Sunday, September 26, 2010

Cormac McCarthy's The Road




I bought this paperback because of the movie tie-in, because of Viggo Mortensen. I love his work; I love looking at him. I am that shallow. I doubt, though, that I will choose to watch the film. Like "the man" says, Once you allow those images into your brain, they're there for good.

It is very very difficult to write this simply, in a style stripped of all elements save character, conversation, and action. Style is one of the more enjoyable aspects of the book. There are no quotation marks. (Some day, more publishers and writers will catch up.) Nor is McCarthy constrained by the old definitions of sentences and complete thoughts. He uses words like a paint brush--a dab, more dabs here, a stroke, more strokes there. Through the father's actions--feeding, clothing, sheltering, and nurturing his son--and through their conversations, their lives, their roles, their fears and goals, their relationship are all revealed. With a minimum of flashback memory, some nightmares, no interior monologue, no intellectualizing or philosophizing, The Road strips down our constructs of humanity and civilization.

Where are they? We only assume the setting is somewhere in America. The west coast? He mentions rhodos. There are plantation-like abandoned houses, with slave cellars. Do they have rhodos in the east? I do not know. Then there are pines, liveoaks, and magnolia. The writing on a shipwreck says "Tenerife" (p.223). Maybe it is the Atlantic coast. The map they carry is falling apart. Place does not matter; setting is irrelevant.

No characters have names. They are "the man, Papa" and "the boy." Individualism no longer matters. The people they meet are archetypes--a thief, an old man, a pregnant woman, a skewered baby. Marauding bands threaten. The bad guys are cannibals. The good guys wouldn't do that, yet every decision, every interaction, is a moral dilemma. The boy knows the teachings--be kind, love thy neighbour, forgive. The man knows the reality, and the risks. To steal our belongings is to kill us. To share our food is to die sooner. They carry a pistol; there are two bullets left; then there is only one. Character and plot have been stripped down to a story of pure animal survival.

The reader continues to trudge along out of faith alone. Expectation. Anticipation. Trust. The belief that something will actually happen sometime. That the characters will make choices other than whether to live or how to die. Will they get to the ocean? If so, then what? You begin to worry. Perhaps action no longer matters either. Perhaps plot is simply: Life's a bitch and then you die. It's a road. It used to be a highway. All stories lead to--what? Some sort of ending? All life ends in death. Yet in the simplicity, the reader finds opportunity. There are possibilities of symbolism. The reader may choose to believe that there is something--some meaning--beyond the characters themselves and their simple story. That the word, the idea of "hope" survives. 
The Road is Cormac McCarthy's story of a postapocalyptic world. A man and his son (both nameless) are walking on a road, scrounging for food, heading south towards the ocean seeking warmth. The gas stations beside the road are derelict, already looted, as are any houses, the nameless cities, the rusted train they encounter.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Miriam Toews' A Complicated Kindness


Last Sunday I finished re-reading Miriam Toews' GG's award-winning novel A Complicated Kindness. I almost never re-read a book; there are just too many books and too few hours. But this one I remember enjoying so much that I wanted to get my own copy and I wanted to check to see whether the conclusion by others in the book club made any more sense to me now. Some members, knowing the writer's family history, suggested that the novel is about the suicide of a major character but I didn't get that. Was I being a Pollyanna? Was I in denial? I am happy to report that, after a second go-through, I still do not accept that interpretation, although it is certainly one of the options that the distraught teen narrator Nomi posits. I think the inconclusive ending is intentional, meant to highlight the mystery of what we know and what we cannot know about the lives of others. If there is no hard evidence in the text, it has not happened. There is no simple explanation, as the title stresses; it's complicated.


Another thing I tell myself is that, at my age, I've read enough coming-of-age stories. Not that there's anything wrong with coming-of-age, but I want the themes to touch me personally and I want the novel to hint at social commentary and to engage me with its literary style. So, a book has to be more than a YA to get my votes. It has to say something relevant to readers with more life experience as well as to younger fans.


ACK satisfies me on all these levels. Nomi is a completely credible fully realized teenager caught in that holding pattern between finishing her Grade 12 and trying to start a real life while feeling trapped in the small town in which she has grown up. Nomi's child-woman's voice is both endearing and gripping. And she has the added appeal for me of being from a recognizable Canadian community (a town in Manitoba famous for its pioneer village museum with windmill, its many car dealerships, and its many many churches, with the city lights of Winnipeg in the distance). The work ethic, the successful embrace of capitalism including the tourist industry, and the hold the Mennonite culture still has, especially on Nomi's family, make the setting an integral part of the novel. Nomi both suffers from and kicks against the religious constraints. The constant driving, the closeness to "the Line," pushers and pit parties, church and Hymn Sing capture the teen restlessness and the schizoid world she inhabits.


