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Sunday, October 05, 2008

Book Reviews: The Road by Cormac McCarthy & Roderick Random by Tobias Smollet

"The Road to Leenane"the road


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If there is one thing I've learned from reading several 18th century classics of British literature: The English novel basically owes its existence to Don Quixote by Cervantes. I'm talking about the style of narrative called the "picaresque." You can define it in terms of Don Quixote or in more general terms as, "The English-language term can simply refer to an episodic recounting of the adventures of an anti-hero on the road."

The style continues to hold its power: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson. On the Road, maybe? It's a style of novel. It's important to focus on the generic forms of novelistic style, because if you happen to be a kick-ass writer like Cormac McCarthy you can set that shit in a post apocalyptic wasteland and forget the punctuation and score a Pulitzer in... 2006. Winner! The Road is in fact being made into a movie as we speak. It could be great like No Country for Old Men, or terrible like "the Postman" a sci-fi variation on the exact same story (but different) that was a decent piece of genre fiction and a TERRIBLE movie starring Kevin Costner.

Roderick Random is an example of the style at the very beginning: It is the anti-hero/hero on the road having adventures. Roderick is a bastard nobel man, raised in Scotland. He's well educated but poor, and he spends the rest of the novel trying to get paid circa 1740 or so. It's a delirious, exhausting ride. It's also four hundred pages long and written in 18th style language.

The Road, on the other hand, is practically a short story. I read it in 2 hours? It won the Pulitzer Prize AND was a pick for Oprah's Book Club in 2007. A film adaptation of the novel is currently in production. It is directed by John Hillcoat and written by Joe Penhall. The film stars Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee as the Man and the Boy, respectively. It's a really big deal, in other words.

But it's basically a picaresque focusing on an unnamed protagonist and his son. It's set in a post-apocalyptic version of the south eastern states of the east coast. It is probably the best piece of post apocalyptic literature ever. However it's the way it ties together genre fiction premise with a hallowed literary form and impeccable craftsmanship that makes it a classic.

It's amazing to be talking about two novels with a similar narrative shape that exist three centuries apart. It's pretty cool if you stop and think about it. The form actually influences the way people think about life. Read one, then the other. Post apocalyptic.

That's not to say that Roderick Random lacks any comic chops. The funniest part in the whole book comes at around p. 225 when Doctor Wagtail shows up. (GOOGLE LIBRARY RODERICK RANDOM FULL TEXT) He is a ridiculous fop.

While he thus indulged his own talkative vein, and at the same
time, no doubt, expected a retaliation from me, a young man
entered, dressed in black velvet and an enormous tie-wig, with an
air in which natural levity and affected solemnity were so jumbled
together, that on the whole he appeared a burlesque on all decorum.
This ridiculous oddity danced up to the table at which we sat, and
after a thousand grimaces, asked my friend, by the name of Mr.
Medlar, if we were not engaged on business.


That is the description of a ridiculous fop circa 1740s-50s, whatever. That's modern fashion society nearly three centuries ago. Anyway, the form allows you to explore a wide varieties of events within a single work. It's the kind of story people want to hear. It's as basic as "travelling on a boat." You just take an interesting dude and spool him through a series of locations and interactions. Simple. Both Roderick Random and The Road are excellent examples, separated by time.

2 comments:

Baiocco said...

Hence the wild popularity of the Vin Diesel Picturesque "Chronicles of Riddick".

cat dirt: step out of the 18th century (yaawn) and into the psychological dramas of mid to late 19th century Russia. You will be rewarded. They were so crime obsessed it will feed yr blog fruitfully.

Roderick_E said...

I am eager to read this book, especially as it is my namesake. I've already read Sladek's book and have a podcast about it: http://rodericke.com/rr1

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