September 5, 2010

A Short Thought on a Long Road

Justin Katz

In a rare personal insistence on sitting down and watching a movie, last night, my wife and I viewed The Road, based on Cormac McCarthy's novel of the same name. Based on some quick skimming of reviews around the Internet art of the allure of the movie appears to owed at least some debt to the mounting environmentalist scaremongering of the last few decades, but to focus on the apocalypse part of the post-apocalyptic tale clearly misses the point.

For those who don't know anything about the story, some very vague cataclysm wipes out most life on Earth and alters the weather. At least in the movie, the end-of-the-world plot is pretty studiously apolitical. It could be associated with environmental issues, or it could be more of a global war scenario. It doesn't really matter.

What matters is the reaction of humanity to the aftermath, and that's what makes the film so bleak. Starvation is pervasive, to the point that whole-family suicides are not uncommon. Survivors spend their time scavenging for any scraps of food, even if they have to scrape it from the tables of long-looted diners. Some people form gangs — mainly, it seems, to hunt everybody else as a cannibalistic food source.

Within the basic premise, McCarthy could have told any number of tales, and which one he picked strikes me as more than a little determinant of the message. A more familiar plot, for example, might have involved wars between the gangs, probably with an evil, man-eating gang, and a "good guy" gang striving to pull people together to increase their chances of surviving and perhaps even rebuilding (probably with the necessity of finding a more suitable landscape than suburban America).

That obvious alternative points to a plot imperative that continues to bother me as unrealistic: Of all of the other people with whom the father and son protagonists come into contact, all of those that aren't immediately apparent as a dangerous threat are either traveling alone or in very small families. One can presume that such a reality was a requirement of McCarthy's thematic intention: The father and son dynamic wouldn't have taken on a wholly different tone if the pair were to come across a gregarious (as opposed to violent) tribe. Either other characters would have intruded on the relationship, or the father would have been painted with clear paranoia were he to avoid helpful groups.

The plausibility of the story therefore collapses, in my view. However much a reader should be willing to suspend disbelief to get the plot rolling, human nature is supposed to remain intact; indeed, the unfamiliar setting is supposed to highlight core truths about humanity. And I just don't find it plausible that the father and son would regularly come across hostile groups of cannibals, but not a single group that had overcome distrust of strangers in the cause of making the most of the horrendous circumstances.

After all, that tendency was a large part of what has brought human society to its current state of mastery of its environment. Unless, of course, McCarthy's theme — and the main cataclysm that he intended to describe — was not life after the destruction of the world, but life after the destruction of humanity's striving for the higher good.

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I saw the movie, haven't read the book, since I'm not much for fictional reading.

I thought the nature of the apocalypse was interesting, it's as if the word loses all fertility. Even 'good natured' groups and the protagonists are in a world where the idea of reverting to subsistence farming is a non-option.

When I saw it, all I could think of was a world where the next 'Sodom and Gomorrah' or 'Flood'-type cleansing was initiated, but the all-important negotiation of who would be spared and how far the cleansing would go was not done.

In that respect, I think it's quite likely that given the same parameters (a world where limited non-renewable resources like food are in steady decline, with no hope of a turnaround) humans actually -would- mostly revert to a state that reflected hunter-gatherer ethics. When there's no chance of making things better through peaceful society, where banding together in good-natured groups only increases the chances of starvation, the incentive for peaceful society disappears.

We are seeing this in America now. I'm a believer that our standard of living will likely stall or stagnate as the developing world assumes the wealth-producing industries we've declared ourselves too good for or not economically viable to host on-shore. The way it will play out on our shores will likely look like things do now: Groups with political sway (some unions and the rich) will attempt to protect themselves from the decline, at the cannibalistic expense of the private middle class. Progressives are trying to push 'the rich' out of the pot and into the fire, neo-conservatives are viewed as trying to push out 'the influential' who have shored-up their own situations. Nobody is addressing the fact that we're all still on the stove, though.

Posted by: mangeek at September 5, 2010 11:42 AM

[Mild spoilers to follow.]

But part of the problem that I describe is the regular appearance of hostile groups. In one scene, it appears that several dozen cannibals have worked together to corner and chase down a mother and daughter. Even given the big pile of skulls by their cabin, one wonders (first) how two starved women could feed such a large group for very long and (second) how the group could cohere without eating itself (literally).

