May 23, 2013
Three Novels That Knocked Me Out
Posted on Nov 12, 2010
What makes for an amazing novel? Nabokov famously said that a novel should evince a “sob in the spine.” Kafka, apparently not a fan of light reading, wrote in a 1904 letter: “I think we ought to only read the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading it for? ... A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.” (This is from “Letters to Friends, Family and Editors,” translated by Richard and Clara Winston, New York: Schocken, 1978.)
The novels that knock me out will be different from those that knock you out. As Virginia Woolf said in describing the library of her elusive character Jacob (in her novel “Jacob’s Room”), “anyone who’s worth anything reads just what he likes, as the mood takes him, and with extravagant enthusiasm.”
I offer you the following three novels with extravagant enthusiasm. The first one is definitely an axe—and what an axe, polished and sharpened with such spare, beautiful writing that you invite the blade. The second takes you deep into a foreign world (foreign unless you’ve been a political prisoner) that becomes more about love than loneliness and is as ethereal as earthy. The third novel exemplifies what written fiction can do better than any other art form: letting us see, think and feel from someone else’s subjectivity—and to do it while still inhabiting our own. This writer masterfully plays the tension between the two.
These books are radically different in tone and locale, but after selecting them I noticed some similarities. All three are set in a prison of sorts: a post-apocalyptic America nightmare, a Burmese prison, and a locked room where a woman and her son are kept. They’re all fearlessly dark, but what the reader takes away is light. To paraphrase Leonard Cohen, these books show “the crack where the light gets in.” In all of them, a child is that crack.
By Cormac McCarthy
Vintage, 304 pages
The Lizard Cage
By Karen Connelly
Spiegel & Grau, 464 pages
Room: A Novel
By Emma Donoghue
Little, Brown and Company, 336 pages
Two are from 2006; the third is new. At the end of this review you’ll have a chance to share novels that knocked you out.
“The Road” by Cormac McCarthy
You might have been warned away from this novel as being “too depressing” and upsetting. I happened to pick up “The Road” when I was in the midst of a personal and existential crisis, and friends cried, “Don’t read this book now!” I read “The Road” anyway. I’ve never felt so “met” in the stricken parts of me. I found solace.
This dark novel is the most profoundly hopeful piece of literature I’ve ever experienced. It strips away all but the very core of what it means to be human, and in this utter devastation lets us see what matters most. It ends on a genuine note of hope that, importantly, has not belied the darkness. There is no denial in this book, no false gaiety. Nothing is prettified. There’s not a shred of cynicism. It is absolutely honest and raw.
That, to me, is a huge relief. In our airbrushed society, the taste of truth, harsh as it may be, is like real food compared to Cool-Whip. I think we are famished.
If you haven’t read this novel, you’re probably familiar with the storyline from the promotions for the movie version. A nuclear-type apocalypse has occurred in North America, marked by “a long shear of light and then a series of low concussions” that left the landscape parched and barren. The human beings who remain are starving and have turned inhuman in order to survive. Leaving their home in the cold north, a man and his son walk south toward the faraway coast, hoping that somewhere, somehow, green life and goodness might still exist.
This book is not for the fainthearted. A time of despair—when difficult realities can no longer be denied—is a great time to read this novel. The poet Mary Oliver (who, like McCarthy, has won the Pulitzer Prize) writes, “Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.” But not very many people want to talk about despair. I don’t know about you, but I hate having a smiley cheerleader-type friend try to pep me up when I’m genuinely grieving. Smack these friends with their pompoms, then reach for this novel. (Mary Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese” is online here. It’s also in her “New and Selected Poems.”)
The movie version of “The Road,” by the way, is much harder to stomach than the novel. The film lacks McCarthy’s language, which soars and tangles with sounds and images so sublime it takes your breath away. This incantatory language hypnotized me and let me dare to trust the story. The language is literally a lifeline. Every sentence demonstrates to the reader that despite the horrific world of the novel, there is beauty.
“In those first years the roads were peopled with refugees shrouded up in their clothing. Wearing masks and goggles, sitting in their rags by the side of the road like ruined aviators. Their barrows heaped with shoddy. Towing wagons or carts. Their eyes bright in their skulls. Creedless shells of men tottering down causeways like migrants in a feverland.”
This kind of writing comes from a place deeper than the spine; it’s from the blood. Blood and fire appear often in McCarthy’s work. The boy, who has known no other world than this terrible one, asks, “We’re going to be okay, arent we Papa?” (McCarthy often dispenses with apostrophes.)
“Yes, we are,” the man answers.
“And nothing bad is going to happen to us.”
“Because we’re carrying the fire.”
“Yes. Because we’re carrying the fire.”
“The fire” is civility, love, morality, altruism, intelligence—whatever you call the distinction between the human and the animalistic. Not all dark books offer redemption. Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” doesn’t, though the cry “the horror, the horror!” describes the world of “The Road” even more than Kurtz’s jungle hell. How thin is the veneer of our society’s civility? What’s scariest about “The Road” is that the scenario is not impossible. What would our society be like if all food was gone (agriculture wiped out, animals dead), electricity disappeared, medicines were no more, government gone?
In the world of “The Road” where nearly everything is gone, the main character, the man, “knew only that the child was his warrant.” As catastrophes loom in our own world, novels like this are our warrant.
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