Book and Movie Review: The Road

The RoadTitle: The Road (movie)

Author: Cormac McCarthy

Genre: Literary Sci-Fi Horror

Read: Oct 29-30, 2010

Summary: Evocative.


At the suggestion of my friend Peter (in comments on my review of The Passage) I picked up The Road. I’d seen the movie a couple months ago. This novel is a relative oddity, being both literary and Sci-Fi post apocalyptic.

The prose: We have to speak first about the prose. At first, as with other McCarthy books, I found it jaring. He writes long sentences without much punctuation. He uses nouns and adjectives as verbs (like Shakespeare). For example, “The man glassed the horizon” (meaning he looked with binoculars) or “The white fog paled the trees.” These long sentences are interrupted with short burps in counterpoint. The dialog, what littler there is, has no quotations (remember he doesn’t like punctuation), and precious few tags. There’re no chapters, but scene breaks occur with startling rapidity. Many scenes are just description, slashes of images. McCarthy employs vocabulary the likes of “vermiculate,” (covered in worm like lines) or verbs like “hove” (past tense of heave). I found myself needing to use the kindle app’s built in dictionary feature. Still, after 15-20 pages I stopped noticing — well I didn’t stop entirely, but it grew comfortable. This very specific and personal voice is wonderfully evocative. Haunting, and spare, but with elegant and precise use of words and word parings does a good job of sketching the bleak setting. I’m not sure how the casual reader would react, but I certainly appreciate his skill with words. No awkward Stephenie Meyer style constructions here.

The book: Not a whole lot happens in the book. Basically “The man” and “the boy” wander through this post post apocalyptic landscape where nothing but an occasional hostile person moves. The world has burned and been all used up. There is no hope, absolutely none. Not a plant or animal lives. It’s just a matter of delaying the inevitable — perhaps avoiding being eaten by cannibals along the way. This bleakness is well conveyed. Still, I had issues with the overall setup. What the hell would kill EVERYTHING but humans? Every plant, bug, animal, but just leave the people? I don’t know, but we have the same biology as the other animals. I could see everything getting obliterated, or LOTS, but not every single thing but people. That being said, if that did happen, and you waited until really few were left, it might be this bleak. But I’d think that basic items like shoes would be easier to find. With 5 billion less people to wear them, they should be in decent supply. Overall I found it very evocative, and depressing, but there are only two characters, and the dialog felt staccato and stilted. Hard to follow, and not much reason to do so. I’m a plot and character reader first and formost, so I had mixed opinions. I enjoyed reading it, I liked the deft literary sketch work, and the book is the right length (short), but I can’t say that I absolutely loved it.

The movie: I did like the book better than the movie. I’m a Viggo fan (who couldn’t be after Lord of the Rings and Eastern Promises). The boy was very good too (he also stars in Let Me In, and does a great job there too). The film is surprisingly faithful. A few little adjusts, but the only big thing they changed was adding the flashbacks with the man’s wife. There’s one brief one in the book, but it’s more developed in the film. They didn’t need this. The film captures the bleak qualities, but without the energetic prose it’s just grim on grim. I found watching to be almost punishing. The unrelenting hopelessness, the fear of being eaten. It was much scarier than the book, but also harder to stomach. It’s certainly not a fun watch, although very well made.

Book Review: The Passage

The PassageTitle: The Passage

Author: Justin Cronin

Genre: Sci-Fi/Horror

Read: Late June 2010

Summary: Excellent.

Nne of this year’s top new vampire entries. It’s an odd book, long, and broken into three parts, but good. The first third is set more or less in the present and deals with how a viral epidemic that turns people into nearly indestructible vampire-like creatures gets loose and destroys the world. The writing is good and this section is a bit of an oddity in that the plot itself is minimal, but padded out with almost gratuitous backstory on nearly every character. Bit players that we meet in the gas station for one page get five pages of life story flashback. All these people, lovingly details, die quickly. Oddly, it works and is a compelling read. However, it makes me scratch my head as all the standard writing advice I’ve been given by editors, agents, and the like would’ve been to cut all these backstories. In fact, they certainly would’ve told me that the entire first third of the book is backstory, and the proper place to start was far later. At a certain level they are correct, because there is only one character — and an odd one at that — who crosses from this long prelude into the main two thirds of the novel.

The middle third of the book takes place 100 years later and totally kicks ass. This was some of the best Sci-fi/horror I’ve read in years. It’s post apocalyptic, taking place in this one compound somewhere in the California desert. They are under continual siege by vampires, and their numbers are dwindling. Their entire life and society is organized around survival, but slow attrition of their numbers is the only thing in their future. The Road Warrior meets I-don’t-know-what feel of this section is awesome. Cronin does a fantastic job of world building here, and the specific animalistic vampires (a bit reminiscent of I am Legend) is great. In some way’s it feels more like a Zombie apocalypse because it has that feeling of instant-death-at-any-second.

In part three, these same characters are forced out of their little sanctuary into the big bad world. This part is still good, but does a little shark jumping and borrows very heavily from things like the Stand, etc. I didn’t mind, but the ending felt a little forced and just didn’t quiet sustain the promise of the amazing middle section.

Still, the overall novel was excellent. Flawed, but the middle part was so great, and the first and third sections enjoyable enough, to make it one of the better books I’ve read in a while.