Feb 242013
 

“Style is the substance of the subject called unceasingly to the surface.” ~ Victor Hugo

Before picking up The Road, I’d never read any of Cormac McCarthy’s work and had no idea of what to expect. A few chapters in, I paused to orient myself to the world he evokes: set in a post-apocalyptic future, a father and his young son travel through civilization’s ruins while remaining true to a moral code. This is good stuff, but it’s McCarthy’s writing style, the sparse, fragmented prose of this novel, which made me into an ardent fan. Of course, style doesn’t matter if the story fails. So first, I’m going to touch on a few narrative nuts and bolts to see why it succeeds, and then I’ll fling some superlatives around regarding style.

The story’s success is remarkable given the plot’s limitations: it’s the day-to-day survival of a father and son adrift in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Keeping to major roads, they travel south toward an unknown destination; and because roads act a lot like like rivers, they attract desperate groups of people, many of whom enslave and eat other people.

Okay, more happens than that, but my point is the daily task of surviving in a bleak environment could’ve been oppressively tedious. But McCarthy makes it work by paying careful attention to the rate of revelation: scraps of information about the apocalypse are bundled with the father’s back story and doled out regularly in between crises. This backstory delivery system saves the novel from becoming a repetitive slog as the plot’s structure depends on simplistic conflict resolution: the characters need food, the characters find food, and the characters avoid/run away from cannibals, rinse & repeat. (Did I mention that nearly everybody else on the road seems to be a cannibal!? Seriously. Like, lots of scary cannibals.)

This plot structure is, of course, germane to a survival narrative, but McCarthy deserves credit for sticking to realistic speculation regarding day-to-day issues and not allowing the story to become something more exotic or cliché: like, a detour where the duo overthrow a cannibal kingdom or found a colony intended to be humanity’s last, best hope. Instead, the author stays focused to a much more ambitious story about a man determined to raise his son to be a principled human being in a desperate wasteland. The stakes are high as two individuals struggle to maintain their moral and ethical cores in an environment where principles are regarded as either liabilities or quaint relics of the past. That these characters struggle to do the right thing in the face of a hopeless future makes individual choice a central theme.

That The Road foregrounds individuality marks it as a distinctly American novel. Additionally, there are number of moments that have a Western-genre feel to them. Does it get any more American than the Western? You could easily place these two characters in a day-to-day struggle to survive Montana Badlands of the 19th century, replete with bushwacking outlaws and painted-Indian war parties, and gotten a similar story. Don’t get me wrong, the tone of Western-genre fiction doesn’t detract from the work; it’s just another aspect of the novel’s style.

Ah yes, style: we’ve finally arrived at the subject  causing all the chatter. Cormac McCarthy makes some brilliant choices in regards to syntax. That is to say, I found them brilliant. There are plenty of grammarians who hate this novel because he breaks so many rules. Specifically interesting to me – McCarthy declines to adhere to an important grammatical marker: the sentence boundary. Instead, the author deploys both the logic and organization of cumulative sentences while refusing to play by the rules dictating where they pause or end. This unconventional approach is used to good effect when working to evoke a broken world. Here’s an example:

“The kitchen door stood open and he crossed the porch and stood in the doorway. Cheap plywood paneling curling with damp. Collapsing into the room. A red formica table” (119).

Okay, so McCarthy ignores commas and uses periods instead? Yep. But also notice there are plenty of transitional words missing as well. Thinking things through, it becomes obvious one could revise this example to become a single cumulative sentence which delivers the same information with an entirely different effect. Like so:

“The kitchen standing open, he crossed the porch and stood in the doorway, observing the cheap-plywood paneling that curled with damp and collapsed into the room, a room with a red-formica table.”

Of course, there’s a ton of different ways one could rewrite the sentence. You might need to read a longer section to get a real feeling for the style, but the example above makes my point. And while I find McCarthy’s style effective, I can see why choices like this might put someone off; because when periods are used in place of commas, sentences no longer reliably exist as propositions. Instead, the period becomes a moment of pause – a crack to step over – while the reader is left to determine where the next clause fits in.

The novel would be a failure If this approach didn’t work. But it does.

By breaking down the cumulative form into discrete units, the author achieves a similar effect of evoking a detailed image. However, the choice of abandoning conventional syntax has a significant, secondary effect because the combination of sparse language and busted-up syntax clearly enhances this description of a world that’s bleak and broken. – That he made this choice is a big part of what makes this novel great.

In fiction, the difference between a good use of style and great use of style is as follows: a good use of style makes for enjoyable reading and marks a writer’s work as being unique. A great use of style fulfills all aforementioned requirements but also reflects, informs, and enhances a central theme of the work.

