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11/05/2012 11:44 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Notes on Cormac McCarthy's The Road

1. The true subject of the twenty-first-century novel is, or ought to be, death. The illusion of life itself is how the novel began, and after centuries of dalliance with subsidiary subjects, how to lend a pretty gloss to life, thankfully the novel is returning to its essence. Coetzee did it in Life and Times of Michael K., the closest approximation I can think of to The Road. What comes after the theoretical end of scarcity? What comes after the road to technical perfection that has led to delusions of immortality? A severe backlash, a return to physical reality. The best writers today are going at this question in different ways, but to avoid this most important of all issues is to bury one's head in the sand. There are the legions of foolish novelists who still collaborate in the capitalist fantasy by writing well-made novels where things work out toward an equilibrium, individuals find happiness or its substitutes, all things happen for (psychologically explicable) reasons. Damn fools!

2. The Road is one of the greatest indictments of the bourgeois novel of individual growth, the bildungsroman, the paradigmatic novelistic genre of the nineteenth century. It is not surprising that the most deceitful novelists today have borrowed the template of the Victorian novel to propagate their lies, stealing authority and credibility where they have none. To be disenchanted suggests the susceptibility to enchantment in the first place. The nineteenth-century novel and its conventions are both prelude and postscript to romanticism. McCarthy's novel gets at the hollow core of romanticism and its preceding mother lode, the enlightenment as well. What does one grow against, when structures of entertainment, screens of simulacra, visions of apocalyptic politics preclude basic humanity? What are the constituent elements of human nature? At the inception of the enlightenment, this question was at the fore, as with Rousseau and Voltaire. Then it went into declension, as the industrial revolution warped thinking.

3. McCarthy's novel describes the straight, well-trodden road of human life itself, the progress of entropy, degeneration, decline, and eventual extinction, familiar from Thomas Pynchon and some of the greatest writers of the late twentieth century, but carried to its most extreme formulation here, without any barriers of illusion. In the beginning there are encounters on the road, but later the desolation is parallel to that which one feels closer to the end of one's life. The greatest desolation occurs on the coast, the promised land. The pretense of the bourgeois bildungsroman is exactly the opposite, that maturity and greater integration in the community follow marriage and reproduction and other social processes. Friendship serves a large function in our illusion of immortality, as does achievement in the arts and sciences. But in reality, as one grows older, if one has any sense at all, one grows more alone. Only the stupid feel connected. Modernism sensed the disconnectedness well, but then there has been almost three quarters of a century of artistic regression.

4. The Road is one of the most acute condemnations of capitalism ever written. The book can be read as a damnation of the fine arts of acquisition and accumulation, a revenge fantasy aimed at the endless ways capitalism degrades human beings from birth to death. When the capitalist system collaborates in its own end, it takes down all of humanity with it. It's an all-or-nothing proposition that doesn't brook compromise. Isn't this the true meaning of apocalypse today? Where and how do we escape, become anonymous? Capitalism aims to be all-encompassing, and all capitalist political ideology (including fascism and American corporatist democracy) aims to leave nothing of the individual to himself. The Road is a gut-wrenching attempt to seize the most intimate portions of the human soul and throw it to the dogs, to see what happens, what sticks, what works and what doesn't work, just as long as the existing enveloping apparatus is gotten rid of.

5. Apocalypse: Religious. Financial. Artistic. It has become the paramount mode of thinking in late capitalism. Y2K. Bush. 9/11. Peak oil. Katrina. Climate change. Lehman Bros. It goes on and on. Pseudo-apocalypse, not the real deal. The novelist cannot allow his mind to be clouded under such circumstances. There is popular apocalypse, and then there is its antithesis. The exceptionally smart novelist will make his rendition acceptable to the populists too, as McCarthy has obviously succeeded in doing. I think this is the highest artistic accomplishment today, to make one rethink apocalypse, to empty it perhaps, to return it to its forgotten essentials: the apocalypse of any human soul struggling on the road to extinction, fighting for crumbs, never able to tell the good guys from the bad guys. There are still those with a sense of certainty about right and wrong. Who are those guys?

6. What is on the road? Burnt-out remnants of a fantasy that should never have been allowed to get so out of hand, to become so imperialist and colonizing. That's true as far as it goes. But what is actually on the road is all of the reality we fail to perceive as we move through the pretense of life. Only when the struggle for survival comes to the surface again, becomes the only thing, is human nature truly revealed. Recall the thief who steals the cart on the beach, also the old man who apparently lives on nothing. The mania for provision of happiness is at bottom the avoidance of the truth survivalism brings to the fore. Apocalypse prevents engagement with survivalism, apocalypse is the well-dressed twin brother, survivalism's mirror image, the side we revel in. It is what marks the modern person, and McCarthy's innovation is to crash the two sides together.

7. What lies beyond the road? There is only the road. The angels (the good people) who rescue the boy at the end have no answer for the loneliness of human life and death, the loneliness of effort and creation. Perhaps the good people were there all along, but protecting what remained of the (capitalist) family prevented the man from noting their presence. Community implies the cessation of time. Time becomes elastic and perpetual and infinite only in aloneness. We value the wrong categories of success. Art has only limited value, yet only the greatest works of art dare confront the limitations of creation. Somewhat like god, the forgotten, humble, post-apocalyptic god. What caused creation in the first place? It was no accident. Surely it was accident. There is nothing beyond the road, because accident and its other are both lies.

Anis Shivani's books are My Tranquil War and Other Poems (2012), The Fifth Lash and Other Stories (2012), Against the Workshop (2011), and Anatolia and Other Stories (2009). His debut novel, Karachi Raj, will be published in 2013.

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