Not to go all Singing Detective on you, but I’ve spent the past fortnight covered with hives brought on by some allergic reaction, perhaps to Jack Nicholson’s tainted-ham performance in The Departed. (Will the real Al Swearengen please stand up, please stand up?) While these itchy red welts have left me wallowing in self-pity — I pass my days in a bathrobe, like a Proust without the talent — they have had the benefit of letting me catch up with the latest books.
Critics hate to admit it, but nobody picks up a book innocently. I was biased against The Road even before the dust cover told me that it was “destined to become Cormac McCarthy’s masterpiece.”
McCarthy is the kind of novelist the East Coast literary establishment loves to fetishize, a desert-cured outsider with a highfalutin prose style and a reluctance to do interviews. This new book looked to be an easy one to love, a short, fashionably apocalyptic tale written in brief sections, far easier to read than Blood Meridian, McCarthy’s amazing, exhausting novel, which tests you with its ecstatic violence and habit of flaunting the many terroirs of its literary lineage, from Judea to Oxford, Mississippi.
But as Fats Waller sagely remarked, “One never knows, do one?” The Road not only turned out to be pretty damn good — the old coyote can really write, when he’s not overwriting — but McCarthy did something I never thought he could do: He moved me.
Naturally, the emotion doesn’t come easily. The action takes place in a presumably postnuclear America where the skies are gray, the landscape is ashy wasteland, and the few surviving souls are desperate scarecrows or vicious extras from The Road Warrior. Among the survivors are the book’s “good guys” (as they call themselves), an unnamed father and young son who, after the suicide of the wife-mother, hit the road with a pushcart. The father saves one last bullet so that, if necessary, he can kill his son rather than let him be taken as a sex slave — or worse. Even by McCarthy’s grim standards, The Road offers a memorably harsh world (babies on spits!), a reality so desolate that it largely strips the writer of a signature gift, his unmatched ability to see, and evoke, nature.
It is McCarthy’s pride — and legend — that he is utterly unsparing. He cuts to a life’s heart with a flinty honesty denied softer, more citified men. Now, there’s no denying that his vision of existence is dire. There are more jokes in the first sentence of Samuel Beckett’s novel Murphy (“The sun shone down, having no alternative, on the nothing new”) than in the whole of McCarthy’s career. That said, there is something sentimental in The Road’s conception of the son, who, conveniently, remains young enough that he can’t act freely or talk in depth with his father, thereby keeping him an embodiment of innocence and hope. His youth allows the dialogue with his father to remain simple and spare; it lets their emotions toward each other remain pure and finally heartbreaking. Such spareness hints at one of McCarthy’s limitations. The worst thing in the book is the talky scene with the wife, who, like many of his woman characters, only shows up to say something unlikely (“I am done with my own whorish heart”) and then proves herself irrelevant to the world of men.
The Road is a good novel, but its radically pared-down version of existence has nothing on, say, Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead — another recent novel about fathers and sons, the dominion of death and the faith that keeps one going. Indeed, her book helps you see just how deeply McCarthy’s violent elementalism is shot through with antisocial, darkness-loving, dumb-ass male romanticism. Where he must torch the whole world to get to feeling and faith, Robinson simply sets her story in Iowa.
At least McCarthy creates a world. John le Carré can no longer be bothered. Slogging through his clunky new thriller, The Mission Song, I kept wondering, How long will I bother to keep reading his books? No doubt, until he stops publishing them. Such is the nature of literary loyalty. Although he hasn’t written a really good novel in more than 20 years, my fondness for the Smiley books keeps me foolishly hopeful. As the Orioles manager Earl Weaver once said of a floundering relief pitcher, “I’ve given him more chances than I gave my first wife.”
It’s become a painfully true cliché that the fall of the Berlin Wall hit le Carré harder than it did the Communist Party. Although he did manage one good book not officially about the Cold War, The Little Drummer Girl, his career thrived during the long twilight struggle that turned all heroes and villains gray. When it vanished, his novels began slipping into cartoonish 007 Technicolor (for instance, The Night Manager) or the crude black-and-white preaching of his hectoring last book, Absolute Friends.
