a wasteland, where the bad are freed from constraint, free to kill, two human beings will still care about each other, that we're not just Darwinian predators out for ourselves - if we were, the man would have eaten his son.

    The image of 'the fire' they carry - which is also the fire carried by Sheriff Bell in his dream (at the end of No Country) - is the fire of civilization, it's the light of human goodness. That it's surrounded by ruin & darkness just emphasises that it won't be wholly extinguished.

    The actual physical terrain of the story doesn't depress me - it would only depress me if all love & decency were extinguished; but they aren't.

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  22. elberry, that's the best defense of The Road I've heard yet. My problem with what was presented as tenderness was that, to me, it seemed contrived, which is my overall problem with the book, which I felt was manipulating me. But it could be that I have grown too cynical for my own good.

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  23. i've found McCarthy makes most sense if you read him out in the desert, in blood-soaked denim clothes stolen from a whorehouse, pursued by baying cannibals, with only one bullet left in your .45, an arrow stuck through your left thigh, perhaps with a hipflask of rotgut and some raw coyote meat. One you feel the juicy coyote meat go down it all makes sense.

    It's all about 'the McCarthy feel'.

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  24. Sounds like me in the '70s and '80s.

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  25. Sounds like when I lived in the desert outside Taos. Sometimes the coyotes and I talked over the howling line.

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  26. Lacedie . . . (verify, verify, verify) . . . In the beginning was the command line / Lady Die* . . .

    George Miller? Nope. (But, that's the scope of hope.)

    Gawd, I simply love Canticle, so so so so so much, always have and always will; in fact, every book I've ever inked has a ref (or threft :)) to / from it. (It's the Catholic, y'see?) Also think it deserves the "authentic American apocalyptic novel" non-pareil designation; and, fittingly, I won't even discuss Miller's suicide which provides a punctuation mark of sorts for what Frank so gloriously calls the pornography of despair.

    What's its opposite? The pornography of oppressive garrulosity.

    * Another guy that oughtta be here, if only to enlarge / expand the field (and, I think Bat Segundoed him, IIRC): Neal Stephenson (who acknowledges his debt to Miller/s and Makar/s).

    Hey, I like this piece which praises On the Beach, both book and bovie.

    Daniel, Ezekial, Revelation, All Laced Up with NowHere to i.e. (Exilitic's a great word, though.)

    CRASH! "The perfect arena . . . for all the Veronicas of our own perversions."

    Just a few quick random blot thots. My mind ain't changed about The Road, though; I'll stand firmly by Art standing by his opinion when he says he's even more convinced. Me/me tomb :).

    Ahh . . . "Maybe we've been too silly to deserve a world like this." (Aw, Shute!)

    Wikipedia Page with some fine litleads . . .

    And, for Rus's delectation:
    Zombie Apocalypse. Say it, pray it, slay it, stay it, obamaSway it :) . . . (I tried to leave you know it wouldn't let us go-go.)

    And, "Democracy" is comin' in "The Future" . . .

    p.s. This discussion's utterly magnif . . . I've been reading and making these notes so long it's now rejecting lacedie and demanding colismsh (erm, does this I must go to know When Falls The Coliseum's main-stream heart?)

    Elberry? You're nuts! Freaking insane in the grotto brain! And, I love it . . .

    Just, thanks, just thanks / just. Brilliant minds at work inspire and fire, spontaneous combustion R US . . . Just a quick fly-by cyber-high-five hollow-sham sigh (or did Viv dally with Bert to inflict that hurt?) L8R. Efficiency R WE (thanks to JC).

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  27. There is more about THE ROAD and a furthering of this discussion in the second part of my commentary at Novels, Stories, and More.
    Part Two - Cormac McCarthy's THE ROAD

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  28. I think we have to grant McCarthy his premise, which is that the means of regeneration, food, is no longer present. Brief circumstances, such as the discovery of the bomb shelter (rather obvious irony that), by which life is extended, only delay the inevitable. It is touching (and, I agree, somewhat manipulative to the reader) that the humanity of the father is unextinguished by this, and so the book is about man, not God. The artistic question is whether or not the author is true to his premise, which is why the ending is so disappointing. We're left to believe that the boy might just make it in the hands of his adoptive strangers, as though their good intentions are enough. But, that undercuts everything that's gone before.