It’s that simple. The choice to ‘break’ the prose when evoking a broken world is ambitious: successfully pulling it off is fucking genius. So after reading The Road, I developed high expectations for McCarthy’s work, and, so far, he’s yet to disappoint. That said, I get why many readers dislike this novel. Many who attack it have ample ammunition that’s well-reasoned. But the bottom line for me is the author took a gamble, and it paid off big time. This book has a lot of popular appeal, and it’s easy to see why. Despite radical linguistic choices, The Road manages to hold a reader’s attention with an adventure while putting some heavy topics in play. That is to say, McCarthy treads the fine line between writing gratuitous fiction and writing great fiction. That he pulls it off makes this novel worth a read.

Sep 052009
 

When talking about my favorite science fiction, Philip K. Dick’s, Do Androids Dream of Electric sheep? always enters the conversation. But before now, I never gave much thought as to what makes this novel work or looked carefully at how it is constructed. All things being equal, it’s an awkward piece of fiction: the plot contains at least one major hole, and the prose is replete with the kind of adverb abuse that sends me right up a wall. But, when a reader basks in the glow of P.K.D’s brilliant conceit(s), one realizes all things are not equal, and these complaints become trivial missteps.

That said, there are moments in this story that have always bothered me. The central problem I have with this novel occurs when Dekard goes to retire Luba Luft, and is arrested by a beat cop as a murderer. Approximately one third of the way into the story, the protagonist discovers an alternate police department that is not only crawling with androids but is run by an android who employs a human bounty hunter. The idea itself is clever and may cause the reader to doubt Dekard’s sanity. This could have been a nice turn in the plot but soon reveals itself to be a flaw. Once Dekard and Resch escape to retire Luft, a few sentences could have wrapped up the prior events in short order: the stations existence explained, Dekard’s boss saying something about an investigation, anything really; anything would be better than moving forward as if it had never happened. Instead, the alternate department is never brought up again even in passing. When the entire novel is predicated upon Dekard hunting a few escaped androids, and a police station full of them is not worthy of a few moments, I tend to get irritated. With a lesser author it would be unforgivable as would the sentences that get pushed along: relentlessly, jarringly, clumsily, awkwardly, and…well you get the picture.

Setting aside the glut of adverbs, on a sentence level Philip K. Dick is a competent writer. He writes with straight ahead prose and little flourish; this almost gives Androids Dream a hardboiled feel. The violence is delivered in a matter of fact manner that echo the mean streets evoked by Daly and Hammet. Considering the amount of alien concepts that the reader will be forced to process over the course of the novel, a narrative style that spares the reader both sentimentality and melodrama is one of the keys to success.

In the end, it is of course the ideas that drive this story. In the introduction to the Del Rey Edition of Androids Dream, Roger Zelanzy ponders a comparison of P.K.D to Pirandello, but then chucks the idea because Pirandello’s “triumph [was] of technique over convention, possessed of but one basic message no matter what was fed into the chopper” (vii). In contrast, P.K.D’S triumph exists as a series of brilliant metaphors that, while individually sound, are brought together to articulate a unified, original concept and theme. Greater minds than mine have written at length about the genius of Androids Dream, and his other work, so I will not trouble you with my feeble musings. However, I would say that anyone interested in writing SF would do well to study the way in which P.K.D delivers the information in his stories.

To have ideas, even great ones, drive fiction, it is imperative that one find a way to have them do two things: occur organically to the world the writer has created, and then feed the new information to the reader in such a way that the description does not disrupt the narrative. It is called “info dumping,” and not many writers can use expository tactics to weave information into a story with skill of P.K.D. A good example of the author’s genius in this department comes in the form of “kipple.” The Earth has been abandoned by most of its inhabitants, but they left behind empty buildings overflowing with the stuff they have left behind. In the beginning of Androids Dream, we are told that silence of the buildings drives Dekard’s wife Iran into deep depressions; not long after, the “special” Isadore is introduced along with the ruinous cacophony of silence:

He lived alone in this deteriorating, blind building of a thousand uninhabited apartments, which like all of its counterparts, fell, day by day, into greater entropic ruin. Eventually everything within the building would merge, would be faceless and identical, mere pudding-like kipple piled to the ceiling of each apartment. And after that, the uncared-for building itself would settle into shapelessness, buried under the ubiquity of dust (20).

What works here is that kipple is both invented, introduced, and explained with an economy of language, allowing the story to continue to move along at a nice clip. The concept of kipple is as brilliant as it is subtle. For the rest of the novel, P.K.D. is able to weave in the imaginary byproduct of dead/offworld consumers, causing the reader to be viscerally aware of their absence. So, It works to amplify one of the themes of the story while providing a unique tone for the hopeless and abandoned setting. By properly explaining kipple, the author can move ahead with a story that is packed with action, meaning, and stark tragedy.

In the end, the sum of Philip K. Dick’s ideas are greater than all the hiccups and wild gesticulations that occur in their delivery. Going forward, there are not many SF writers that remain on my must-read list. But for raw, speculative genius, and generally good storytelling that make reading the genre enjoyable, P.K.D certainly abides as a master.