Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Arrogance Can Be Art, Too


On my flight back from the US I read – in one swoop Cormac McCarthy's "The Road."

I loved it, I ate it up, it's page-turner, it's relevant to our post-9/11 times, it is a book that understands life – the despair, yet, at the end of it, the tendency of human life to somehow go in, not necessarily to conquer evil in a utopian sense of banishing it from our souls, but in the sense that the good, though it sometimes seems to be banished, is only hibernating, and always returns.

Then I thought twice about it. That's when a bad aftertaste manifested itself on my tongue.

McCarthy's book, as is most his writing, is most notable for its outright literariness. He doesn't put dialogue in quotation marks. He leaves out apostrophes. He creates new nouns by combining adjectives with nouns. At times he remains very abstract, not even giving his main characters names, then he turns around and explains mechanical processes, like lighting a kerosene light, savoring little-known technical words that sound good and that he probably got out of a thesaurus or manual. All that is literary. It's more than that: it's the signals of literariness. It like wearing a button on your lapel: Vote for Clinton, I Am Christian, I am A Vegan, or an AIDS ribbon. It tells people, in case they had doubts, that this is literature.

Whenever I see something like that, I play a little game with myself. I mentally strip away the literary signals and ask myself if it's still literature underneath. (I tend to do that with people who wear "I Am Christian" buttons, too: I wonder just how much I can rust that person to really act like a Christian and not just dress up like one.)

Stripped of its literary signals, does the "The Road" still hold up to its reputation, or does it turns out to be just another apocalypse story?

I come from science fiction. I have read and watched more than my share of apocalypse stories. Just recently I saw on TV ten minutes of the reputedly awful move "Reign of Fire," about dragons ruling the earth and destroying humankind. It's a parable of any kind of apocalypse and the story, even the little part I saw, included the traditional elements of despair and hope and the question of whether goodness can triumph in the end. In fact, those elements pretty much crop up in all apocalypse stories. Come to think of it, other apocalypse stories I have read were – taking just the story, not the buttons – more impressive than "The Road." Most impressive of all for me was Delany's most-modern masterpiece Dhalgren.

Sitting there watching ten minutes of "Reign of Fire," I realized that if you take the Road out of the literary setting and put it into the genre setting, it comes out lacking. It contributes nothing to the genre. In fact, in genre terms it's a step backward. In the literary world it won the Pulitzer Prize, but in the genre world it can best be described as stealing ideas that other genre writers invented long before and going nowhere new with them.

That bugs me. It's like Roy Lichtenstein. He doesn’t actually crate image, he repackages them for a high-culture audience and gets all the praise and money, while the comic book artists who created the images are forgotten. Sure, Lichtenstein added a sense of irony, as McCarthy added a sense of literariness, but it still stinks. Mainly it stinks of arrogance: "The Road" is about a literary author who basically disrespects genre writing so much and thinks himself so superior that he says to himself, "I'm going to write an apocalypse story the way it should be written." Then he writes something that has been written a thousand times before, but he gets the credit – the Pulitzer - , as if all the guys who went before and invented the genre – a gene that in popular film and books has contributed far more to the way the world thinks than a literary novel ever could – were just there to feed him ideas.

That's the bad taste I feel in my mouth now.

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