This book wasn’t part of my reading queue, but my dad bought it and I decided to read it as well as it is rather short with its 200 pages written large.
It’s a famous book, from a respectable author, and won the Pulitzer in 2007. The theme isn’t even too far from the genre, as it describes a post-apocalyptic world. Maybe it would qualify as sci-fi, but it becomes instead a good argument to discuss what separates mainstream (and recognized) literature, from the specific genres that are often disregarded.
As the world where the novel is set is barren, so is the prose and the plot. Think about an hybrid between the “Fallout” games and “I am Legend”. But here things are much more penetrating. What you see written in the first page is the same you’ll see through the rest of the book. There’s nowhere to go. But the father and son, protagonists of the novel, move forth. Clinging desperately to an empty hope that is directly felt by the reader.
This is a world made of ash. There are no oasis. The lack of frills and decorations in the prose help the effects the book wants to convey. The more the prose and plot are naked, the more you see the life, in its most encompassing meaning, to the bone. It doesn’t cover, doesn’t veil, doesn’t distract. Naked. And it’s frightening, lacerating, but transmitting a sense of vulnerability and preciousness.
At its core the book describes the relationship between a father and son. The apocalyptic setting may appear as a distraction, but it becomes the opposite. It is a way to strip that relationship from all the worthless parts, and go to the heart. Since there’s no real plot, the 200 pages become a meticulous description of survival. It is so precise that you are brought there and there is no possible way to read the book while keeping a detached mood. Again since there’s no plot, you, reader, become the protagonist. The father and son move forth, walking step by step across the world, heading south to survive the winter. With this lacerating hope to survive just a little longer and find a better world, accompanied by the certainty that there aren’t any chances. So the reader moves through the book, and what is left to do is simply reaching the end of the book and find out what happens to the characters, expecting the worst. Because here reading is like a torture and you have to work hard to keep going, as oppressive as it feels.
That meticulousness of descriptions becomes, in a way, obsessive. The difficulty of survival isn’t simply about the concrete aspects, but also of the mind accepting what is going on without shattering. It’s unsustainable. There isn’t anything to cling to, no gods, but the direct demonstration than no god can actually exist. So what’s the sense?
I have my own interpretation of the novel. You may think it’s extreme, you may close the book and think that it passed like a bad dream, that you saw the worst, but it wasn’t real. My interpretation is that what is in the book isn’t distant from real life. That those nightmares are concrete. The form of those nightmares may be different, but their substance is in our everyday life, and the distance we feel from that world and ours, the same distance that allows us to stay sane, is just illusion. It is hope. It is a lie we believe in. It is a way to keep the eyes shut and repeat endlessly that everything is going well.
This brought up something I was thinking about before even starting to read the book. What should we teach to our children? Do you protect them, put an hand on their eyes, make them have a life of happiness, of positive dreams, keep them playing, smiling, oblivious? Or do you prepare them to the real world, and so stripped of all the frills, as dramatic at it can be, with that sense of being completely alone, and feel that oppression? Reassured or awakened? Comedy or tragedy?
What is this world? Why do we live? To pretend we’re blind? Or to forget we can see?
I’m sure out there are more people dying than people reading books, playing games, watching movies. So what is real? The illusions we use as shrouds to stay blind and flee for the reality that the mind can’t understand or tolerate? We hide from the view those who suffer, those who are ill. We reject those thoughts and pretend they don’t exist. We have a representation of society that just follows the successful types and makes them a standard. Is all this just so we can bear the weight no one can bear?
This book goes through that. It shows the worst the life has to offer and makes no attempt to hide how terrible it is. It slaps it in your face. At the same time there’s a “fire”. The hope you still have to cling to, something that tells you that you aren’t simply made of flesh, to become ash.
At the end I think the feel is reassuring. That what is in the book isn’t alien, but something we know. It tells the story of a father and his son, and that relationship is as true as what we live. It is the same story that goes on between every father and every son.
It doesn’t show the worst, but the best we are.