Hope amid hopelessness: Two post-apocalyptic visions of America

July 1, 2012

The other day, I reviewed two novels about a post-apocalyptic America. I had some thoughts about what these books had to say about the United States that didn’t fit into a general review, and I wanted to explore them here. Please beware that there be spoilers here; read no further unless you already know or want to know key information from these novels.

(Also, read no further unless you have the stomach for a rather long essay with ambitions of accessible literary criticism. You have been warned.)

Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Jim Crace’s The Pesthouse are radically different stories. Nuclear war has scorched America in McCarthy’s 2006 bestseller and Pulitzer Prize winner; gray skies blanket a dead, ash-covered landscape roamed by desperadoes and cannibals. As the nameless protagonist and his son walk south in hopes of escaping the relentless cold, every person they encounter seems to poses a mortal threat. McCarthy, an American writer, omits all quotation marks and some apostrophes and hyphens; there are no chapter breaks, and sentence fragments pepper his pages.

The Pesthouse, which Crace published in 2007, is more conventional in form. The British author writes fully formed sentences and divides his book into chapters. Whereas McCarthy pegs his harrowing tale to the viewpoint of the man and the boy, Crace’s narrator is sometimes omniscient and sometimes tied to his protagonists, Franklin Lopez and Margaret, as they journey separately and together across some future America.

This land — “nation” isn’t an appropriate term because society has ceased to function beyond the community level — has been reduced to the technological level of the 18th century, perhaps because the world’s fossil fuels have been exhausted. The American dream no longer features a family living in a house of its own; instead, it’s about traveling to the Atlantic and sailing across it to the land of plenty that is supposedly Europe.

Crace’s story, while more conventionally written, occupies an odd territory. It is part science fiction, part fantasy, part romance, part quasi-historical tale.

His protagonists are similarly unusual. Lopez is a large and powerful man but a chronically passive one. His boldest actions are spurred by external factors, not internal resolve. Take what happens after he and Margaret escape a deadly fire by crossing the bridge secreted upriver from the dead village of Ferrytown:

He should have felt proud of himself. Triumphant. Mightily relieved. He should have felt brave. But he did not. Rather, now that he no longer needed to be determined, he counted himself weak, dishonest, craven, and troubled by disloyalty…

[W]hat troubled Franklin from the moment he reached the east side of the bridge was the fear that he had made a big mistake, that where he truly should be traveling was westward, back to the family hearth, back to Mother waiting at the center of abandoned fields. If instead of taking the path eastward down Butter Hill that morning, he and Margaret had fled westward, heading back to his mother’s house, then his brother — and all the people of Ferrytown — could be alive in their imaginations, at least. They could forward him by their best hopes to the coast and then propel him by wishful thinking (quite a gusty friend) toward the new lands over there. If Franklin still hoped to be a true and dutiful son, he should take Margaret back home with him and introduce her to his ma, to have those ancient hands touch his and hers and give their blessing. A mother could expect no less. How had they ever left her there?

Lopez essentially bullies himself into moving onward:

Going home was not an option. It’s fearful men who go back home to be with Ma. Only the crazy make it to the coast.

Franklin shook himself. So he’d be crazy then. He’d force himself to be. He’d not allow himself to fail. He had … to do the mean and foolish thing. Not out of spite, more spite, toward the other travelers. What did it matter to him whether their journey to the coast was easy or hard? Not simply to protect the safe side of the river from the burning one and keep the flames from skipping across the bridge like imps. He meant to cut himself off from his own timidity.

Margaret suffers from poor eyesight and a moral compass that is also clouded. She can be bold when the right moment comes; more often, though, she is devious. After their traveling party is raided, she bravely rallies the Boses, an older couple and their grandchild, whom the slavers have also left behind. But soon, posing as a mother and possibly contagious disease carrier, she resorts to wheedling farmers for sustenance.

“I feel sorry for the child, and that’s the only reason,” [a farmer] said eventually, justifying his surrender to the bullying and evidently dangerous young woman.

Margaret actually persuades herself that Bella, the child, is better off with her than her grandparents. She renames the baby Jackson, after Franklin Lopez’s dead brother; when, after a long separation, she encounters Bella’s grandmother by chance, she slips out of sight.

Despite these oddball characteristics, The Pesthouse is arguably more appealing than The Road, because McCarthy’s vision is so relentlessly bleak. Crace’s land is populated, however sparsely; his America is filled with natural and human hazards, but the land is also capable of sustaining life.

By contrast, aside from the menacing people they find, the man and boy see no living creatures but for a handful of mushrooms — and that only once. The rest of their journey, they rely on whatever stores they can scrounge from already picked-over abandoned houses and gas stations and supermarkets. Beauty and comfort are in short supply.

