|From cool blog Existential Ennui|
Does it make sense to warn of spoilers for a 50-year-old book, and its Pulitzer-winning comparator since made into a successful Hollywood movie, i.e. The Road? If so: here be spoilers.
Previously, this blog awarded the title of Bleakest Novel Ever to Cormac McCarthy's The Road, but Shute's future here is distinctly darker than McCarthy's. Whereas McCarthy's largely lifeless world is populated still, albeit by humans shambling about and persisting cockroach-style, but without the insect's native elegance, Shute's world really does end.
McCarthy leaves us shattered, probably irredeemable, but alive; Shute kills us off, every single one of us, slowly. As one character muses, close to the end:
The human race was to be wiped out and the world made clean again for wiser occupants without undue delay. Well, probably that made sense. (p.269)Shute's novel is therefore utterly without hope -- and yet it's not nearly as bleak as McCarthy's.
The Road depicts a world where social niceties have been torn away. Many of these niceties vanished early, in the immediate aftermath of whatever inexplicable catastrophe has befallen Earth, but by the time depicted in the novel, human society has devolved into isolationism and cannibalism: all we have left to eat is each other, really, and many of us are doing exactly that. Survival seems, against the odds, to remain possible, if only individual people can live long enough for the undoing of whatever it was that happened, but during this interminable interregnum, it's a world and a social order none of us would want to belong to, and a species we'd want to disavow as our own.
So what about On the Beach, this lovely, painful book that withholds from us even the shards of hope that McCarthy's sadistic The Road gives its readers?
In the face of certain extinction, which comes slowly but inescapably to Australia in the form of drifting radioactive fallout from nuclear annihilation of the Northern Hemisphere, society continues almost uninterrupted. In the time before the novel, there seem to have been riots, and rampaging, and all the acting out that you'd expect from utter despair, but by the time depicted in the novel itself, society has resumed. People have gone back to work, mostly; students are attending universities in larger numbers than ever; gardening shops keep selling out of plants and seeds and fertilizer and fenceposts.
There is no hope in the world of On the Beach, none at all, but unlike in McCarthy's vision, our response isn't to reject social connections and obligations, but to insist upon them until the end, and both to honour them and to treasure them.
To take just one small example, the real trick is to make sure the port and the brandy don't run out before the end, and yet that we don't end leave too much of it unappreciated. Appreciation: the great lesson of On the Beach.
|Torres del Paine, Chile|
Broke. My. Heart.
And yet somehow left it stronger. I'm so looking forward to teaching the novel, and talking through it with my reliably insightful students!
(Someone else's incredibly long and thorough review plus summary is available here, if you'd like a commentary with actual details.)