Tag Archives: mccarthy

McCarthy, Klein, and the overlooked crisis

In this talking point, Aimee Walsh reads Cormac McCarthy’s The Road through the lens of Naomi Klein’s ground-breaking This Changes Everything: Capitalism versus Climate.

Post 9/11 America is in an on-going, ignored-by-the-masses crisis. It is a warranted fear for our safety and not from any bombs, threats or debts. It is much bigger than that. There is a crisis going on that is being overlooked; the world is in the midst of an environmental crisis. America, as the biggest super power and second highest carbon emitting country, are notably looking the other way.

The lack of safety from a natural, environmental disaster is a theme that runs through Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. The dystopian novel gives a glimpse into the nightmarish world that America, amongst other high emitting countries like China, is currently taking marching steps towards.

The absence and search of natural light in The Road heeds a warning of the fragility of the  global climate; the environment is not secure and definitely cannot be sustained at current levels of deforestation, carbon emissions and consumption of fossil fuels. Whilst battling to survive in the snow, the nameless father and son attempt to kindle the light as if it alone can give relief from the unnamed disaster. “The fire was little more than coals and it gave no light and the wood was nearly gone and the trees were falling all about them in the darkness” (McCarthy 102). The pair’s unsuccessful attempt to harness and sustain light throughout the novel is used as a hope for emotional security to the uninhabitable surroundings. There is a fear of the darkness and the unknown that lurks beyond their circle of light. The Earth has rejected civilisation as a whole despite the accountability in carbon emissions lying with the second highest emitting country America.

The male duo in The Road are continually searching for light and a (false) feeling of safety that it provides. They are hiding from the darkness and the unknown of what civilisation Earth will continue on to, if any. “They lay in the woods like fugitives. Nowhere to build a fire. Nowhere safe” (McCarthy 198). They are prisoners to the extreme effects of years of disregard from America for the preservation of the global environment.  However, Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything argues that complete environmental disaster, like that seen in The Road, is avoidable only if we act now (4). So, why is the world reluctant to change?

America’s current reality, one of consumerist and capitalist driven ideologies, toes the capitalist nation party-line on climate change through soothing tones from the megaphone of political and corporation driven media; climate change is not a serious issue yet. The United Nation’s Climate Summit 2014 uses ‘catalysing action’ as the programme’s current slogan, though the World’s governments have been reluctant in the past to enter into binding agreements to decrease the fossil fuel consumptions or greenhouse gas emissions. Klein states that “preliminary data shows that in 2013, global carbon dioxide emissions were 61 percent higher than they were in 1990, when negotiations toward a climate treaty began in earnest” (Klein 11). A recent agreement was reached this week (12 November 2014) between America and China, the top two carbon emitting countries, which will aim to decrease carbon emissions. China, which is still a developing country and is heavily reliant on coal, has agreed to cap emissions by 2030 when a peak is reached, whilst the U.S. has committed to a 26 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2025. While this is a historic step in the right direction for tackling climate change we must keep in mind that there is no set limit on the peak which China’s emissions can reach by 2030. We are not in the clear yet. Klein calls for a movement and as a result to obtain a “far more just economy” (10). For this to be reached a global community’s interests must be considered when ‘catalysing action’ but still allowing an increased, and unlimited, peak in emissions to be reached in 2030 before a cap is set.

McCarthy’s hellish dystopia shows America’s, and indeed the world’s, “ecological amnesia”(Klein 4) to be a false and unwarranted sense of safety. The mother in The Road, prior to her suicide, says, “We’re not survivors. We’re the walking dead in a horror film”(McCarthy 57) in response to being told by the father, over the security of the lamp light, that they are survivors of this disaster. Klein states “a great many of us engage in this kind of climate change denial” (3) in believing that we can be “survivors”(McCarthy 57) of the disaster. If there is not change now our reality will be “the walking dead”(McCarthy 57) unable to survive in the uninhabitable landscape we have created.

Not only is creating an unliveable environment an issue for the capitalist epicentre, America, it is a global crisis. The Earth, when eventual environmental destruction occurs as shown in The Road, will take no consideration of borders, race or wealth when it cracks under the pressures that increased greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation and the consumption of fossil fuels are causing. The boy in the novel, who was born into this nightmarish world and knows no alternative life, asks his father:

 

“Why are they the state roads?

Because they used to belong to the states. What used to be called the states.

But there’s not any more states?