They ate more sparingly. They’d almost nothing left. The boy stood in the road holding the map. They listened but they could hear nothing. Still he could see open country to the east and the air was different. Then they came upon it from a turn in the road and they stopped and stood with the salt wind blowing in their hair where they’d lowered the hoods of their coats to listen. Out there was the gray beach with the slow combers rolling dull and leaden and the distant sound of it. Like the desolation of some alien sea breaking on the shores of a world unheard of. Out on the tidal flats lay a tanker half careened. Beyond that the ocean vast and cold and shifting heavily like a slowly heaving vat of slag and then the gray squall lines of ash. He looked at the boy. He could see the disappointment in his face. I’m sorry it’s not blue, he said. That’s okay, said the boy.

An hour later they were sitting on the beach and staring out at the wall of smog across the horizon. They sat with their heels dug into the sand and watched the bleak sea wash up at their feet. Cold. Desolate. Birdless. … They sat there for a long time. Along the shore of the cove below them windrows of small bones in the wracks. Further down the saltbleached ribcages of what must have been cattle. Gray salt rime on the rocks. The wind blew and dry seedpods scampered down the sands and stopped and then went on again.

Do you think there could be ships out there?

I dont think so.

They wouldnt be able to see very far.

No. They wouldnt.

What’s on the other side?

Nothing.

There must be something.

Maybe there’s a father and his little boy and they’re sitting on the beach.

That would be okay.

Yes. That would be okay.

Crace’s protagonists are hardly heroic or self-reliant; Lopez spends the first winter of the story providing slave labor for a gang of brutal highwaymen, while Margaret and the child weather it in a bizarre religious colony called the Ark.

McCarthy’s man can provide food for his son only by scavenging. His is a quiet kind of heroism: that of trying to raise his son to be a good person in a world gone wrong. He walks a very fine line in trying to protect his son from the ever-present dangers in the world while also trying to teach him to be wary of them.

I think there’s someone following us.

That’s what I thought.

That’s what you thought?

Yes. That’s what I thought you were going to say. What do you want to do?

I dont know.

What do you think?

Let’s just go. We should hide our trash.

Because they’ll think we have lots of food.

Yes.

And they’ll try to kill us.

They wont kill us.

They might try to.

We’re okay.

Okay.

I think we should lay in the weeds for them. See who they are.

And how many.

And how many. Yes.

Their run-ins with other people are brutal, either emotionally or physically or both. The man fears cannibals, which they do run across. The man gets his son out of some dangerous situations, including one where a rogue puts his knife to the boy’s throat.

But the man can be overprotective as well; in such cases, different traditional paternal virtues — nurturing one’s own offspring and inculcating a sense of generosity toward others — come into conflict. When they cross paths with a weak old man, the man and his son argue about whether to share any food with him. “In the end he didnt get much. Some cans of vegetables and of fruit.”

Later, a solitary man steals a grocery cart of supplies that the man and boy have left unattended. The pair are able to hunt him down.

The thief is said to be “an outcast from one of the communes and the fingers of his right hand had been cut away. He tried to hide it behind him. A sort of fleshy spatula.” He wields a knife, but the man has a gun.

The boy, crying, begs his father not to kill the man. Instead, the thief is forced to strip and to give his clothing to his erstwhile victims. “He stepped forward and placed the shoes on top of the blanket and stepped back. Standing there raw and naked, filthy, starving. Covering himself with his right hand. He was already shivering.”

The boy can’t stop sobbing as the pair walk away from the thief. He persuades the man to go back and return the stranger’s clothing, but they can’t find him. The man’s ongoing effort to convince his son that the two of them are good guys seems to have been exposed as a sham.

He was just hungry, Papa. He’s going to die.

He’s going to die anyway.

He’s so scared, Papa.

The man squatted and looked at him. I’m scared, he said. Do you understand? I’m scared.

The boy didnt answer. He just sat there with his head bowed, sobbing.

You’re not the one who has to worry about everything.

Lopez and Margaret experience their own form of disillusionment even when, despite long odds, they safely reach the Atlantic coast. But even then, the passage to paradise comes with a high price.

[W]hat could she say about their chances of ever going offshore together, other than the callous truth? Yes, there were several large oceangoing boats at the anchorage taking emigrants, and fit young men like Franklin were welcome on them. He could trade free passage for work at journey’s end. She herself — unmarried, young, a virgin still, and not entirely without appeal, she hoped — could travel too, probably, “Though you’ll think me vain for saying so.” Free passage in exchange for making herself available as a bride and housewife to some stranger speaking gibberish (and kicking her).

But there was Jackie to consider. And Jackie was her main concern now. A woman with a child of that age would not be welcome on the ship. That was certain. She’d seen it with her own eyes. Mothers had to stay on shore.

