Monday, April 02, 2007

Thoroughly Humorless

I acquired Cormac McCarthy's novel The Road yesterday, as part of a birthday gift certificate-enabled book-buying bonanza. I've previously read only Blood Meridian and All The Pretty Horses (in a bold critical move, I prefer the former to the latter, by quite a lot), and in general I don't consider McCarthy at all central to my reading interests. I expected to borrow The Road from my father eventually (he's a McCarthy fan), but I keep hearing more and more about it and, I admit, my interest has been piqued by all the hubbub (not that it matters, but I swear I decided I would get it just before I heard that Oprah selected it for her book club thing, though I find that she selected it rather entertaining).

All of which is just a lead up to my noting Levi Asher's post today in which he reiterates his hatred of Cormac McCarthy (link via The Mumpsimus). He is certainly entitled to his taste, and as far as I can tell his taste does not resemble mine (for starters, I have never had much interest in Kerouac or Bukowski), which is fine. His critical assessment is honest: he's not trying to suggest that other people are stupid for liking McCarthy; he just doesn't get it. I thought his post was interesting, though, less for what he says about McCarthy, than for what those things say about his interests as a reader and how those are quite different than mine. He quotes for us two opening passages, the first is from The Inheritance of Loss, by Kiran Desai, the second is from The Road. He does this to show what is good about Desai's opening, bad about McCarthy's (go to Asher's site to read them; they're too long for me to usefully reproduce here). I was amused to find that, after reading both passages, I felt little inclination to want to continue reading Desai's book, and I do still want to read The Road.

Then Asher tells us what he doesn't like about the McCarthy passage. He says:
The first thing the reader detects is that this will be a thoroughly humorless book, a book of punishing, guilt-ridden unpleasantness, a book that must be aimng to be "good for us", because it's sure not aiming to be fun. That's the moral outlook Cormac McCarthy always offers -- a stern "church lady" tone warning of stark choices between evil and redemption.
I think this is a strange comment to make. No one ever accuses Cormac McCarthy of being anything like a broadly comic writer, that's for sure, but an epithet like "thoroughly humorless" still seems weird. I've not read enough to be able to argue that there's some great comic vein in McCarthy's work that he's just too dense to get, but I seem to recall references in some reviews to dark humor in McCarthy in general, and The Road in particular. For example, in a review picked more or less at random, here is Benjamin Whitmer at The Modern Word:
As bleak as the novel is, it’s also funnier than one might expect. Granted, it generally takes a grisly sense of humor to properly appreciate McCarthy, but that’s what makes his humor so effective. The funniest bits of The Road are found in the viciously sharp dialogue, particularly in scenes where the man and the boy encounter other stragglers on the road.
Ok, so maybe there's some darkly funny stuff Asher just couldn't manage to get to, especially since he finds the prose itself so galling. I can see having trouble with McCarthy's style. In the past, it's taken me a few pages (ok, 40) before I feel like I've adjusted to it. But the quoted passage definitely sets a mood and a tone, and the prose has an insistent rhythm, which is aided by the hated "ungrammatical half-sentences" (which are "the prose signature of junior high school students everywhere"--a cheap shot, sure, but this is hatred he's expressing, so cheap shots are to be expected). And I like the simile in the third sentence, in which the days are said to be increasingly gray, "Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world." I want to read more.

But that stuff's all down to basic taste, more or less, or can be argued to be, but in the middle of that passage of Asher's I quoted above, he says The Road is going to be "a book of punishing, guilt-ridden unpleasantness, a book that must be aim[i]ng to be 'good for us', because it's sure not aiming to be fun". It's not clear to me why he should think that the book "must be aiming to be good for us" like "medicine". Rather, it's not clear why he opposes such books with books that are "aiming to be fun", as if these are the only options we have. And, fun? What does fun have to do with it? Using the word "fun" implies, to me, a desire for broad entertainment. I might praise a pop song as fun or a movie comedy (or thriller, or whatever), but I read very little literature that could be helpfully described as "fun" (which is not remotely the same as "pleasure"), but it's beyond me why anyone would go into a book by Cormac McCarthy expecting to find something that could be called "fun". And of course, he knows he won't, since he's already expressed his distaste before, so in that sense his attempt to read The Road was not entirely honest (I don't mean that to sound snotty), since he doesn't seem able or willing to put aside his expectations of what a novel should be like in order to discover what might actually be worthwhile in McCarthy. But then nothing says he has to; you can't read or appreciate everything.

I hope to read The Road relatively soon and report here at least a little of my experience of it.


brandon said...

I find it really strange that Asher wouldn't consider 'The Road' "fun". You mentioning a thriller being "fun" is kind of spot-on for 'The Road'. Yes the book is depressing and dark, REALLY DARK, but it is also funny and touching at points, which moves it away from just being depressing.

McCarthy's language in 'The Road' is a much easier-to-read form of his kind of writing found in 'Blood Meridian'. The book can be read really quickly which makes the depressive qualities lesser. To me, it had a certain "pulp" quality which makes it fun. The emotions are there, the feeling is there, but it is all made to go-down a little easier. Maybe this is due to the dark content?

I'm a big McCarthy fan but he constantly bounces between really good and laughably poor. Not only in his writing style but in scenes and content. This is part of his appeal to me but I could see why it is annoying. However, Asher seems to have dropped the ball a bit, focusing on annoying quirks like no commas or accusing it of being "humorless"...

kookiejar said...

I agree with Brandon. 'The Road' is full of moments that are so dark and so bleak, I actually got a thrill and few chuckles in spite of myself just from my reaction to them. It's a masterpiece, but if you are looking for a laugh-a-minute, you are in the wrong place. Asher should go read Jasper Fforde instead if that's what he wants.

Levi said...

Richard -- I think you're right that "fun" was a badly-chosen word on my part. I was really just using an expression I use sometimes in everyday life: "it's sure as hell not fun". It's just a bit of a flippant put-down, but in retrospect I could have chosen a more careful way to express what I was trying to express.

Enjoying this conversation, anyway! Arguing in a civil fashion about the merits of this or any other very popular book feels a lot better to me, even when people disagree with my opinion, than fuming in silence would. That sure as hell wouldn't be fun (okay, I'll cut that out now).