To give you a sense of where I’m coming from, here is my Cormac McCarthy preference list:
1. Blood Meridian
2. The Crossing
4. The Road
5. All the Pretty Horses
6. Cities of the Plains
7. The Orchard Keeper
8. Child of God
9. Outer Dark
10. No Country for Old Men
And of those I would really only consider the last a failure. Sutree is the odd duck; I kind of like Sutree more than the Road, and I know I like The Road better than the first and third border novels, but I kind of like the border novels better than Sutree. That doesn’t make any sense, but nevertheless. I’m curious about other McCarthy preference orderings, so leave them in comments.
There’s no question that The Road is an exceptional work. The story is a relatively simple post-apocalyptic tale, centering on a father and son in search of an area with food and warmth. McCarthy doesn’t specify the cause of the apocalypse, but the result has been enormous fires and a haze that hangs between the sun and the surface of the earth. All plant life has died, which means that all animal life (with the exception of human beings) has also died. This leaves the survivors in rather a quandry, since the food supply is only declining, and the only fresh food available is… well, Spike the vampire once referred to human beings as “walking happy meals”. The problems, then, are to find food and avoid being eaten by cannibals or captured by slavers. The mother in this happy tale sensibly committed suicide some years before the action described in the novel. Although considerably more spare, the book is closest in tone to Blood Meridian.
I won’t tell you any more, because that’s really all you need. I have two questions, however. First, if the name on the cover wasn’t “Cormac McCarthy”, is there a chance in hell that The Road would have been given to mainstream reviewers? I know that it’s hard to an unknown to get reviewed, but that’s not what I’m talking about; the subject matter clearly seems to fall within the science fiction/horror genre, and I suspect that if Cormac hadn’t been the author, that’s where it would have stayed, never to have been noted by anyone with “serious” literary taste. An interesting parallel is Infinite Jest, which also used a science fiction setting but was understood to be a mainstream novel, although the structure of Infinite Jest is so complex and demanding that it might have attracted notice anyway. Nevertheless, somewhere Harlan Ellison is spinning in his grave (or at least he would be, if he weren’t still alive).
Second, why are we fascinated by post-apocalyptic stories? This isn’t a recent phenomenon; the post-apocalyptic novel/movie melds pretty seamlessly with the anti-utopia genre. The Cold War gave meat to some post-apocalyptic narratives, but the preceded and have survived it. I wonder if the basis for interest in the post-apocalyptic is a kind of almost subconcious realization that the world we live in today is dramatically at odds with the way that humanity has lived for most of its history and pre-history, and thus that there’s something fragile about the arrangements that we’ve made. It’s almost, but not quite, a kind of rump Burkeanism, a shout out against the complexity of the modern world without any confidence in the basic resilience of the social order. I imagine that John Derbyshire could write a great post-apocalyptic novel…