    To my other point, and I wasn't being disingenuous (I'm not sure what I was being), but this didn't post ( http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/93401-nobody-move-by-denis-johnson ) until this morning, which is why I didn't mention this book -- Denis Johnson's Nobody Move -- which seems clearly to have been written for the movies as well.

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  29. I think Christopher has put his finger on something that cuts to the heart of my objection to the book. If things are as the book says, it is only a matter of time before there just is nothing left to sustain anybody. Even if you grant that the people the kid meets at the end sincerely care about him (and I did not feel all that certain about that), it won't make any difference. They'll just lovingly drift off into oblivion together. And this does not even address the problem raised by having only humans survive whatever disaster it was that took place - highly unlikely, given the resilience of roaches.

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  30. [Blogger has apparently set new length limits on comments, as I am not allowed to post my comment due to length. So I'll have to split it into two parts. Go figure. Not all things new are better.]

    The Wikipedia article that Judith links to lists some other novel titles worth investigating for oneself, it's true; and whoever wrote that article has lots of other facts wrong. (I don't make Wikipedia entries anymore; I've been attacked for merely making factual corrections there. Who needs the grief.) The writer who mentions Andre Norton is a Norton fan, clearly, with an axe to grind. Not to diminish Norton as a writer, and her contributions to the post-apocalyptic sub-genre were not nearly as great as suggested.

    R.T., having read your new post, I follow your interpretative argument, I hope. I think you make a valid case for your [personal] reading of the novel; yet I think your reading remains a [personal] idiosyncratic reading, a subjective response that doesn't address anything else.

    Fair enough so far as it goes.

    Yet it raises the same old issue around reviewing books in general: knowing why one reviewer liked it, for personal reasons, doesn't help a general reader decide if they would like to read the book, too—unless of course they had very similar reasons for maybe liking the book being reviewed. Again, fair enough. What I'm getting at here, though, is the issue of relative critical objectivity. A lot of the reviews I've encountered about The Road essentially reduce to fan reviews (kin to that Norton fan's review in the Wikipedia article). Again, it strikes me that many of those fan reviews were ignorant of literary history. I have already discussed why fan reviews written with little knowledge of the p-a sub-genre's precedents and tropes are problematic; so I won't repeat that again.

    And why include Blake or Camus in there? (P.S., a friendly nit-pick you might wish to correct later: you listed five canonical authors, not three.) I don't see the relevance, unless it was about writing style rather than subject matter. The Beckett connection has been examined; the Yeats connection is obviously "The Second Coming," although Yeats otherwise is hardly post-apocalyptic overall.

    Unless we're expanding the definition of "post-apocalyptic" to include things that only vaguely refer to the end of the world. I resist such expanding of parameters to the threshold of vagueness. The only way I can see that this would be the case is if we expand the definition to include writing about the end of one's own, personal, subjective, private world.

    Neil Gaiman makes the point in his brilliant graphic novel with Dave McKean, Signal to Noise, that: "There is no big apocalypse. Only an endless succession of little ones." It's a novel about apocalypse AND apokatastasis, BTW, and it's better-written than most non-graphic novels on the subject. I recommend it highly in this context of discussing post-apocalyptic literature.

    Gaiman's point that there are only lots of little, personal apocalypses, is how I can understand your own personal response to The Road, which you detail from the circumstances of your own life. The concept that all apocalypses are small, personal ones, is the only way I can see including Blake and Camus as relevant to this discussion. Camus in "Exile and the Kingdom"—a very hopeful book, actually, which speaks directly to my own experience perhaps as The Road spoke to yours—and Blake's "Auguries of Innocence" are what come to mind. But like Yeats, one cannot include more than one or two of their writings as post-apocalyptic unless one expands the p-a definition so broadly as to include every writer who's ever written about their own personal mortality, or dread of their extinction in death. Which broadens the definition of p-a to be all fiction, all poetry. Which is so broad as to be useless.

    [to be continued]

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  31. [continued herewith:]

    I think it's perfectly fine to say "I loved this book and here's why!" {I think everyone has written at least one such review.) But that's a fan review, a subjective review. (Again, fan reviews are okay so far as they go.) It doesn't address aspects of the novel larger than personal pleasure; it doesn't tell me why I, a reader might like this book, only that the reviewer did. It veers into abject subjectivity to give a book a good review on grounds so subjective that you'd have to share the reviewer's exact experience in order to agree with him or her. (Again, fine so far as it goes.) That's fan reviewing, which is fine in a fanzine, but it's not remotely or even relatively objective. And should not claim to be.