The group can’t stay in the coastal cabin they have appropriated because Lopez’s former captors are bound to hunt down him and the two horses that he and Margaret stole. And so the man and woman decide to reverse course — to leave behind the odd and corrupt and seemingly heavily populated East Coast, to head west, to return to the remnants of Ferrytown and to continue traveling until they have reached the home that Lopez and his brother left months before.

Margaret has an idea that will protect them from interference on the journey. She was stricken at the beginning of the book with a deadly illness called the flux and, per tradition, was shorn of all her hair, marking her as potentially contagious person. (That was why the raiders that enslaved Lopez did not take her too.)

So she shaves Lopez for the return journey, an act more intimate than any they have previously undertaken. But although his arousal becomes unmistakable as Margaret barbers around his nipples, the pair do not become lovers.

The passage to Ferrytown is perilous; afterward, the travelers take up residence in the eponymous pesthouse where Margaret sweated out her illness, and where Lopez first encountered her. Spring comes and Bella (now known as Jackie) begins to walk and talk. The book ends thus:

The winter cold retreated, holding sway only at night. And thunderclouds came eastward, throwing shade across the lake at Ferrytown and delivering the rain that had been lifted from the plains and prairies, from the hopes and promises, from the thicknesses and substances that used to be America and would be theirs. The couple knew they only had to find their strength. And then — imagine it — they could begin the journey west again. They could. They could imagine striking out to claim a piece of long-abandoned land and making home in some old place, some territory begging to be used. Going westward, they would go free.

Having turned the American experience on its head, Crace inverts it again, restoring the traditional vision of America — or at least frontier America — as a land of hope, opportunity and bounty.

The ending to McCarthy’s book is more guarded. Having been injured, and having been coughing up blood for some weeks even before he was hurt, the man’s strength gives out. He lies down to die, issuing some last instructions to the boy: “You need to find the good guys but you cant take any chances. No chances. Do you hear?”

The man dies; the boy mourns for days. When he is ready to resume traveling, a man walks up the road to him: “A veteran of old skirmishes, bearded, scarred across his cheek and the bone stoven and the one eye wandering. When he spoke his mouth worked imperfectly, and when he smiled.”

Despite this, the stranger carries a shotgun and carries shells for it. Whereas the father had been chronically short of ammunition, the stranger has been able to manufacture his own.

The stranger says that he is with a woman and two children; that they don’t eat people; and that the boy can go with them. He has no desire to take the boy’s revolver, although he gently admonishes the child not to point it at him. He wraps the father’s corpse in a blanket and waits while the boy says goodbye and cries for a long time. On the second-to-last page of the book, the stranger’s wife welcomes the boy.

The ending of the book leave many questions open. Where does this family live? How do they survive, and for how long? We don’t know. But the family persists for at least some time after welcoming the boy into its fold, McCarthy suggests: “She would talk to him sometimes about God.”

The cryptic final paragraph concerns the ecosystem that humanity has destroyed. “[A] thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again.”

Yet a form of the American dream, however imperfect, is enacted at the conclusion to The Road: The boy joins an apparently self-reliant family that evidently provides some kind of safety, stability and shelter. Details are sketchy, but it is a curiously hopeful note after the dismal journey that McCarthy has chronicled.

Perhaps the family is doomed; perhaps the human race ends with the children. Yet maybe, McCarthy hints, a wholesome life can be cultivated and sustained among the ashes.

And so each book in its way is a paean to American virtues, qualities that endure even after the United States has been brought low.

Both books were written after the American occupation of Iraq began to turn sour (or at least, encountered rough going in assembling a peaceful and democratic new society) and at a time when international regard for the United States had fallen badly, perhaps to its lowest point in many decades.

The nation is not brought as low by Crace’s disaster as by McCarthy’s. But The Road’s apparent nuclear holocaust evidently brought the entire world to its knees, whereas in The Pesthouse America seems to have suffered more than Europe. I found it interesting that of the two novelists, it is the British citizen who issues a rather enthusiastic endorsement for the American pioneer, whereas McCarthy offers at best ambivalent signals about whether a hardy American family can truly endure the apocalypse.

Today, the prospect of apocalypse seems remote; even in the worst-case scenario, the depletion of fossil fuels is years away. But from an ethical standpoint, the United States faces issues it has never had to before. There are questions about whether America can remain a nation of laws without offering due process to the men being hunted down by its drones and without offering captured accused terrorists the same due process available to those charged with even the foulest “traditional” crimes. There are questions about whether this nation can remain respected internationally as it picks and chooses which despotic regimes it will try to destabilize and which it will let stand without interference.

Amidst all these questions, Crace and McCarthy argue that there is a place for America to endure — that there is a need for it to endure — in platonic form, if not as a powerful nation.

I am not sure they are right, although I certainly hope so. But viewed in the best light, I do find their propositions inspiring.

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