The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Read: 14 February, 2013

A father and son travel across an apocalyptic wasteland, struggling to find a reason for survival.

This was a hard book to read. It’s a journey of suffering with no possibility of an end. Any time the boy tries to find some hope, his father just shuts him down – even when that hope is just to die and see an end to the relentless cold and starvation.

The child, though born after the world was destroyed, never seems to adapt. I found that strange, particularly when we look at actual children who have grown up in real world combat zones (whether political  or familial), and the ways that they learn to tune out or join in. Yet the boy seems to function as more of a conscience for the man than as a character in his own right. This story is about the man, about his forgetting the past world, yet his refusal to adopt the current one. The child is a device, he’s “the fire,” and I found that somewhat disconcerting.

In this way, the child and the man seem to be polar opposites of Rick and Carl Grimes from the Walking Dead graphic novels. Rick tries so hard to keep to the values of the old world while watching in horror as Carl adapts to the brutality of the new, whereas the man finds himself adapting to the needs of survival in the new world while the child retains a sense of pure horror every time he is faced with the new realities.

I had a hard time finding the story compelling. Because there was no hope, absolutely no possibility of a happy ending in a world that is literally dead, the characters had no where to go. They just kept shuffling along, driven by purposeless instinct like zombies. All I kept thinking was “good god, just let that poor kid die already.”

I felt like even McCarthy couldn’t come up with a plausible reason for why his characters would continue fighting. We get vague references to “The Fire” and to some unformed hope that things might be different in the south (though, even then, the man is very careful about that hope and seems to understand on all levels that it’s wrong, so it doesn’t even get the status of false hope).

The world was so bleak, so depressing that I didn’t even get that “I’m so glad my life isn’t like that!” feeling. It just made me feel down. Even the “happy” scenes when they find some big cache of food just made me feel more depressed because it only meant that they’d have to start the starvation process back from zero, further extending their suffering.

There were some odd stylistic tricks, such as the lack of quotation marks, which I would imagine would make the dialogue difficult to follow. But I listened to the audiobook, so I had help from the reader. Thinking about the writing, I think it works to stylistically reflect the theme of the novel, but I could see it ticking people off.

I didn’t enjoy the book too much, but a lot of people apparently do. In fact, I only picked it up (having seen the movie and contented myself with that) because so many people were telling me that it’s a wonderful book. If you enjoyed it, could you tell me what I’m missing?

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Ice Land by Betsy Tobin

Read: 26 December, 2011

It’s the end of the world. Christianity is growing in Iceland, threatening the power of the old gods, and the land itself seems to be in revolt. Meanwhile, two star-crossed lovers fight against the feud that divides their two families against a landscape that is both real and mythical.

There are two stories being told in Ice Land, that of Fulla and her growing love for Vili. Theirs is a Romeo and Juliet story, their families feuding, perpetually seeking revenge on each other in a never ending cycle. Meanwhile, we have Freya’s quest for a magical necklace that has the power to end the apocalypse, preventing the destruction of the world.

I enjoyed the story, or at least I feel like I should have. Despite a fairly standard outline, Tobin does manage to take her two stories in a fairly unique direction. In particular, I enjoyed the way that she tried to mingle the real world with the world of mythology, making the one seem plausible and the other magical.

But maybe I just read the book at the wrong time. I found that I simply couldn’t lose myself in the story and I rushed to finish towards the end. I do suspect that the problem was with me, though, since I can’t think of anything that could have turned me off.

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I Am Legend by Richard Matheson

Read: 12 August, 2011

Robert Neville is alone, completely alone in a world overrun by vampires.He is alive, but he can’t figure out why he bothers.

I enjoyed the recent movie with Will Smith – mostly because I read into it far more than any of its creators intended. When I talk about the movie with others, it’s like we saw entirely different movies. Mine was a subtle commentary on racism, or perhaps our relationship with the mentally ill. My movie featured a brilliantly executed unreliable narrator and one of the best ironic endings I’ve ever seen. What other people saw was yet another mindless monster flick.

I Am Legend the novel is everything I saw into the movie, only better.

Neville is a fantastic character. He’s going nuts, making stupid mistakes, and drinking himself silly. But it’s never frustrating, and I never felt that I just wanted him to shut up and get on with things. That’s because Matheson has perfect timing, he never allows Neville to wallow for too long.

The sense of isolation and loneliness is palpable. As I was reading, I could really feel Neville’s despair. This makes the story creepy and even terrifying without ever resorting to monster-in-the-closet gimmicks. Quite the opposite – the vampires’ inability to wake during the day give Neville the advantage. He can scavenge safely during the day and then simply wait out the night in his house-come-fortress. The vampires are never the source of terror, the loneliness is.

This was one of the best, most perfectly executed books that I’ve read in a very long time. I highly recommend it for any fans of science fiction, distopian fantasy, post-apocalyptic fiction, and horror fiction.

NOTE: The copy I was reading was a first printing and had a truly creepy portrait of a young Matheson emerging from the shadows on the back. Yikes!

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