Monday, December 6, 2010

Apocalyptic fiction: the distance between Nevil Shute and Cormac McCarthy

Last month, riffing off Kazuo Ishiguro's novel Never Let Me Go and the recent film based on that novel, I blogged about Dystopias in fiction. Thinking in that vein, and after a conversation with a friend who recently read Consequence, my own dystopia-inflected novel manuscript, I decided to reread Nevil Shute's On The Beach. I first read Shute's 1957 novel in the mid-1970s or so.

Warning: this post contains spoilers for both Nevil Shute's On The Beach and Cormac McCarthy's The Road.

Looking through DVDs in the public library just before Thanksgiving I came across the 1959 film version of On The Beach, starring Gregory Peck, Ava Gardener, and Fred Astaire. I watched, and found it both riveting and insufferable: riveting for Shute's core idea -- that life on earth might well be annihilated by radiation, in inexorable slow-motion, following a nuclear war; and insufferable for the entirely unlikely decency, civility, and obliqueness with which the characters and their society meet the end of life and civilization. I didn't remember thinking the book insufferable the first time I read it, but we're talking long-distance memory here.

I returned the DVD to the library the day after Thanksgiving, and promptly violated my intention to observe Buy Nothing Day by stopping in at a used bookshop and picking up a copy of Shute's novel. In my mind I was already comparing Shute's story to Cormac McCarthy's The Road, published half a century after On The Beach and covering parallel ground in a very different register.

I'd say On The Beach as a novel is somewhat less airbrushed than the film in its approach to the question of life ending on earth with a post-bang whimper. Perhaps the censors had something to do with the film's attenuated portrayal of the characters' darker moments; perhaps it was the nature of movies in the late 1950s. I was interested enough to keep turning pages; I finished the novel before I had to return to work on Monday. And yet ... as Shute portrayed it, the tidiness attending the death of the last great city left in the world struck me as ridiculous.

It wasn't just the way people of Melbourne waited peaceably -- drinking more than I might, but, hey, the novel is set in Australia. Take, for example, the primness with which radiation sickness is shown. People are sick "off camera," even in the book; they hide their symptoms from one another out of politesse, and hide behind gentle words -- "tired," "spasm," "ill," "trembling" -- a superficial glance and then quickly looking away. Take, for another example, that emotional responses to impending doom range from disciplined self-control to denial to the occasional, brief, and stilted outburst. I use the word "range" with reservations.

Sure, it's credible that a government might give out cyanide pills to spare people the agony of radiation sickness, as Shute imagined; and that intervention might well spare a city some of the chaos one reads in descriptions, say, of plague in 14th century Europe. But it doesn't sufficiently explain Shute's clean city streets in North America -- little out of order, hardly any evidence of looting, no dead bodies -- when the novel's characters pay an exploratory visit by submarine. Nor does it explain the conveniently uniform disinterest the novel's principal characters evince in examining the bodies of the dead -- characters whose role in their society is to understand what has happened in areas affected by radiation in order to plan for what's coming. Best to let that ugly stuff alone, Shute seems to have supposed, so the reader need not be bothered with the gruesome reality of mass death.

Vague sops are thrown to the reader to explain Shute's omissions: likening human behavior to a dog's tendency to slink off to die in hiding, or dwelling on limits of a submarine's periscope to view much of coastal cities as a sub lies offshore. These, in my reading, don't answer Shute's portrayal of pristine landscapes and cityscapes in the wake of the death of every living being in an entire landmass.

And then there were the novel's women.

Moira has retreated into drink and sexual abandon; yet, as she comes out of her hedonistic fog, disappointment at shallow and fruitless relationships doesn't get in the way of faultless restraint in pursuing American submarine captain Dwight Tower, whose fantasy attachment to his annihilated family is a wee bit unbalanced. Mary Holmes' deep refusal to see the writing on the wall is just plain wacky, and her husband Peter indulges her wackiness: She lived in the dream world of unreality, or else she would not admit reality; he did not know. In any case, he loved her as she was. How sweet, dissociated, and in keeping with 1950s bourgeois decorum.

