Sunday, January 24, 2010

Two books

I have just finished reading two books: Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" and Alec Baldwin's "A Promise to Ourselves".

"The Road" is surrounded by a great deal of hype, and I am not entirely sure why. It is a depressing tale, set against a backdrop of a standard post-apocalyptic world remarkable only for the implausible proposition that everything is dead except for a few humans surviving on cannibalism or whatever they can scavenge from the remains of our extinct civilization. In such a world, the only realistic future for anyone, including the two protagonists, is death by murder or starvation. (Nevertheless, McCarthy ultimately takes the easy, Hollywood-conscious way out and leaves us with a shred of hope cutting against the grain of everything that goes before. Oh well, such is the state of literary integrity.)

I started reading "The Road" during a lazy afternoon at a friend's house. He warned me to be careful, or I'd be hooked and indeed, I took it home with me and finished it that night. It is a page turner, of the kind that drags you along despite it's apparent bleakness.

Why is it so popular? I don't really know. It is certainly well written, but it is so depressing, even with the ending and it's dose of artificial sweetener, that it is hard to see what attracts the fans apart from a base and all too common human need to spectate upon the pain of others.

But it does have one thing that is painfully rare in our culture and that is a careful and honest portrayal of a relationship between a man and his small son which is not tainted by the threat of violence, actual violence or sexual perversion. The man's need to protect his son, his anguish that he may ultimately be unable to and the child's vulnerability are palpable. This alone may account for the book's popularity. We are so starved for the truth that we will take it even against the most desperate and despairing of backgrounds, perhaps even especially so. As such, I am happy to entertain the idea that all the hype, for once, reflects something important going on in the collective unconscious. I haven't seen the movie yet, so here's to hoping I feel the same about that and also, if I am right, other authors, screenwriters and journalists will start to notice too.

Alec Baldwin paints a picture of a different kind of apocalypse, that of the American family courts. To the cognoscenti of that bottomless mire of human failure, there are few surprises in "A Promise to Ourselves", but to the many of his fans reading it, and perhaps a few curious others (especially those ghoulishly looking for further detail on that phone call), there might be some enlightenment as to the ongoing mess the courts are making of families the world over. Nevertheless, in the final analysis, the book is missing something.

Baldwin is clearly walking a line. He knows that trashing his ex is likely to achieve the exact opposite of bringing her into line and won't help anyone else either. Nevertheless, the few facts sprinkled through the book paint an adequate picture for anyone with half a brain. Basinger is clearly one twisted woman, and perhaps even likes it that way, enjoying watching Baldwin squirm under the magnifying glass heat of the family court, regardless of the consequences for her daughter.

As Baldwin puts it himself, in possibly the strongest statement of the entire book: "Now we see, incontrovertibly, that the mother's hatred of the father is greater than her love for the child."

And that's the problem, this is the strongest statement in the book, and it needs so much more than that. The systematic removal of fathers from their children's lives while simultaneously forcing the father to tear himself to pieces trying to get near them or blame him because he doesn't is of such astonishing cruelty that true passion is needed to express it. But passion is too easily translated into anger by Baldwin's enemies, he knows that, so he daren't say anything too strong.

There are times when getting angry is entirely appropriate, it should be understood as the right response to the insult that is family court and the weasels that profit from it instead of diagnostic of a pathology in the insulted parent. Only the truly pathological can make that outrageous claim, and they are in charge.