"Literary fiction has lost its authority in the culture"—it's a phrase often heard in the publishing industry these days, particularly since 9/11. Readers, the thinking goes, are looking for a different kind of authority than the one in imaginary landscapes. They want facts, knowledge, explanations in a world of mystery and terror. The belief that fiction can itself be an epistemology—a way of knowing that goes deeper and broader than any assemblage of facts—is in steep decline.
Of course, people still love story. They love craftily told, fast-moving dramatic narrative, fitted out with conflict and resolution, especially if true, or "based on a true story." This can make for some remarkable (and commercially successful) books, like Joan Didion's A Year of MagicalThinking, but also runs the risk of creating a colossal train wreck like James Frey's A Million Little Pieces, a book conceived as fiction but touted as true.
Long past are the days of Harriet Beecher Stowe's fictive call to action in Uncle Tom's Cabin, Upton Sinclair's horrific vivisection of workplace injustice in The Jungle, or Joseph Heller's Catch-22, works that, by dint of craft and imagination, exceeded in impact all that was already known—about slavery, meat-packing or WWII. In these instances, truth was shamed by fiction.
By choice and by profession, I read quite a bit—both fiction and nonfiction. But I happen to find most nonfiction, no matter how well done, hard to remember. I could tell you very little about the history of the world according to the Basques, for example, or the madman who helped make the OED or what ailed the guy who mistook his wife for a hat. I don't even recall what town the Tender Bar was in. Those are facts, and I forget them. I could, however, pick out of a lineup the protagonist's best friend, Pauline, from Alice McDermott's new novel; visualize the odd, upstate New York climes of Kafka's Amerika; and now, after reading Cormac McCarthy's stunning new book, I can tell you how it will feel to be present at the end of the world.
I started The Road on a Friday, feet propped up on my desk as the work week wound down. I read for 90 minutes and decided I'd take the book home for the weekend. When I reached the street I had the sensation that a drug was beginning to hit. It hadn't, of course, but I was queerly conscious of what each striding leg was doing, how my weight was shifting through my hips, how I rode the outer edges of each foot. The next thing I knew I was in a nearby park. The leaves reflected in a puddle looked like noise, their shimmering somehow equated with a kind of subterranean keening. I sat down. I opened McCarthy's novel where I had bookmarked it.
At evening a dull sulphur light from the fires. The standing water in the roadside ditches black with runoff. The mountains shrouded away.... No lists of things to be done. The day providential to itself. The hour. There is no later. This is later.
I realized, seated on a park bench, that McCarthy had completely reordered my perceptual field. His postapocalyptic landscape—colorless, hopeless, strafed, already ancient—had converted the normally recognizable routines of a Manhattan Friday afternoon into something alien, bizarre. I had entered another world. I was in a novel.
I made my way home carefully.
McCarthy is by no means the only contemporary novelist whose work resonates powerfully within the culture. Orhan Pamuk, our new Nobelist in literature, was charged with treason in his native Turkey for daring to evoke a reality at odds with the state-sanctioned version. Whether with words of witness, fancy or prophecy, writers can get to the heart of the most complex matters. Twice the voice of The Roadobserves, "What you put in your head is there forever." I do not doubt it. McCarthy's novel carries such authority that we find ourselves praying that it never comes true, just as Pamuk's work attests that some truths can find safekeeping only in the imaginary.