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.