Friday, January 29, 2010

Fumbling Toward Oblivion

Yeah, file this one under "late to the party."

The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Have you read this book? Um, yeah, holy smoke, it's good. It came out about four years ago, and I had always heard good, great, incredible things about it. I knew that the folks in Hollywood had recently turned it into a movie, which bears the same name, The Road, but I hesitated when it came to buying the actual book several years back even though I’d read all those positive reviews. After all, you know how critics can be: wrong sometimes. Plus, the book, as I’d seen it in Borders, struck me as overpriced. "Sixteen dollars for such a slim book?" I thought. So I balked.

Then just the other night as I was shopping for groceries, wheeling my rickety cart along the “media” section in the supermarket, I happened to come across the McCarthy book again; saw it up on the bookshelf. Yup, there it was amid the Danielle Steel and Dean Koontz books and all the other paperbacks with embossed titles on their glossy covers. This time, however, I noticed that The Road was markedly less expensive -- it was only 8 bucks, a drop in price that can probably be attributed to the fact that the book is being more widely distributed now that it’s also a major motion picture. So I said, $8? Why not, and threw it in my shopping cart.

And so I started on it. I wasn't that impressed at first. At first. Yeah, the prose was spare, powerful and poetic. But McCarthy seemed to repeat himself in the set up. See, the premise of the book is this: A calamity has struck the earth -- or America -- killing almost all traces of life. A father and his young son seem to be the only two survivors of this unnamed catastrophe. Together, the two trudge through the treacherously barren and dead landscape, following a road south (the story takes place in America), where their chances of survival, the father tells the son, will be better.

OK, fine, but the whole book starts off really slow because McCarthy seems incredibly preoccupied with describing ad nauseam the bleakness of this literary universe. We learn, over and over again for about 30 pages, that father and son inhabit a world of ash, scorched forests, death, detritus, gray skies, gray snow, dead ponds, dead flowers, abandoned homes, and of course ash, ash and more ash.

And then if all that’s not enough to slow things down at the beginning, there’s another issue when it comes to The Road: the punctuation. See, Cormac McCarthy really wanted to convey to his readers the barrenness and desperation of this post-apocalyptic world, so he manipulated the actual punctuation of the novel itself in his efforts to achieve this goal. The actual prose, in certain areas, lacks required apostrophes and commas, and there are no quotation marks around character dialogue. None. This whole idea of manipulating the novel’s text as it’s seen on the actual page to further convey mood, if you ask me, is very Joycean. But then again who’s asking me?
Anyway! So all this peculiar punctuation and all the repetitive description led me to believe that the critics were off the mark. Granted, McCarthy’s writing, his actual prose, is so beautiful it probably could’ve carried the novel in and of itself: “The blackness he woke to those nights was sightless and impenetrable. A blackness to hurt your ears with listening.” But I was still really starting to wonder why all the critics had been going gaga.

Finally, however, the novel's action started picking up. And my god did it pick up with a vengeance. Cannibalistic predators donning gas masks, armed with bludgeons stalking the road; flashbacks to scenes from the initial apocalypse; dialogue that gives us a torch-lighted view inside the minds of people teetering on the edge of oblivion. Actually, once the action starts heading into high gear, we are no longer distracted by the initial lack of it and are better able to appreciate all the other positive aspects of the writing -- the heartbreakingly beautiful lines, the ruggedly terse dialogue, the vivid descriptions. Once all the elements are there and set in motion together, they begin to form a hard-to-put-down, rhythmically hypnotic -- and sometimes frightful -- tale of love, death and survival.

So, I guess what I'm trying to say is, I may have been late to the party when it comes to The Road. But better late than never.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Missed connections

Weird thing I just noticed about Americans or New York culture, rather. It happened when I was walking out into my hallway to throw out my garbage. See, I live in an apartment building, which means if I want to throw out garbage, I have to walk down the hall to the garbage room. Only one such room exists on my floor, and all the people living on 3, whether we like it or not, must make the small trip in our socks from our respective apartment doors to this room, which is equipped with a chute, if we want to dispose of refuse.

Anyway, so there I was in the hall, knotted, black plastic bag in hand, about to start on down the pink carpeting to the trash room, when I look up and see someone else opposite me at the far end of the hallway. I see a woman. She’s an older woman, probably in her 70s, and I thought I’d seen her before — perhaps we’d ridden the elevator together at some point — but, to be honest, I had no idea of her name.

Anyway, so she’s walking toward me, wearing a pink pajama getup — it was 11 p.m. — and I immediately see that she, too, has something in her hand: a garbage bag. Coincidentally, we both walked out into the hallway at the exact same time to take care of this small but necessary chore.

So she's walking toward this garbage room and so am I, albeit from directly opposite directions. Because she's a lot older than I am, and frail, she was walking at a much slower pace. Still, I sped up my gait upon seeing her to rid the air of any confusion that might exist about who will reach, and ultimately use, this room first.

I think I smiled a slight smile right before I opened the door to the garbage room, though I was pretty aware of the fact that she probably didn't make out this expression because she was still probably too far away from me to see it.

Once I finally got my big garbage bag down the chute — sometimes you really have to push — I closed the door and turned to her — she was now significantly closer — and smiled a sort of smile that seemed to say, "Well, here you are, here I am, both throwing out our garbage, meeting in the hallway at 11 p.m. ... Kinda-sorta funny, huh? Well, goodnight."

Yeah, my smile and the way I gesticulated with my head said all that. I know it sounds like a lot, but it did. Anyway, when I smiled at her, I naturally looked into her face for a moment. She really didn't seem to be returning the smile — actually she wasn’t at all — so I quickly looked away.

