Review: The Road

The RoadThe Road by Cormac McCarthy
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It is hard to review a book that has so many extant reviews, so many of which are so positive. The Road is my second Cormac McCarthy book; I have recently read No Country for Old Men, which I found interesting, gripping, a page turner, with hints of wider themes and interests. Like The Road, my edition of No Country for Old Men had many flyleaves that contained glowing extracts from glowing reviews extolling the virtues of the book. And though I enjoyed the book, I found that I had not discovered those virtues.

When I finished The Road, and returned to re-read the many glowing extracts from glowing reviews on its flyleaves, I found myself rather at a loss. I had enjoyed the novel, and its spare language and short, well-spaced paragraphs had made it a quick read, gripping enough to keep me turning the pages. Yet, I found nothing new or extraordinary in the book, nor in its language. The language was spare, certainly, and repetitive at times. Yet, The Road belongs to a genre — the post-apocalyptic novel. Of course, the post-apocalyptic novel has mainly been the reserve of science fiction authors, and I couldn’t help wondering if any of the reviewers who had written the glowing extracts from the glowing reviews had read J G Ballard, or Harlan Ellison, or Samuel R Delany or Walter M Miller or many others.

The post-apocalyptic novel has an honourable tradition in science fiction; The Road offered no new shocks and no new horrors, no departures from that tradition. What “new” horrors there were, over and above earlier entries in the genre, were more because of where we are, as readers and writers, in what we allow and what we accept, than in anything extraordinarily outre. Earlier authors, such as Delaney in Dhalgren had experimented with form; Ballard had been elliptical and distant in his series of ‘disaster’ novels, The Crystal World, The Wind from Nowhere, The Drowned World, and, of course, The Drought; in Damnation Alley, Zelazny’s hero has to drive a truck along a post-apocalyptic road.

Of course, in a Cold War world in which everybody was mentally prepared for nuclear disaster, the post-apocalyptic science fiction narrative thrived. Such was the currency of apocalytics and disaster in New Wave science fiction, the title of Michael Moorcock‘s collection of Jerry Cornelius stories, The New Nature of the Catastrophe, made perfect sense while being an ironic dig at a tradition he had helped foster.

This then, was my problem: The Road was a worthy entry into the tradition; but it carried with it nothing more than previous (mainly science fiction) authors had provided; and I would rather have The Drought, or A Boy And His Dog, or A Canticle for Leibowitz, or even Russell Hoban‘s Riddley Walker on my desert island.

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Yes, it’s Number One, it’s Top of the Pops!

And number 1 is… Michael Moorcock!

What are you talking about Steve?, I hear you ask.

Well, a couple of years after I started to read a lot, I began to record the books I’d read; first on paper, then in databases. Being a man of a certain age, this means I have records going back to the 1970s. Being also OCD enough to have copied my database of books to Goodreads, I can now easily see that the author I have read most is Michael Moorcock. Now, in the course of nearly 40 years, some of these books I have read more than once, and those that have had repeated readings will most likely be my favourites. Only my database can reveal which books have had multiple readings… However, I know I was a big fan of 1970s British New Wave Science Fiction, so I have read and reread the Jerry Cornelius books — A Cure for CancerThe Final Programme, and The English Assassin. Some of the 31 books in my Goodreads list for Moorcock are in fact collections for which he was editor, such as the various New Worlds anthologies; without these collections, Moorcock might have been under pressure from the author at position two in the charts…

In second place is Ruth Rendell. Now, as I only discovered Rendell, and her alter ego, Barbara Vine, in the late 1980s, I can easily recall those books of hers I have read multiple times. So, I recommend highly Vine’s A Fatal Inversion, which I have read about six times, King Solomon’s CarpetThe Brimstone Wedding; and Rendell’s Going WrongThe Crocodile Bird, and Talking to Strange Men. I have never been a fan of police procedurals, so the Wexford books do not interest me.

At number three in the chart is Frank Herbert. I read Dune in my teens and was enamoured by it. The fact that I have read all the canonical Dune books accounts, of course, for about a third of the total for Herbert. There are other books by Herbert that I have read more than once — Under Pressure* and Destination Void — but it is, in general, the Dune books to which I return. One of my friends once said Herbert’s books were full of half-arsed so-called philosophical ramblings. This perhaps accounts for the fourth entry in my chart.

In with an invocation and a silver bullet at number four is Colin Wilson, purveyor of much half-arsed nonsense and profligate philosophical posturing. I read and re-read The Occult when I was a young adult, and was almost tempted to become the next Cagliostro, or Count de St. Germain. I also read The Outsider and other of his “philosophical” works. Why Wilson attracts me, I think, is that he is an easy read; so he is often a good place to start with a topic, even if he is often wrong or muddled about something. It is his novels, however, such as The Glass CageThe Schoolgirl Murder Case, and Ritual in the Dark, that are I think under-rated. Crime thrillers set in the 1960s with more of that half-arsed philosophical rambling, they are well-written and a better vehicle for his ideas.

I could say more, but for the moment, I’ll stop here and simply note there are an awful lot of 70s sci-fi authors in this list…

1     Michael Moorcock  31
2     Ruth Rendell  23
3     Frank Herbert  19
4     Colin Wilson  18
5     Philip K. Dick  15
6     D.H. Lawrence  13
7     Henry Miller  12
8     J.G. Ballard  11
9     Barbara Vine  10
9     Aldous Huxley  10
11    Roger Zelazny  9
11    Isaac Asimov  9
13    Robert A. Heinlein  7
13    Keith Roberts  7
13    Iain M. Banks  7
16    George Orwell  6
16     William Gibson  6
16     John Fowles  6
16     Hermann Hesse  6
16    Jacques F. Vallée  6

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* Also known as Dragon in the Sea in the UK, and 21st Century Sub