There was a girl at work. She has left now, but at one time she was the only attractive one in the building. 22 years old, slim, dark hair, blue eyes. There was a bit of a hoo-ha when she started; the bulls were mobilized, their sanity cast to the wind in their libidinous pursuit. For months I watched the action play out, from a safe distance, like the wildlife documentary maker camped out in his car filming a pride of lions as they circle a zebra. In the same way, one could not say that I was a disinterested observer, but I respect women, and myself, enough not to want to get embroiled in some kind of sex-crazed gold rush, and, quite frankly, even if I didn’t, I cannot be bothered with that kind of thing. It’s all just, uh, too much effort.
One day, however, I made my way outside with the intention of having a cigarette and, when I arrived at the designated smoking area, the girl was there too, also, you have to assume, in order to smoke. These situations are, for me at least, often gruelling and uncomfortable. The smoking area is small, so you can’t pretend you haven’t seen each other. That it was the girl wasn’t the problem, but more that I hate small talk; I don’t care about the weather, I don’t want to hear about how it’s the start of the day and whew there is whole day still to go, and how that is bad, or how it is the nearly the end of the day and whew it’s almost time to go home, and how that is good.
Fortunately, the girl was holding a book. I understand the book. I know that it is frequently used as a prop, as a buffer, as a barrier, between the reader and the outside world. It takes a special kind of intrusive arsehole to bother someone who has their nose in a book. With that in mind I expected her, after a few polite seconds, after the head-nod greeting, to light her cigarette and open up her novel and start to read. She didn’t though, good manners perhaps getting the better of her. So, we were forced to converse; I was forced, more pertinently, to utter words that make me cringe, the kind of words [broadly speaking] that I anticipate with dread whenever I am myself reading a book in public, or am seen with one in my hand.
Ah, I see you’re reading…
What was she reading [P]?
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
It was, indeed, The Road she was reading. She wasn’t reading it at that moment in time, of course, because she was talking to me, answering my statement with a smile and an invitation to share with her my opinion of the book in question. I light my cigarette; I’m on steady ground here. I tell her that I like The Road, that I see it as a book that explores the Voltairean idea of our irrational attachment to life. I speak about how the three members of the central family – the boy, the man and his wife – represent three distinct attitudes towards death: the man encapsulates this irrational attachment to life, he can’t give up on it no matter how awful it may be; his wife opts out, she believes that life is only worth living under certain conditions; the boy is almost without consciousness, without rationality, he is attached to life in the same way that an animal is. And, to be honest, I have absolutely no idea now, at this remove from the incident and my actual reading of the book, whether any of this carries weight, whether it makes sense in relation to the text. I was, one could say with some justification, pontificating wildly in order to get my hands on the girl.
It worked though, that’s the most important thing.
What would I say about The Road now, without a girl to impress? I feel as though the book lacks imagination. The idea of a man [and in this case his boy] wandering around a desolate and dangerous landscape, in the aftermath of some disaster, is so well-worn it has lost all colour. Indeed, McCarthy himself wrote a similar [minus the post-apocalyptic element] and better version in Blood Meridian. And Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban is far more inventive, more beautiful, is stranger and more heartbreaking. If you need this kind of thing in your life, then read Riddley.
I am also of the opinion that The Road is a tad manipulative. Cormac is a smart guy, a great writer at his best, and some of the scenes felt, to me, as though they were cynically designed to horrify or tug at your heartstrings. I am of the opinion that, in most circumstances, it is better not to show you anything nasty, but to imply it. He does that for the most part, as I remember, but a couple of times he clearly couldn’t help himself. Similarly, the man/boy dynamic, the sentimental hackneyed guff about protecting one’s kids [McCarthy had just had a child, a son too, I believe]; well, I hate that kind of thing. I get it, we all get it. God, you only need to criticise a child within earshot of their mother and you’ll know all about how protective parents are. Frankly, I don’t give a shit. It’s boring to me, you’re not telling me anything about humanity that isn’t blatant and obvious. Having said all that, The Road is good enough. Obvious and unimaginative it may be, but it’s a quick, easy, and atmospheric read. And it did come in very handy.