No.” (McCarthy 43)

 

This breaking down of borders gives us a sense that we should seek to come together as citizens of one global community where we are all affected by the same issues. Instead of the segregated geographical communities we live in that are largely dictated by capitalism and corporate agendas. Shouldn’t we put human survival before profit?

The nameless two wanderers in The Road trudge through the barren landscape in a daily renewed longing for food and light to keep them safe and alive. In one scene in the novel the father retrieves a can of Coca Cola from a tipped over vending machine amongst scattered “coins everywhere in the ash”(McCarthy 22). It was the boys first, and probably, last can of Coke. This symbol of American capitalism being extracted from the rubble is not vision of hope, but rather one that begs the reader to question what good capitalism is in the face of civilisation crumbling at the hands of catastrophic, global disasters. What good is the government’s dollar funding economic recovery when the efforts to keep our very habitats from climate change is minimal? What good will wealth be when civilisation itself begins to wilt?

America’s and the majority of the World’s governments lack of urgency in implementing solutions to the climate change crisis is nothing short of terrifying for the safety of the population of the world. There is a disregard of communities being anything more than consumers. “Clearly, what gets declared a crisis is an expression of power and priorities as much as hard facts” (Klein 6). The economic crash, that started on Wall Street, in 2008 and the destruction of the Twin Towers as symbols of economic dominance and growth on 11 September 2001 both received ‘crisis’ status from American government. “Climate change has never received the crisis treatment from our leaders, despite the fact that it carries the risk of destroying lives on a vastly greater scale than collapsed banks or collapsed buildings” (Klein 6). It begs the question, can governments really have a population’s best interest in mind when publicly recognising a crisis if “power and priorities”(Klein 6) are in the equation?

The lack of support from governments to stem the climate change since 1990‘s beginning of the continuing journey to reach a climate treaty has only made the battle harder. Klein states that we have already reached a stage where what we are doing on a daily basis, what we are consuming and what we are refusing to change on a global scale has gone beyond being able to edge backwards to have a look at the bigger picture. The bigger picture has hit us in the face and nobody is seeing it. Klein argues that we are “faced with a crisis that threatens our survival as a species, our entire culture is continuing to do the very thing that caused the crisis, only with an extra dose of grease behind it” (2). An effort from all countries is needed to battle this global crisis.

To avoid this nightmare world that is foreseen both by scientists and in the dystopian world in The Road there must be continued commitment to keep tackling climate change and indeed increase efforts to stem it. We must act as one global community through action on local levels for the human species to stand a chance in surviving this environmental crisis. So, as Klein rightly questions, why is nobody acting?

 

Bibliography

Atkin, Emily. What Scientists Have To Say About Obama’s Deal With China. ThinkProgress, 12 Nov 2014. Web. 13 Nov 2014.

Klein, Naomi. This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014. Print.

McCarthy, Cormac.  The Road. London: Picador,  2006. Print.

Taylor, Lenore and Tania Branigan. US and China strike deal on carbon cuts in push for global climate change pact. The Guardian. Web. 12 Nov 2014.

United Nations. UN Climate Summit Programme. United Nations, n.d. Web. 12 Nov 2014.

The Road to salvation?

Paul  McArdle offers a review of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road as a cautionary post-9/11 tale.

In a post 9-11 context, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road  presents to the reader  through the characterisation of the ‘man’ and the ‘boy’, a quest for survival against the backdrop of a pillaged and desolate post-apocalyptic landscape. McCarthy creates a world which has been decimated, and the writer’s depiction of America specifically as a barren wasteland in which; “The Road was empty. Below in the little valley the still gray serpentine of a river. Motionless and precise” (4) communicates to the reader a sense of fragility and unease  in relation to the precarious nature of twenty-first century living. Indeed, the years directly following the 9-11 event and arguably, the global events leading up to the present time are a hybrid of social and political uncertainty and unease. The issues concerning the degradation of the environment, coupled with the political aftermath of the events off 9-11 have perhaps characterised many works in the past decade, and specifically, McCarthy’s The Road. Therefore, it is this global sense of unease which I believe is captured in McCarthy’s narrative, and is perhaps translated in the plot of the narrative as a possible consequence to the unsustainable twenty-first century way of life.

