Wednesday, October 15, 2008

THE ROAD, by Cormac McCarthy


I started reading this book late one night, got through a dozen pages before going to bed. The next day I read while at work, and then after work I went to a park and kept reading, and that evening I finished it off. It's an easy book to get through in a day, partially because it's not very long (the version I had was 256 pages, but the font is big and it seems to be double spaced), but also because the writing is very stripped down and easy to take in. Quotation marks, commas, and other punctuation marks are almost nonexistent; descriptions are kept short and simple; the text doesn't dip into too many intangibles or abstract ideas, and when it does it makes little attempt to elucidate. It might take a reader a few pages to get accustomed to McCarthy's style, but if you can get through those first few pages you can get through the rest of the book without problems--McCarthy is as unchanging as stone.

Except for a few awkward and ridiculous 'literary' moments--the flashback scene where the man has his last conversation with his wife before she commits suicide, for example--McCarthy wields his words with unquestionable authority; there are no signs of faltering or a weak grip on the plot. He manages this, in my mind, through an iron-fisted dedication to just a few types of sentences. He never loses his authority because he never takes risks; every sentence McCarthy writes sounds like every other sentence he writes; there is no change in tone or approach; moments of tension result from what is happening in the plot, not from a different use of words. The good thing about this is that the reader feels confident in McCarthy as a storyteller, and is willing to give himself over to McCarthy's story. We have little cause, for the most part, to question why he is using the words he is using, and because we don't question we don't step out of the the world he is creating. (Another book that works in this way, which stands out in my mind, is POST OFFICE, by Bukowski.)

I think this concept is a good one to keep in mind for my own writing. I'm working on a novel now, and I end up struggling, sometimes, with decisions relating to how much information the reader needs in order to go along with the book. My novel is about a kid who joins a wrestling team, and it's often difficult for me to gauge how much the reader needs to know about the rules of wrestling in order to appreciate the story. That leads to moments where I'm trying to explain too much, which weakens the narrative flow, which pulls the reader out of the story. McCarthy's writing hardly ever has this problem because he hardly explains anything; his words are focused instead on describing action. With THE ROAD it becomes a little monotonous at times, because the actions are so limited in scope (searching for food, hiding, and not much else), but the story is short enough that the monotony doesn't have much time to develop. Maybe that's a rule I should apply to myself: when in doubt, err on the side of action instead of explanation.

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