    I think it's great that The Road spoke directly to your experience, as you describe in your new post; and it doesn't speak to mine. While I appreciate your reasons, even empathize with them, as my own father died a couple of years ago, it doesn't give me insight into The Road in a way that would convince me to change my mind about that novel on purely literary grounds. Your new thoughts deepen my insight into your appreciation of the novel, for which I thank you; and it doesn't touch even one of the questions raised about the novel on literary grounds, except to acknowledge their presence.

    Fan reviews don't often address the questions of: is the book well-written, purely as writing; does it contribute to the mass of literature, i.e. does it add to tis tradition, i.e. is it a literary contribution or a throwaway or replaceable novel; is it a book I can learn a life-lesson from, even if it's not a pleasurable reading experience; etc.

    [to be continued]

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  32. [concluded herewith, thanks to Blogger:]

    Your thoughts about Lodge and Mailer are very interesting. However, if I understand correctly your interpretation of what Mailer was saying about realism in fiction, then it's also what I've been saying all along: that there's a lot more truth, as well as great writing, truth in the metaphorical rather than strictly factual sense, in "non-realistic" genre fiction than there is in mainstream "realistic" fiction. As I said earlier, lots of SF writers are better stylists, better writers periods, than many lauded writers of mainstream fiction. Mannerisms of style aside, Beckett is still a better writer than McCarthy; and so is Kate Wilhelm.

    Which leads me back to a comment in the Wikipedia article that The Road is a science fiction novel. It's not. It's a mainstream novel written by a mainstream writer who is borrowing tropes from an SF sub-genre for his novel. (Derivation.) Pretty much everyone who's reviewed The Road. positive or negative readily admits that McCarthy never explains his premise, never explains his background, and never explains his backstory. That's fine as far as it goes—no one expects everyone to explain everything all the time. Yet it raises the question of whether or not McCarthy really knew what he was doing with the post-apocalyptic genre, or whether he was merely dabbling in its tropes in order to have a background setting that allowed him to exercise ever more overtly his tendency to be sadistic towards his characters, and his readers. I've always felt that McCarthy was as mean to his readers as he tended to be to his characters; perhaps The Road does succeed, therefore, in being the ultimate McCarthy novel, in that it's the most overtly mean of the lot.

    So your metaphoric and symbolic interpretation of The Road regarding the father-son relationship may be a very valid one; and all the p-a setting is, is a frame upon which to hang that relationship, much as you say. Yet this remains an interpretation possibly too idiosyncratic to be useful the general reader. That is no criticism of you OR your viewpoint. It does however underline the question of how useful a very subjective review of any novel can ever be to other readers.

    Perhaps this is in the end an ongoing plea for less solipsism and less personal taste to be evoked in reviewing in general. This is a real subtext of this entire discussion.

    P.S. I never said The Road was not to my taste, as obviously I am well-read in the p-a sub-genre; I did say it was a poor example of that genre, regardless of the author's intent. If anything, since I've read a great deal of p-a literature I should have been inclined to like The Road; and many friends who know my tastes in reading have assumed that I would like the novel; that I did not is in its own way significant.

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  33. Nonetheless, i feel that even if the human race is entirely exterminated, if doom is certain, it's still a great thing if the last human beings die well, act with decency & honour; even if only ONE human being is decent, it is an essentially optimistic vision.

    Most days i feel that the world is utterly doomed and not merely human beings but all life will be destroyed without remnant or hope of renewal. That being so, if even one human being acts well - with honour - all is not lost. It doesn't matter if everyone dies - that is incidental. What is essential is to be a decent human being and to act well. Mere survival is irrelevant.

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  34. Art . . . I have noted the error(s) in the posting and made corrections. Thanks for picking the nit which I should have picked myself.

    As for what you and Frank have recently posted, let me re-read and digest everything, and--when time permits since there is very little of it this morning--I will revisit the issues you both have raised.

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  35. Elberry, I want to address what you just wrote by way of example, both from novels in the post-apocalyptic genre.

    You wrote:

    "Nonetheless, i feel that even if the human race is entirely exterminated, if doom is certain, it's still a great thing if the last human beings die well, act with decency & honour; even if only ONE human being is decent, it is an essentially optimistic vision."