ACK compares favourably with J. D. Salinger's The Catcher In the Rye, with its teenage narrator Holden Caulfield railing against the "phonies" and all the absent adults who are not there when he needs them. Holden, who has been expelled from several private schools, lives in an unfriendly New York City in the 1950s, with few connections outside his truncated nuclear family--a much younger sister, the elevator operator, a former teacher, an ex-roommate. Nomi Nickel, on the other hand, in the 1980s, suffers from too much community. Her best friend is dying, her boyfriend is withdrawing, her sister and mother have already abandoned her, and her father continues to prepare for the end of the school year by selling off the furniture and handing Nomi the keys to the family car. And other adults, her uncle the church leader and her English teacher, have failed her in more dramatic ways. Yet both these iconic teen characters are dealing first and foremost with grief, the memory of lost loved ones, with the feelings of anger and abandonment which accompany grief, and the acting out that inevitably follows. In the same way that Holden affects a deerstalker hat, Toews shows, with Nomi's shaved head and army boots, how costume and hairstyle communicate, sometimes in screams. The sad thing is that nothing seems to have improved for troubled teens from dysfunctional families in the fifty years between the publication of the two novels. The sadder thing is that the world has not changed enough to allow a book this honest, this brave--which hints that teenagers may smoke cigarettes or pot, do drugs or drink, skip school, have sex, seek out birth control--on to the school curriculum where young readers could experience trauma vicariously and discuss choices with objective adults.


Nomi and Holden both deliver condemnations of their respective cultures which fail them in their times of need. Of course, Salinger is not the last writer to tackle this theme, and Toews is not the first writer to look with an honest eye at a Mennonite community in western Canada (related to but not the same as Old Order Amish Ontario Mennonites or Pennsylvania Dutch). If you haven't already, you must read: Rudy Wiebe's Peace Shall Destroy Many; Patrick Friesen's The Shunning; Armin Wiebe's comic Schneppa Kjnals PI novels, to name only three great Canadian writers. Toews' indictment is harsh on the personal level of holier-than-thou flawed characters and on the socio-cultural level of the conflict between kinds of love, especially the love of a faith which demands that believers put their church before their families. Is it caritas to shun and excommunicate spouses and parents, with the assertion that the future heavenly world trumps the present temporal reality? Yet with the sea of faith retreating, the question becomes: Who will choose the darkling plain and who the distant city lights?


To me, there is not one false note. I love Nomi; I love AKC. They evoke words like tour de force and exceptional. I am both hesitant to start and looking forward to The Flying Troutmans. It cannot possibly be as good, but what if it is?

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Mary Gaitskill's Veronica

The writer and her novel. Photograph by David Shankbone, Creative Commons.

Veronica

Today I finished reading Veronica by Mary Gaitskill. I hadn't heard of her until she spoke to the assembled writers at the Humber School in July. Her presentation was both eerie and inspiring. Eerie because Gaitskill, a beautiful woman, seemed unable or unwilling to smile. Perhaps she was just reacting against the convention that we must be ingratiating before people will listen to us. Her words were inspiring in that she told a personal story of believing in herself in spite of the rejection and denigration from pricks in positions. I wonder what her workshop was like? I bought Veronica because I overheard other writers saying it was good. (And it was an American National Book Award finalist.) 

Reading Gaitskill reminds me somewhat of Margaret Atwood, the way people say she “writes with a scalpel.” And Veronica is similar to Mordecai Richler's Barney's Version, the way it is a challenge to tell a compelling story about an unattractive or "difficult" character. It also evokes Nuala O'Faolain for me, the way she is so honest about twentieth century women who choose to have sex with more than one person. After all, who were the role models for sexually liberated females except for Marilyn Monroe and Janice Joplin, and we know what happened to them.

Veronica the novel is the story of an era, the 1980s, its consumer and media-driven culture, and it is the story of a character, Alison, the narrator. Veronica the character is a woman, a friend of Alison's, who contracts AIDS from her gay lover. Veronica functions as a vehicle, a device which enables Alison to tell her story of their friendship and of her own life, before and after Veronica. Alison is a meangirl teen-age runaway who becomes a model in Paris and New York. She is negative and judgmental, dancing as fast as she can to prove that “we are having fun.” She is shallow and ethically challenged but she is also hyper-observant and intuitive and over the twenty-plus years the novel covers, grows emotionally and spiritually. Veronica is a novel about freedom, grief, and love; it is about the meanings of touch, connection, and intimacy. Veronica helped me reconcile with some of the decisions I made as a young woman alone in the post-pill pre-AIDS world. It is a novel about choices, from choosing which person to trust to choosing which trail to walk.