The imagery of “Human bodies. Sprawled in every altitude. Dried and shrunken in their rotted clothes” (48) undoubtedly conveys a disturbing scene to the reader, and through evoking a sense of hysteria from the reader, McCarthy depicts the possible consequences of unsustainable social and political ways of life. The underlying sense of motionlessness in the novel signals an end to the twenty-first century way of life effectively, and bemoans a loss of human interactions and societal conventions. Indeed, McCarthy presents America in the aftermath of an extreme, cataclysmic event which we cannot deny is directly related to the loss of humanity which is an underlying theme throughout the novel in its entirety. McCarthy presents an end to ‘normal’ twenty first century human conventions as the narrator claims in relation to the ‘man’ that: “This is my child. I wash a dead man’s brains out of his hair. That is my job” (77) conveying a complex scene of survival in the in juxtaposition to paternal bonding.

Significantly, the cataclysmic event which triggered the alternative reality McCarthy creates in the novel is presented to the reader as an effective end to time. It is claimed in the novel therefore that “The clocks stopped at 1:17. A long shear of light and then a series of low concussions” (54) which creates a sense of obscurity in relation to the catastrophic event, whilst signalling an end to the human measurement of time and  thus, any resemblance to social reality in the twenty-first century. Again, throughout the novel as a whole, there is an evident loss of humanity and civilisation, “the richness of a vanished world” (147) and this sense of loss appears as a direct consequence of unsustainable ways of twenty-first century living.

Yet, in a post 9-11 context, it is my critical opinion that whilst McCarthy effectively conveys a deep loss of humanity in a post-apocalyptic landscape, to some extent, we cannot deny that there is an inherent sense of hope for the survival of humanity and of normal social conventions throughout the novel as a whole. The characterisations of the ‘man’ and the ‘boy’ represent the lost humanity through being referred to as ‘the good guys’. Despite killing for survival, there is a sense of an uncompromising desire to uphold pre-apocalyptic attitudes and morals, and this perhaps evidenced through the boy’s desire to “carry the fire”. 

Therefore, I argue that whilst McCarthy respectively creates an alternative apocalyptic reality which mirrors the consequences of unstable twenty-first century living, it is through his protagonists that there is an evident  quest for the survival of humanity.

Image: Dorothea Lange, 1938.

Postmodernism and the Absolute

In this Talking Point, Rebecca Dillon considers two extremes of capitalist absolutism and wonders whether they represent end points of an America-centric global narrative, or points on a cyclical timeline.

Jean Baudrillard has taught us that postmodernism and Las Vegas go hand in hand.  Yet the bleak postmodern setting of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road seems the complete opposite of Vegas.  McCarthy’s road is drenched in darkness and rain; Las Vegas is the city of lights in the desert.  However, they both present ideas of postmodern absolutism and map America through these ideas.

The settings of both The Road and Las Vegas present ideas of absolutism and truth; they differ only in what that absolute force is.  In The Road, nature and the earth are the final absolute in the novel’s dystopian environment, 

he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world.  The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth … The crushing black vacuum of the universe.  And somewhere two hunted animals trembling like ground foxes in their cover (McCarthy 138). 

Here McCarthy presents the overwhelming power of an earth that lives on, despite no longer sustaining life.  After the fall of American civilisation, the earth continues to circle in its yearly procession without ceasing, not thriving and not declining.  This creates an absolute force as the earth lives, despite the disconnection that exists between it and man.  

The American natural landscape featured so heavily in The Road is mapped onto the back of this earth, “Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains … On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming” (306-307).  It exists without relation to any other entity and maps its meaning within itself.  The last truth in the destroyed American setting of The Road is the earth and its continual and everlasting existence separated from the lives of the creatures that happen to cling to its surface. 

Contrary to this, in Las Vegas, nature takes a back seat and capital becomes the absolute force that exists and thrives in the American landscape.  In fact nature suffers at the hands of capital and those that work within it,

But Las Vegas haughtily disdains to live within its means.  Instead, it is aggressively turning its profligacy into environmental terrorism against its neighbours.  ‘Give us your water or we will die,’ developers demand of politicians grown fat on campaign contributions from the gaming industry (Davis 88).

The absolutism of capital in Las Vegas is totalitarian.  The gaming industry that thrives in the city provides the means through which developers and politicians can demand that water be given to them. 

Not only is the allocation of a life-sustaining element such as water controlled by capital, but so is the provision of open space within Las Vegas’s urban sprawl,

Las Vegas, meanwhile, has virtually no commons at all … This park shortage may mean little to the tourist jet-skiing across Lake Mead, or lounging by the pool at the Mirage. But it defines an impoverished quality of life for thousands of low-wage service workers who live in the stucco tenements that line the side streets of the Strip (95).