And so, walking down the long hallway back to my apartment, I started thinking.

Goddamn, I thought. That’s kind of weird. That whole interaction or, rather, non-interaction I just had. I mean, here we are, two people, living in the same apartment building, living feet away from each other, both walking out into the hallway during the last hour of the day, January 17, 20-fu%#ing-10, we see each other, we know each other's motives, we know we're neighbors for Christ's sake, yet we don't say anything to each other. She doesn't even acknowledge me. Strange. Real strange.

And then I thought, what is this phenomenon with Americans? Or shall I say New Yorkers, because, really, to say that this experience I had in the hallway is characteristic of American life is probably flatly inaccurate. But I certainly have noticed this type of behavior in New York.

A few days earlier, in fact, I’d walked into a Barnes and Noble cafe in the city. Every single table at the cafe was taken by a person and there were about 20 tables. However, not one person at this cafe was interacting in any way with the person at the table to his left or right. Each was too absorbed with reading something off his laptop or smart phone. Each was an island to himself. I've noticed this behavior a lot in New York. So close together yet pathetically isolated.

Walking down my long hallway back to my apartment I also couldn't help but think about a positive tradition they have across the Atlantic, in Germany. It goes something like this. Let's say someone — we’ll call him Person A is in a cafe, just sitting there with his coffee and newspaper at a table. Now let's say another person, Person B, a stranger, walks into that same cafe. Person A will most likely greet Person B as he walks in. That's right, odds are that Person A will say “tag” or “morgen,” which means "hello" and "good morning,” respectively. Even more interesting, the person who just walked into the cafe, Person B, the newcomer, might greet everyone in the cafe ¾ or at least those sitting — by saying “hello” out loud. Remember, these people are strangers. Still, these exchanges instantly forge a sense of community or connection.

Furthermore, I recalled that often in Germany when one leaves a room or a cafe or a clothing store, anything, the tradition is to say "bye" as you leave. It’s usually custom to acknowledge the people in the room you’re about to exit. In turn, the other people — the barista, the sales clerk, whoever — acknowledge you and also say, “bye."

To be honest, I could never imagine walking down a hallway to throw out garbage in a German apartment building, seeing a neighbor and not saying "abend" (good evening). It would just be strange.

Now I'm not saying I love Germany or that they've got it all figured out or anything, 'cause god knows Germans have their own issues and peculiarities. But when it comes to these small gestures of acknowledgment, the "Deutsch" are really onto something.

So what's up America? What's up New York? Why are we so standoffish sometimes when it comes to just saying "hi" or "good evening”? Why do we continue to allow ourselves to remain so isolated? Is it because of our high concentration of people? Do we simply take for granted the fact that other souls will always be around us? To the point, perhaps, that we feel we don't necessarily need to say hi to, or even acknowledge, the neighbor who's walking down the same hall at the same time of night, during the same last hour of the day?

If so, that's kind of sad.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

In Through the Out Door

OK, funny stuff. The other day as I sat at the kitchen table with my girlfriend eating breakfast, I stared — as many do — at the cereal box in front of me. I eat Post Raisin Bran. This time as I stared at the rectangular box, however, I noticed that the Raisin Bran packaging was a bit different from how I'd remembered it. The overall design was a bit prettier. The box's color was a deeper purple and the the Post logo — an oval with the word "Post" inside it — was more bubbly, more three dimensional. In the center of the box there was a big spoon, which displayed the perfect mix of toasted flakes, creamy milk and gleaming raisins. In short, it looked like the Raisin Bran box at some point between the last time I'd eaten the cereal and this time had been redesigned, given a face lift.

After pondering the box and logo a little longer, I turned to my girlfriend who was sitting right next to me and said: "Why do they always have to change things? Why does everything always have to be spiffed up, given a redesign? Can't they just leave the packaging alone. I mean, it's Raisin Brain. Why do they always have to add all these bells and whistles; why do they always have to add new colors and shine?"

Well, my girlfriend — always willing to offer me a counterpoint — turned to me and said: "They have to change the packaging every few years or so. Otherwise, it'll look like the product is old and stale and no one wants to buy a product that looks like it's old or hasn't evolved with the times."

Fair enough, I thought. But I still wondered what this obsession with constantly changing, updating, redesigning was all about.

Anyway, fast forward one week. My girlfriend and I are shopping at the supermarket and we're walking down the cereal aisle. I'm about to pick up my spiffy box of Raisin Bran when I notice something. There's another box that says Raisin Bran right next to it. But the packaging of this other Raisin Bran is completely sober: the box is plain and brown and has no fancy graphics on it. In fact, this other Raisin Brain box looks like it's from a time when people still drove around in massively big cars with massively big steering wheels and public schools came equipped with fallout shelters. The words "Raisin Brain" on the front of of the box were in plain, blocky 2-D letters. This Raisin Bran is also made by Post, I see, but the bubbly Post oval is gone. Instead, the Post name is written in that plain, blocky style as well. 

I rub my eyes. After that, I pick up the cereal and show it to my girlfriend. We both laugh. It turns out, Post recently released some of its cereals in their "vintage packaging." That soberly packaged box of Raisin Brain I saw on the shelf? That's almost exactly what the Raisin Bran box looked like when Post first released the cereal decades ago. No 3-D logos, no golden-brown airbrushed flakes on the front of the box with sparkling raisins and creamy milk, no sidebars telling me about the cereal's health benefits. Just a plain brown, boring box with the words "Raisin Bran" on it. It seems that Post, in a bid to get in touch with its roots or at very least catch the consumer's eye in yet some other way, decided to rerelease this thing and sell it right alongside its modern counterpart.

You gotta love this stuff.