I’ve just finished reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (lauded as a masterpiece pretty much everywhere, except here). I think Asher is far too harsh on The Road – at the very least it is a beautiful exercise in sparse writing that creates a genuinely uncomfortable sense of dread in many passages. His complaint about crimes against the English language borders on the perverse – and I think he’s wrong too to say that the book portrays a bleak view of human nature. Actually the boy and his father are beacons of decency in an unbearably harsh world and, not to spoil the ending, the conclusion is at least partly hopeful if not, in any sense, cheerful.
But I also think that other reviewers have over-rated the book – perhaps they’ve been dazzled by McCarthy’s style and standing as one of America’s greatest living authors and heir to William Faulkner’s position as king of southern gothic, and ignored the fundamental weaknesses of The Road as a novel.
Not the least of these weaknesses is that the story doesn’t actually move forward. Despite all their plodding, the journey doesn’t take the boy or his father anywhere or appear to enlighten them in any way and the thing that presses them on from the comfort they find in various locations is never convincingly explained.
And the religious subtext borders on the cliched (there were moments that had me thinking of Kevin Costner’s damp squib (squid might, I suppose, be accurate here) of a movie Waterworld, and that’s not a good thing) and serves no purpose within the story other than to give English Literature undergraduates the chance to mutter about subtext and rub their chins…
I ended up on the fence about The Road. It has moments of genuine power, but as a whole it wasn’t satisfying. I enjoyed the process of reading it but at the end wasn’t sure what, if anything, I’d been left with – as if the story crumbled to ash in my hands like the scorched trees and leaves McCarthy spends so much time writing about.
The absence of The Road from the Arthur C Clarke Award shortlist for the best science fiction novel has caused a bit of a stir with no less a soul that John Clute, the godfather of SF criticism, expressing his displeasure at the judges for a deriliction of duty. Apparently the publishers refused/didn’t submit copies of their novels (the new Pynchon’s also missing) to the awards committe for consideration and the judges had the temerity not to go out and buy them!
Despite my criticisms above, The Road is easily superior to three of the five ACCA shortlisted books I’ve read so far (only Hav and Nova Swing are in a similar class – I’ve still to read Brian Stableford’s Streaking) and it’s a shame that publishing politics have kept it off the shortlist.
That’s not a reason to boycott the ACCAs as Alan Balm at AICN somewhat hysterically suggests – but it does reflect poorly on the award and perhaps the sf genre’s standing in wider literary circles. In an era when some “literary awards” charge publishers a huge sum just to have books considered, it is very disappointing that the publishers in question here couldn’t stretch themselves to supply an established genre award with copies of their manuscripts even though, I’d concede, in marketing terms a listing on the ACCAs (or even a win) is unlikely to add significantly to the sales of a Pynchon or McCarthy.