On the other side of the equation are two factors. First, had the father and son brought in every other non-gang person whom they encountered, they'd have begun to approach the numbers and armament of those who threatened them. Second, when they did manage to find a large stash of food, they could have either taken more with them or made better provisions to protect it.

Given the lack of tillable soil and scarcity of resources, the hunter-gatherer model wouldn't work well enough for humanity to "revert" to it. Rather people would have to become nomadic, as the father and son did, and in that case, survival in unfamiliar settings could very easily outweigh the larger number of mouths to feed.

Consider the house with the people locked in the basement: With a larger group, somebody could have stood lookout at the window while the father explored the house. The son could have watched the entrance to the basement while the father explored down there. In the end, they could have better evaded the cannibals, if not overwhelmed them and taken fresh shoes and supplies and freed the captives.

A larger group could more effectively scour whole villages for resources before moving on. Think again of the food stockpile that they find: As a two-person team, the father and son would pretty much have had to stay put to make the most of the discovery. A larger group could have carried a proportion of the stash per capita and made it last for that much longer of an exploration for the next food source — not the least because they'd have been better able to protect it on the road.

I do like the parallels that you draw to current economics and politics, but again: Opposition groups are working together, not scattering under the persistent "hostility" of powerful interests.

Posted by: Justin Katz at September 5, 2010 12:12 PM

I hate to say it, but I honestly believe that it will be every man for himself if a cataclysm occurs. People lose their marbles over a minor inconvenience.

On the bright side, in my opinion after thirty of forty years, people will begin to come together, but only after they have forgotten, or never knew how life was before everything changed.

Posted by: michael at September 5, 2010 1:16 PM

Wow-where to start?
Cormac McCarthy may be the best living writer of fiction on the planet.
Not religious in the conventional sense,apolitical,challenging to read(you need to know some Spanish,actually a lot for his "border" novels and a dictionary for his "Tennessee"novels as well as an English dictionary for his "border" novels)-he won't spoil a reader with pat solutions or conclusive endings.
Most of our lives will end inconclusively.
The thread running through all his writing is the ephemeral nature of security(physical or emotional)in our realm of existence.
I believe he is the equal of Melville.
He is,by chance a native Rhode Islander,an Air Force veteran,and a rather private individual.
The Road is the weakest of his novels.
Blood Meridian is the most challenging.
Outer Dark the most disturbing.
Sutree the most picaresque.
The Border Trilogy-not really a trilogy-you can read "All the Pretty Horses" first,or "The Crossing" first,makes no difference-but you have to read "Cities of the Plain"last or you won't get it.
"No Country for Old Men"is a good place to start-I know the "territory" of the novel well,and it is possibly his most accesible work.That was my introduction to him.

Posted by: joe bernstein at September 5, 2010 1:49 PM

I saw that movie lng enough ago to have prety much forgotten it. My general impression is that it not been released, but escaped.

The story line seemed full of holes, held together by improbable threads.

I do recall that an "evironmental cataclisim" had caused the trouble, and there was some "if only we had treated the Earth better".

Posted by: Warrington Faust at September 5, 2010 2:00 PM


My impression, regarding the "if only we'd treated the Earth better" line, is that one had to sort of assume that in order to believe it. I believe Robert Duvall's character is most explicit, but what he says, if I'm remembering correctly, is that "the signs were there to see." That could be anything from environment to terrorism.

Posted by: Justin Katz at September 5, 2010 2:11 PM

Warrington-I think we "know " each other better than to be too far apart to accept a heads up.
Don't judge McCarthy by this film.
He's not an Al Gore(barf)clone by any means.
I also respect the environment,but I'm not a lunatic about it-neither,I suspect is McCarthy.
The cataclysm in his book appeared to me to be,perhaps,a chain volcanic event.
A nuclear war didn't seem to be on the table because of a total lack of the expected sequaelae of such an event(i.e.radiation poisoning)and if you think about it,a cloud of overwhelming ash destroying life,would most likely be the result of an event born naturally of the earth itself.
McCarthy is NOT a trendy puke.He is a serious writer with the talent to express himself.

Posted by: joe bernstein at September 5, 2010 2:19 PM

Michael-you and I have both dealt with life at its worst,so my solution is to maintain the means to protect yourself and those close to you.I'm not gonna depend on the government in the worst case scenario.Hoping it never becomes a choice.

Posted by: joe bernstein at September 5, 2010 2:24 PM

Roger that, Joe.

Posted by: michael at September 5, 2010 3:46 PM

This is nothing compared to judgment day coming.

"and the heart melteth, and the knees smite together, and much pain is in all loins, and the faces of them all gather blackness."

It's going to get rough(CONSERVATIVES) if you don't repent and admit what you did wrong publicly and ask forgiveness

Posted by: Sammy at September 5, 2010 5:32 PM

I am in agreement with Joe's comments. It is definitely worth your while to read the McCarthy novels. Maybe twice. My favorite is The Orchard Keeper.

Posted by: David S at September 5, 2010 6:31 PM

Justin, Joe, it has been a while since I saw that movie. Perhaps I assumed environmental cataclysm because of the times we live in (did anyone else notice that while Jesse Jackson was attending a conference on "green jobs", his Caddy Escalade was stolen. A green Prius for everyone else, I suppose). I remember being struck at how helpless the lead character was in the face of adversity. Hungry? Find some ammo, make a bow and arrow, eat roots and worms, don't wither and die. That probably formed my opinion about the author. I was reminded of Fred Reed's paean to red necks, he believes they would rule the world in the event technology was destroyed.

(Please excuse my spelling in my prior post)

Posted by: Warrington Faust at September 5, 2010 6:32 PM

Fred Reed on rednecks:

Posted by: Warrington Faust at September 5, 2010 7:42 PM

David S-you nailed it!!His novels are most definitely "read overs"-maybe more than twice.
The Orchard Keeper was his first novel and much more episodic and disjointed than his subsequent work,but nevertheless filled with vivd imagery and impetus.
It has some kinship with "Jesus'Son" by Denis Johnson.Johnson is in the same milieu of writing as McCarthy-he makes you think about what he's written.
I was reading "Angels" by Johnson and it started describing the area and time I was working on the street in Chicago when I was assigned to midnight unmarked patrol with the INS-I felt transported back to where I'd been.It was great reading,I can assure you.I wonder how he came by the knowledge.

Posted by: joe bernstein at September 5, 2010 8:14 PM

Justin, I think we're -supposed- to feel the way you do about those situations. If the father was only slightly less paranoid and more willing to accept that people outside his bloodline could also 'carry the fire', he'd boost his chances for survival. In the end, the son does have that ability, and is rewarded for it (if continued survival in that world is any sort or reward).

The father's xenophobia is a double-edged sword. It protects from dangerous enemies, but it also prevents 'the good guys' from ever coalescing into a force to defend and enrich themselves. I think that's a good hidden lesson for watchers/readers.

As for the nature of the apocalypse, I like that it wasn't explained. I figured that it had to be geological in nature, given the way it seemed to manifest itself. A massive eruption or seismic shift would also jive with the 'the signs were everywhere' statement. Duvall's character chalked it up to 'what we did to the earth', but that makes him just as much of a wingnut for environmentalism as Pat Robertson is for religion. When big bad things happen, everyone is quick to blame it on whatever they despised or feared most before it happened. Look at how different groups pointed fingers over Katrina, some pointing to global warming, others to the wrath of God, and yet others to a government they felt had failed them. It's in our nature to seek greater meaning and affirmation of our own ways in events that transcend our comprehension. Too often, we cannot accept the fact that horrible things do, occasionally, just happen.

I was lucky enough to get out to the west coast twice this last summer. On one long hike, I marveled at the layers of earth exposed on a beachside cliff. Randomly spaced throughout the layers of clay were centimeter thin horizontal black lines. Those lines were left by volcanic eruptions hundreds of miles away, millions of years ago. A subtle reminder that the earth is neither static, nor always friendly.

Posted by: mangeek at September 6, 2010 1:25 AM

mangeek-my take upon reading the book was definitely leaning towards some sort of massive,interconnected volcanic event.
The gelogic forces of the planet are so unimaginably powerful that any notion of "control" by man's action or inac tion are fantasy.
The Yellowstone volcanic dome and the New Madrid fault are worse dangers than nuclear terrorism but barely mentioned-it's not like there's anything we can do about them.

Posted by: joe bernstein at September 6, 2010 7:46 AM
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