All that unbalance and wackiness suggests that there's something fundamentally unsettled in these characters who are holding it all together on the surface (and how could there not be?) ... but Shute's masking of this novel's main event -- the emotional responses of Dwight, Peter, Moira, Mary, and the others to the end of their lives and their world -- struck me as strange to the point of silliness, and thoroughly distracting.

In the end, Shute gets it right about human fallibility, though he was more of an optimist in 1957 than I can manage nowadays.

Here's Peter again, in the final chapter of the book, mourning the lost opportunity to educate humanity out of the "silliness" that led to a war whose after-effects are destroying life on our planet: "Newspapers," he said. "You could have done something with newspapers. We didn't do it. No nation did, because we were all too silly. We liked our newspapers with pictures of beach girls and headlines about cases of indecent assault, and no government was wise enough to stop us having them that way. But something might have been done with newspapers, if we'd been wise enough." Mary responds: She did not fully comprehend his reasoning. "I'm glad we haven't got newspapers now," she said. "It's been much nicer without them."

More about human fallibility -- and people's receptivity to hard, unvarnished truths -- in my next blog post.

Here I'll conclude with a brief nod to Cormac McCarthy's The Road (2006). In this novel too, some cataclysm -- possibly war, the author doesn't say -- has devastated life on Earth. Not everybody's dead yet, but things are looking pretty grim. There is nothing growing that can be eaten. People scavenge, and there's not much left. A man and his son are making their way to the coast, certain that they won't survive another winter in the interior of the North American continent. Of the few survivors left, most seem to be living in nomadic, cannibalistic tribes, enslaving their human prey and driving them like cattle before eating them. The protagonist dies toward the end of the book. His son, a reader is led to believe, won't last much longer.

It's a very different take on apocalypse from Shute's gallant, duty-bound, brandy- and port- and whiskey-swilling Americans and Australians. Drawn out for years, as the death of a planet might actually be, McCarthy's apocalypse lacks the convenience of a concise final act. McCarthy tends more toward a take on humankind that emerged during the blackout riots in New York City in July 1977; or war in the Balkans or in Rwanda in the 1990s, with attendant rapes, hacked limbs, ethnic genocide, and other forms of anarchically depraved inhumanity; or the Armenian Genocide following World War I; or the holocausts of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao; or the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge.

To me, McCarthy's depiction of the end of human life and civilization seems more likely to foretell an actual future. Sure, there will be people who behave well in even the most extreme circumstances (as McCarthy's protagonist and his son do, more or less). Pretty much everyone I know hopes that in dire straits s/he would turn out to be one of these, one of "the good guys," one of those who, in McCarthy's words, "carry the fire." But when the seas rise and the plagues spread and the radiation burns -- when food and water and shelter run out -- life won't just go on 'normally' until the last of us gently subsides. To imagine it might seems willfully blind, misguided, utopian. Cf. the history of the twentieth century, excerpted above. And let's not forget that understanding of the fragility of humane behavior is baked into nearly every theology on earth: everybody's got some concept or other of hell.

Nevil Shute's On The Beach deracinated nastiness from the human culture he portrayed, except in a remote and abstract set of off-stage actors -- those "silly" people who started the war to end the world. Yet in its time, On The Beach had a devastating effect on readers, as its author clearly intended: "The most haunting evocation we have of a world dying of radiation after an atomic war," said the New York Times (according to Amazon's collection of editorial reviews). On The Beach introduced the reality, taken for granted today, that humankind now holds the power to destroy most, and perhaps all, complex life-forms on Earth. And the possibility that we might just do it.

If Cormac McCarthy had published The Road in 1957 instead of a half-century later, perhaps no one would have read his novel. In that era, The Road might have been judged pornographically raw. In 2007, the author was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

On The Beach is a classic, no doubt. But it is so deeply embedded in its time and culture, in its fetish for order and authority, that I can't read it except as an anachronism.

The Road may be a difficult novel to get through for some -- one Facebook friend, after finishing McCarthy's book, posted a status asking why anyone would even write such a depressing story -- but I think it depicts a future that seems credible to open-eyed readers in the 21st century.

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