    This is the premise, and final meaning, found in Richard Matheson's I Am Legend. (Which has been made into a movie TWICE.) I agree with your point about dying with honor, and so would many others. There is a whole sub-genre within the post-apocalyptic sub-genre itself that makes your point, over and over again. I think of Gordon Dickson's Iron Years, or of David Brin's The Postman."Most days i feel that the world is utterly doomed and not merely human beings but all life will be destroyed without remnant or hope of renewal. That being so, if even one human being acts well - with honour - all is not lost. It doesn't matter if everyone dies - that is incidental. What is essential is to be a decent human being and to act well. Mere survival is irrelevant."

    This is Stoic philosophy in a nutshell. (Much of Klingon cultural philosophy in the later Star Trek TV shows is Stoic, as has been pointed out more than once.) It reminds me of Nikos Kazantzakis' viewpoint as expressed in his play Buddha, in his epic poem The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel, and of course in his best-known novel, Zorba, the Greek.It's also one version of Existentialism. Your attitude is similar to Camus', in fact, which is why he was a hopeful writer in the end, and not as bleakly despairing as Sartre. (I view Cormac McCarthy as far more a follower of Sartre than Camus.)

    In the p-a sub-genre, several characters act this philosophy out in Nevil Shute's On the Beach. It also shows up in Stephen King's The Stand, in Roger Zelazny's Damnations Alley, and very directly and obviously in George R.R. Martin's After the Festival. (The latter is p-a in tone although it's really more of a decadent-fall-of-civilization novel.)

    This is also the idea of redemption, which is what apokatastasis is about, in part. As Frank points out, one problem with The Road is that it focuses entirely on the destruction, and not on the redemption.

    There have been criticisms of Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment along the same lines as some criticisms of the end of The Road: that the redemptive upturn at the very end seems artificially pasted-on, even manipulative, because it's too little, too late. Perhaps it's a feint in the direction of at least acknowledging the possibility of redemption—but it's hard to take seriously, because it's only a tiny message at the very end of a very long and bleak book—in both instances.

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  36. Thanks for that, Art - much to ponder. For myself, my model of how to act is the Old English poem The Battle of Maldon.

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  37. Can't disagree with you on the Wikipedia front, Art. It's really gotten rotten, if you ask me; too many interested factions and wars; and, if you do make an addition, a corporation deletes it and now, it's semi-public. WTF is Jimmie thinking (or, do I mean, making)? I went to see what it said about P-A Films, too; it went to the same page; but, there are some good titles listed and a lot of the shit on the page is, I think, given as understood as shit these days. Agendae rule (which is another kind of mob).

    You do raise the important point, that's what I meant and then, the veri-word thingie. I think the Greeks had a better handle on it; but, that's subjective. Stoic.

    Elberry, that's my approach to most everything. Honour. That's why I say my friends are saints. A saint is a person who doesn't want nor need to hurt you. I try to follow and practise that.

    There are so many hellish hurters and haters, it boggles my mind, active malice, the desire to do damage to another, I cannot wrap my mind around it; but, having just been on the receiving end of one fucking kick-in-the-head attack, I think, now, I am 56, I do know a little more why they do it:

    I threaten them and they want to expunge me, they really do. Where do I get this gene for my own protection? It's not me, though, it's their own weakness and blackhearts they don't want to know so they fight against everything that shows it in a less than favourable light.

    I swear, if this bitch met me in an alley, I can see her knifing me, over literary territory! I have heard she could (from a friend who's a saint. I was warned. Go figure. I think that's post-Fitzalitic :)).

    R. T. Your two-part revisiting? I would like to see more critical (as in critique) analysis and example in it. I think Art makes a valid point (I just typed poet instead of point, Man. Okay, Art makes a valid poet, too):

    If you can show by example what makes it great, I think you could do its creator no harm. There's very little of its text in your two sequences. Show me, don't tell me, I guess. I need to see it to believe it. An observation, not a criticism per se; and, no offense intended.

    What about Hubert Selby Jr.? Both Last Exit and Requiem are, IMO, astonishingly bleak; but, in their way, filled with a kind of a back light. Where do you put a writer like that (and, not necessarily for the label, either).

    Yeah, Frank. ONLY cockroaches survive. And, true to literary values, they'll all be named Linda or Lorelei :) . . .

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  38. My most recent contribution to this ongoing discussion is at THE ROAD

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