Apocalypse tomorrow: Two books contemplate life in a land of death

June 14, 2012

There are few topics in life as interesting as death. Sure, endless reams of paper and reels of celluloid have been expended on money, love and adventure. But death may hold more fascination than any of those.

Consider the countless murder mysteries in print, on film and on television. Think about tales of espionage, adventure stories, science fiction TV series and movies: Almost inevitably, the lives of an agent, a crew, a nation, a galaxy hang in the balance. The prospect of mortality helps sharpen the poignancy of medical dramas. Death overshadows and underscores war, horror and historical narratives.

It’s no surprise, therefore, that there has been much speculation about the end of the world and everything after. Recently, I read two such books: The Pesthouse, a 2007 novel by British author Jim Crace, and The Road, which American writer Cormac McCarthy published in 2006.

Crace begins with a fascinating premise. Several generations ago, apparently, for reasons unspecified — perhaps the exhaustion of fossil fuels? — America lost its ability to generate electricity. The nation, and possibly the rest of the world, has fallen into a primitive state roughly equivalent to the 18th century. Metal is now an exotic substance. For all intents and purposes, medicine has vanished. Artifacts of our contemporary existence are viewed as indecipherable ruins.

America has always been a land of hope. In The Pesthouse, however, the American dream involves traveling to the Eastern seaboard and sailing to Europe. Protagonist Franklin Lopez, Crace writes,

could not imagine exactly what awaited them when they set foot abroad, what type of people they might be, what language they might speak. But he was sure that life would be more prosperous. How could it not be better there? Safer, too. With opportunity, a word he’d come to love.

“And when we’re there,” he said, hoping to restore her with his optimism, “they say that there is land enough for everyone, and buildings made of decorated stone, and palaces and courts and gardens planted for their beauty, not for food. Because there is abundance in those places. Their harvests never fail. Three crops a year! Three meals a day!”

“They’ll all be fat.”

“They are all fat. Like barn hogs.”

Lopez is speaking there with Margaret, a native of Ferrytown, which sustains itself by lodging, feeding and ferrying émigrés such as Lopez and his older brother, Jackson.

Lopez and Margaret meet in the hills above Ferrytown, in the titular pesthouse, where the woman has been exiled to sweat out (or expire from) a deadly contagion. Franklin pauses nearby to rest his stiff and swollen knee; after Jackson descends to Ferrytown to seek shelter and food, rain and loneliness drive Franklin into Margaret’s refuge.

Their fates are united — for a time, at least — when a natural disaster wipes out Margaret’s home town. The pair strikes out east across a lush but hazardous land. A motley group of travelers eventually forms an odd surrogate family.

McCarthy’s book in some ways parallels The Pesthouse. The Road also starts with a pair of travelers, a man and his son. No person or place in the book is ever named, but man and boy are walking south across what is surely a post-apocalyptic America.

To describe The Road’s landscape as bleak would be like saying that Hannibal Lecter has an exotic palate. McCarthy’s scenery is blanketed by signs and portents of death. There are no birds and no fish; no living trees, no greenery, no insects. The sun is permanently concealed by clouds and by smoke from burning dead forests. Ash coats the ground.

There are only a handful of people, and every single one of them poses some kind of threat to the father and son. They also contend with cold and hunger.

They plodded on, thin and filthy as street addicts. Cowled in their blankets against the cold and their breath smoking, shuffling through the black and silky drifts. They were crossing the broad coastal plain where the secular winds drove them in howling clouds of ash to find shelter where they could. Houses or barns or under the bank of a roadside ditch with the blankets pulled over their heads and the noon sky black as the cellars of hell. He held the boy against him, cold to the bone. Dont lose heart, he said. We’ll be all right.

McCarthy’s prose is as spare as the landscape. The pages are peppered with sentence fragments. He renders dialog without quotation marks and omits apostrophes from many contractions. The book is divided into short passages, but there are no chapters. The writing seems to be husbanding its energy for the grueling journey, all too aware that the destination remains quite far away.

The boy was born seven to 10 years before the present action in The Road, not long after the world was shattered — perhaps by nuclear holocaust, McCarthy hints. The parents considered suicide: “The hundred nights they’d sat up debating the pros and cons of self destruction with the earnestness of philosophers chained to a madhouse wall.”

Ultimately, the mother turned aside the man’s pleas and did herself in without saying goodbye to her son. The man carries a pistol and a rapidly dwindling supply of bullets; he is determined that the boy die — that the child shoot himself, if necessary — rather than be captured.

The man, so determined to protect his son, knows that his time is short, for he is coughing up blood.

What drives the characters onward? What might we do in their shoes? Readers might pose these questions to themselves after finishing both The Pesthouse and The Road.

I think The Road has a much broader appeal, however, and not just because McCarthy is a best-selling author. His scenario is more frightening in part because it seems more likely than Crace’s, even if nuclear armageddon is not as daunting a specter as it was during the height of the Cold War.

By comparison, The Pesthouse occupies an unusual territory where science fiction, fantasy, romance and historical fiction might all stake competing claims. And its protagonists, while less grim than McCarthy’s man, are somewhat off-putting — more devious than heroic.

I enjoyed both of these books, and I’m sure many readers would like The Pesthouse. But of the two, it’s The Road that I would recommend.

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