I began by liking this book. As it got to page 100 or so, I fell. The book combines two of my major pet peeves: non-stop suffering in which there is no reprieve, a real problem in new indie movies, in which people spend 100% of the time meditating on their suffering. Granted, the world the man and his son are living through is terrible, but it still follows the same path of scene after scene being a total nightmare. Which leads to pet peeve number two: children in peril. Put these two things together and it is far too easy to make the reader feel harrowed, to make them feel bad.
The book is beautifully written and the images vivid, it does exactly what it sets out to do, powerfully. The quote from the back is dead on: “It is as if you must keep reading in order for the characters to stay alive.” I had the same experience. But what it does is fairly sadistic to the reader. I do not understand the impulse to so fetishize fear and suffering. Here’s page 87-88:
He’d put a handful of dried raisins in a cloth in his pocket and at noon they sat on the dead grass by the side of road and ate them. The boy looked at him. That’s all there is, isn’t it? he said.
Are we going to die now?
What are we going to do?
We’re going to drink some water. Then we’re going to keep going down the road.
Skip to 13 pages later, page 101:
Why do you think we’re going to die?
We don’t have anything to eat.
We’ll find something.
How long do you think people can go without food?
I don’t know.
But how long do you think?
Maybe a few days.
And then what? You fall over dead?
Now imagine these scenes played out 200 times. With a child. There’s no way to not feel this deeply. And, for me, to feel manipulated. And then, finally, we come to this part (slight spoiler warning). On page 110, the man and son go into a house and break into the basement:
Huddled against the back wall were naked people, male and female, all trying to hide, shielding their faces with their hands. On the mattress a man lay with his legs gone to the hip and the stumps of them blackened and burnt. The smell was hideous.
Jesus, he whispered.
Then one by one they blinked in the pitiful light. Help us, they whispered. Please help us.
It was at this point I realized what this novel is: literary torture porn. Or a zombie novel for people who read the New York Review of Books. The only people left walk around with makeshift clubs, cannibalizing whoever they can find. Yes, it’s a zombie novel. Pandering and cheap, too easy for someone who takes such great pains with language. This end-of-the-world scenario was much better, for me, in Earth Abides, in which a man walks alone through the country after humanity has been decimated. But it’s without the comic book savagery of The Road. The people he meets retain who they were, rather than being transformed into monsters. Alas, Babylon, about the survivors of a nuclear holocaust in a small Florida town, is also much more measured. Some people turn violent, but not all.
The scene in the basement is like something from a slasher movie—or 28 Weeks Later which also attempts to make you feel bad about humanity. By the way, read The Day of the Triffids, which 28 Days Later rips off completely. The scene in the basement is when the book, for me, jumped the shark. It’s like the scene in Spielberg’s War of the Worlds when the characters get trapped by the alien machines and find that the machines are eating human bodies to live. Just when you think it can’t get any worse, it does! It’s strange—this time last year I was obsessed with Law and Order. I turned it on recently—SVU—and the show begins with a young mother coming into her baby’s room to find the crib empty. The baby has been stolen. She frantically searches the room. I turned it off. Honestly, I don’t know what purpose these images serve except to make you feel doomed.
Opinions, still got em. Yeah, I'm writing my own apocalyptic novel, which would suggest jealousy. I’m happy the book is successful, as it maybe creates a market for books about the apocalypse. And the book did not leave me with nothing. Do I fear the apocalypse more? Yes. If it's possible after reading articles like this one (though it does make me feel like my novel's on the right track). Do I appreciate my relationship with my daughter more? Possibly. But thank god for the Illuminatus Trilogy, at least RAW knows how to laugh while he’s crying.