Sunday, June 26, 2016

Bacopa Literary Review: "Dark Beyond Darkness"

(Condensed by Editor-in-Chief Mary Bast from Fiction Editor U.R. Bowie's full review here)

I'm ten years late getting around to reading Cormac McCarthy's The Road, but since it has to rank among the most powerful pieces of American fiction written in the past ten years, it remains more than worthy of discussion. McCarthy here tells a tale of nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before.

We're in the genre of post-apocalyptic fiction -- it could have been a nuclear war -- The ashes of the late world carried on the bleak and temporal winds to and fro in the void. Apparently most animals are extinct, and the few human beings who survive face fellow humans who are, largely, living beastly lives. Here's what the world looks like when it's gone:
"He walked out in the gray light and stood and he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running. The crushing black vacuum of the universe." 
Oddly enough, it is passages like these, what one critic called this violent grotesque world rendered in gorgeous, melancholic, even biblical cadences, that somehow save the reader from descending into total despair.

You don't have to read far into this book to realize that if something like this conflagration ever descends upon our world, the most fortunate of human beings will be those who die quickly. The world of The Road is a dead world. All the old rules by which people live their lives have been abrogated. A father and son wander through the devastation, on their way somewhere in search of survival. When they share some food with an old man they encounter on the road, he never thanks them. "Thank you" has gone out with the going out of the world. 
"You won't wish us luck either, will you?" says the father.

The old man replies, "I don't know what that would mean. What luck would look like. Who would know such a thing?"
We meet the mother of the boy and wife of the main protagonist only for one brief scene, but that scene is powerfully written, and it rings true. She tells her husband she is about to commit suicide, and she departs with no loving words for him, or for the universe.
"We're not survivors; we're the walking dead in a horror film. . . I didn't bring myself to this. I was brought. And now I'm done. . . My only hope is for eternal nothingness, and I hope it with all my heart."
She goes on to insist that surviving only for oneself is impossible:
"A person who had no one would be well advised to cobble together some passable ghost. Breathe it into being and coax it along with words of love."
The dire tragedy depicted here can also apply to the human condition in general. The wife's words about how, if one wishes to survive one needs someone to live for, are equally true of old men and women in our un-apocalyptic world who lose their spouses late in life. Cobbling together "some passable ghost" is exactly what bereaved spouses do when they spend time talking alone to their dead loved ones.

Then again, even if we never have to see the world end before our eyes, each of us must face the hurts and pains and losses of any life. We also must face the ending of our own personal worlds and, like the wife of the novel, we haven't brought ourselves to any of this -- we were brought.

There is no place left for a God in the crozzled hearts of The Road's characters. At the end, the father finally gives up his struggle to survive, tells his son to go on without him, and dies. Then, abruptly, God is back in the person of a "good guy," with two children and a wonderful wife, who ambles into the book and adopts the boy, saving him from a certain death.

In light of the bleak reality McCarthy has been describing for the first 280 pages of the book, I'm not sure what the author is up to with the unbelievable Deus ex machina ending. Is the appearance of the miraculous family in one of the boy's dreams, or that of his dying father?

McCarthy gives us nothing to suggest the scene is other than reality. With his consummate feel for the artistic integrity of the structure, he could not have believed he could get away with this ending. But since this ending is there, we can only look past the final six pages, and exult in the artistry of this brilliant book.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

On Father's Day: "Ten Thousand Miles from Home"

(by Poetry Editor Kaye Linden, from Bacopa Literary Review 2010)

Ten Thousand Miles from Home (Fiction)

After five years away from home, I return to my father's house in Sydney. He tells me he'll be back down in a few minutes, that my visit should have been last month, that now he doesn't have time for me. I nod, bite back tears.

Inside the confined space of the living room, air thick and heavy, I take five steps between two walls, six steps back, walk in circles, reverse the circles, slow down, speed up and hop on one leg until I notice my three kung fu swords stuffed under the staircase. One hangs without its scabbard on a bent nail, blade ready to dice and slice. My gut surges as I remember the black belt test my father refused to attend. "Martial arts are for men, not women," he'd said.

I hyperventilate through fifty jumping jacks.

My father's sword collection hangs high above the staircase. There's that one German sword, rusty with blood, a relic from World War Two. I always wondered where he'd picked that up.

I touch my toes twenty-five times.

I watch and wait, in spite of a racing pulse. There are those Persian carpets, threadbare, embedded with red stains -- reminders of violent words and alcoholic binges. Twilight falls like a shroud as I walk to the window, pull aside moldy curtains, view a blurred image of ghost gums through a pair of seldom-washed casement windows.

Antiques crowd the mahogany coffee table: a Roman warrior with wire whip riding a metal chariot, a faded black and white photo of Khartoum, a broken pottery shard found in a wartime excursion to the pyramids. Dreary paintings by dreary artists line the walls in a haphazard arrangement above china cabinets, above my father's swords, next to the staircase, wherever a few square feet beckon. A woman's dirty yellow slippers lie under a green corduroy love seat, a beat up pair of cracked, leather army boots stand on top of the cherry wood armoire. I clear old letters and newspapers from the cedar dining table and reel at dates from two years ago. Sweat rolls down my forehead as I wait for my father to return, but he doesn't. A wave of nausea rises up my throat, and I swallow the bitter taste of vomit. This time, I resolve, I'll never return.

I wait another half hour, sit at my old white desk with the inlaid world map, and punch my fist repeatedly on its dusty surface. I stand up to leave, but my eye rests on the book shelf, packed with books from poets and world historians. My fingers find my old, raggedy high-school text -- T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland, inscribed on the front page to my mother from my father. From somewhere upstairs I hear argument, loud and distinct, my name thrown around like a dog's ball.

"Ok, Dad. I get the message," I whisper.

I cross the cobblestone road to the neighborhood taxi stand and turn around to make sure no one follows.

"Airport, US airways."

"Right you are luv," the taxi driver chimes. "Where you headed?"

"Home," I say. I stare straight ahead and take a long swig from the bottle of whiskey that I swiped from my father's china cabinet.