The Mission Song’s hero is Bruno Salvador, the son of a white missionary and Congolese village girl, who works as a professional interpreter in London. Employed by British intelligence to translate at a meeting between Western financiers and Congolese warlords — the book is clotted with their endless speechifying — Salvo (as he’s known) naively thinks he’s helping broker something that will help his home country.
It’s easy to spot all the things wrong with this book — feeble comedy, politics bald enough for The Nation (actually, le Carré’s recent article about Congo in that magazine was incomparably more nuanced than this novel). But the key flaw is this: We’re way ahead of it.
Now, you can’t blame Salvo for not realizing that he’s being suckered into a nasty conspiracy; after all, he doesn’t know that he’s the hero of a John le Carré novel. But we do, and we also know that this has meant betrayal ever since sad, gray Alec Leamas came in from the cold. How could le Carré not know that we know? In The Mission Song, he betrays the First Commandment of Thrillerdom: Thou shalt not be predictable.
“Sex is the great leveler,” Pauline Kael once said, “taste the great divider.” Her words came back to me as I read Lost Girls, the critically acclaimed, unabashedly dirty three-volume graphic novel by writer Alan Moore and artist Melinda Gebbie.
Set in Austria’s posh Hotel Himmelgarten on the eve of World War I, the story charts the encounter of three female guests who, in classic Moore fashion, are famous literary characters: an aging aristocratic lesbian, Alice, of Wonderland fame; a repressed bourgeois wife, Wendy, who once hung with Peter Pan; and the horny young Kansan, Dorothy, who has come to Europe by way of Oz. Almost instantly, these three women are turning their fantasies into reality, strapping on dildos and performing cunnilingus like G spots were going out of style. As they go at it, they recount their lost girlhoods with sexualized riffs on the likes of the Red Queen (a bullying dom), Captain Hook (a perv) and the Tin Man (who teaches Dorothy the joys of anal sex). As ever, Moore puts his faith in baroque invention. Who else would stage an orgiastic rimming scene during the 1913 premiere of Le Sacre du printemps?
Much of this historical stage setting is clever filigree, and nothing more, but Lost Girls can still stake its claim as a landmark in that oddest of genres — the pornography of ideas. The novel is at once a defense of sexual fantasy in even its vilest forms (to think something, after all, is not to do it) and a celebration of female sexuality: Moore’s women lean toward eroticism and freedom, while his men head toward domination and death. He pointedly pushes beyond the narrow erotic horizons of present-day niche-porn, which lets everyone download his own particular obsession to the exclusion of all others. Lost Girls harks to the more universal erotic vision found in Sade or the X-rated movies once shown in brothels (available on DVD in The Good Old Naughty Days). Alice, Dorothy and Wendy live in a world of wide-ranging sexual possibility — cruel and kind, straight and gay, bi and bestial (horse wanking!) — and no act, however horrific, can be ruled out as carrying an erotic charge.
But pornography’s real pull lies well below the noggin, and Lost Girls is emotionally inert. Moore is usually quite brilliant at taking something two-dimensional — for instance, comic-book superheroes — and then shifting perspective to reveal unimagined depths of feeling and cultural significance. Here, unfortunately, he reverses that process. Starting with three modern fantasies whose richness has endured for over a century — Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, The Wizard of Oz — he confines them to “the police state of sexual myth” (to use Nabokov’s words about Freud). Their heroines’ stories are impoverished, not enriched.
This might not matter if the book delivered the goods as smut. And here’s where taste enters in. While Gebbie is, in many ways, an accomplished artist, she has no gift for erotica. Her illustrations make people look waxy and hermetic, almost inhuman. They’re profoundly unsexy (to me, anyway). And if porn isn’t hot, who cares if it’s smart? After all, Lost Girls is being sold in a pricey special edition by Top Shelf Productions, like the tony hardcore favored by aristocrats before The Great War. For $75 you’re entitled to expect this book to get you up. Instead, the redundant shtupping got me down.