The continued demands from corporations to build more hotels and more casinos means that land is not set aside for actual residents of the city.  This creates the notion that the ultimate power of capital within Las Vegas fences in its own residents, reducing them to a cattle-like work force that graze on left overs in strip malls.  The lack of green space within the city also continues the city’s environmental warfare against its landscape, ensuring that the city becomes the absolute and final mirage allowed to exist within the dry desert beyond.

Between them, The Road and Las Vegas present two ideas of postmodern absolutism and their effects of both the present and future American landscape.  The question that remains is, will the capital-driven environmental terrorism of Las Vegas absolutism eventually lead to the dystopian absolutism of the earth in The Road?  Is America’s doom mapped out already?

 

References

Davis, Mike. Dead Cities and Other Tales. New York New Press, 2002

McCarthy, Cormac. The Road.  London: Picador, 2010

Blank Spaces: America Reimagined

In this Talking Point, Sarah McCreedy considers blank spaces and shifting territories in post-9/11 American fiction.

Michael Rothberg demanded a change in the post-9/11 novel.  He acknowledged that ‘an intellectually and politically mature literature must leave national-domestic space behind for riskier “foreign” encounters.’ (157). Writers on the module* so far including Cormac McCarthy, Don DeLillo, George Saunders and Maureen McHugh have met this demand unconventionally. Their ‘riskier foreign encounters’ are constructed by  blank spaces, worlds never encountered before, in which America can be reimagined and redefined. Such environments provide a safe distance in which to critique America. Behind the comfortable laughter we experience reading stories like Saunders’ Jon, is the frightening realisation that America is currently only a few miles away from these turbulent realms.

In The Road, McCarthy’s blank world is composed by its complete namelessness, and its breakdown of language. The boy asks his father, ‘Where’s the neighborhood?’ (100), and should we not be asking in the digital age, where is our neighbourhood? Are we becoming McHugh’s ‘sightless’ (7) zombies whose communities are reduced to virtual ones? Saunders’  Jon observes, ‘Maybe we can come to be normal,’ (60). However, even in his moments of supposed authenticity, ironically, Jon bandwagon advertises his own philosophy, ‘isn’t that how it is with our heads, when we are in them it always makes sense, but then later, when you look back, we sometimes are like, I am acting like a total dumbass!’ (47). Is this humorous? Or is it a prediction of the future for Americans? Or have we already reached this point?

In DeLillo’s Point Omega, Jim notes how Elster is situated, ‘somewhere south of nowhere in the Sonoran Desert or maybe it was the Mojave Desert or another desert altogether.’ (25). Are we truly in America in this novella? The landscape is of course intentional, the anonymity of Jessie’s ‘killer/kidnapper’ ambiguous, and the unsolved nature of the case reminiscent of the fact that war in the Middle East is ongoing. In addition, in McHugh’s ‘The Naturalist’, Cahill imitates an Islamic terrorist, becoming that individual, sacrificial force, driven by ‘suicidal craziness’ (11), fighting against those ‘Zombie businessmen’, (12), or, American capitalism. America subconsciously rejects this simulation of Islamic terrorism in its own territory and thus Cahill is rescued and reappropriated back into American ‘civilised’ society.

In these blank spaces, these ‘riskier foreign countries’, masquerades in the form  of, for example, missing person cases or  zombie breakout narratives can be decoded to reveal much more important social and political commentaries, which magnify the cracks in contemporary America. Trauma is remembered in these dream-like environments, these distorted images of America. In these texts, America is outside America, and inside America, all at the same time.

*MA Module: Literature in Crisis: American Writing in the 21st Century

 

Bibliography

DeLillo, Don. Point Omega. London: Picador, 2010.

McCarthy, Cormac. The Road.  London: Picador, 2006.

McHugh, Maureen F. “The Naturalist.” After the Apocalypse.  East Hampton, MA: Small Beer Press, 2011. 1-29.

Rothberg, Michael. “A Failure of the Imagination: Diagnosing the Post-9/11 Novel: A Response to Richard Gray.” American Literary History. Vol. 21, No.1. (Spring 2009), 152-58.

Saunders, George.  “Jon.” In Persuasion Nation. Riverhead Books, 2006.  23-61.

[Image by Alanthebox (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons]