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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

days of the dead

Just in from a short run. Crisp and gray out: the sky a luminous gray. I wear earplugs to prevent earache from the cold air, and gloves, because my knuckles get chapped in the cold dry air. Exploded pumpkin-shells lay on the roads here and there amid the rusty-brown leaf-litter.

When I was walking off my run an RCMP SUV pulled up, stopping the traffic behind it, and the passenger cop asked me something. I approached, tugging my right earplug out, tilting my head to indicate I hadn't heard.

"Have you see a druh kid?"

"Pardon?" I said. "A drugged kid?"

"A drunk kid," said the cop. He was a South Asian man with a bored, slightly irritable expression. He spoke quietly, unemphatically. "A red jacket, walking around?"

I shook my head. "No. I haven't."

They pulled away.

I came inside and headed down here to write this post.

I got three books at the library yesterday. One was The Road by Cormac McCarthy, a novel in a genre that is an old favorite of mine: the postapocalyptic survival tale. I started reading it with my afternoon tea.

I have actually bought a McCarthy novel before: Blood Meridian. I recall exactly when. I was in Vermont in January-February 1993 at the Buddhist center called Karme Choling for a one-month meditation retreat. It was the free day halfway through the program, and many of us went into White River Junction in the freezing cold. After browsing some time at a bookstore there, I decided to buy. Having read a very favorable review of McCarthy's book All the Pretty Horses, I plumped for a copy of Blood Meridian.

I never started it until I returned from my retreat. I couldn't get into it. I found McCarthy's prose very distancing, the characters unsympathetic, and the action violent and gory. It was not my cup of tea.

Now though, with my mind turning toward future-oriented projects, even if not necessarily postapocalyptic in the strict sense, I was intrigued to find out what was out there.

It's a smallish book, with a plain black cover. I found the familiar McCarthy style: spare, distant, with very little punctuation, even commas--just periods. No quotation marks around the dialogue--that type of thing. I find that such techniques distract me and make me unpleasantly conscious of the fact that I'm reading. There is a sense of watching a writer perform, rather than being involved in a story.

The story, such as it is so far (to page 22), is of a father and son, survivors in an otherwise charred and unpopulated American wasteland, where roads are crumbling and everything is still coated in ash. They push a shopping-cart loaded with their few possessions, headed south in search of warmth.

As yet, nothing has happened. That is, nothing that advances the story. The little paragraph-long scenes are just snippets of exposition: coming across an abandoned gas station, the man reminiscing about a day spent rowing on a lake with his uncle long ago. With his austere style, McCarthy is painting a picture of his postapocalyptic world--but that's all.

We'll see. If nothing happens, I'll have to bail. What do I know? I'm only a reader, not a literary star.

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