Monday, November 06, 2006

The Road to Nowhere

Even though they know what's happened the people of Jericho somehow manage not to commit suicide or go mad with grief or get into bed and never get out again. They go on putting one foot in front of the other. They go on, uncannily competently, with their lives.
That's Laura, writing about the tv series Jericho. I watched the first few episodes but my interest tapered off mainly because of the strange phenomenon Laura identifies: despite apparent nuclear holocaust the people of Jericho continue to act as if things like illicit affairs with hospitality workers actually mean sod all, and apart from a minor food riot in the first episode – averted by a stirring speech from the mayor – the citizens of Jericho remain not only lawful but downright convivial. It’s almost enough to make one suspect that there is something other than radioactive fallout in Jericho’s water supply.

As Laura notes, this odd state of affairs turns out not be a clever narrative device, or even a completely unclever narrative device – then they woke up and it was all a dream! – but “the product of a colossal failure to even try to imagine what living on after a nuclear war is actually like for survivors.” Are we seriously expected to believe that with much of the United States potentially reduced to an uninhabitable wasteland the people of Jericho simply soldier on, existential crises, violence and madness staved off through dogged adherence to the melodrama of small-town life?

Of course we are, because Jericho is clearly a by-product of the War on Terror by way of the Cold War, its symbolism obvious at twenty paces. Jericho, a bastion of small-town values, is under threat from unknown forces. Its government and citizenry respond as decent, God-fearing folk ought, by carrying on as best they can while remaining resolute in the face of evil – we’ve heard this speech a hundred times, and now it’s been distilled into a weekly tv show, complete with plot twists and cliffhangers straight out of the Lost/24 game book.

There are two intertwined fantasies at work here. First is that of American exceptionalism. When the bombs begin to fall, the rest of the world may disintegrate or descend into anarchy but there is something inherently orderly and democratic about American society that will prevail no matter what you throw at it. The second fantasy is that of America – or at least Middle America, at which Jericho is so clearly pitched – as the embodiment of the small-town values that in turn reinforce America’s exceptional status. Tied in with this is a perverse victimhood. America can be victimised but the cause is always external to the political/social structure of the country itself. This guiltless victimhood becomes an additional source of strength, not to mention self-righteousness.

Jericho fails to acknowledge that the very fantasies that inform the show’s ideology cease to be viable in a post-apocalyptic world. Even in Australia it is common to refer to September 11, 2001 as the day “when everything changed”. Well, imagine the paradigm shift if eighteen American cities got nuked. Aside from the physical toll, the immediate severance of historical continuity would leave America, and by extension its sustaining myths, forever changed. Even if we accept that Jericho is somehow immune from fallout and other environmental concerns and is able to sustain not only life but some kind of order, it seems unlikely that the mythological or ideological substrate of its society would remain static. Jericho envisions nuclear war as a surmountable obstacle for American society when in all likelihood that society would be either destroyed or changed beyond recognition. Of course this kind of speculation is an example of imagining the unimaginable, but even so I think I can say with some certainty that if/when the bombs start falling, among the things that will be rendered insignificant will be pretty much everything contained in a typical episode of Jericho.

I probably wouldn’t have given Jericho much thought if I hadn’t just read Cormac McCarthy’s new novel, The Road. Set in a United States that has been obliterated by nuclear war and the resulting nuclear winter, the novel follows the efforts of an unnamed man and his young son to reach the coast, where they hope to find other refugees. Along the way they must deal not only with the ever-present threat of death by starvation or exposure, but also avoid falling prey to the gangs of rapists, murderers and cannibals that stalk the land.

As you will be obvious from this brief synopsis, The Road is a bleak piece of writing. Unlike the producers and writers of Jericho, McCarthy has tried to imagine what life following a nuclear war would be like and his vision is chilling. It is as though human rapaciousness has finally created an environment perfectly suited to its perpetuation. This is a world that is almost completely hostile to humans, except those who are willing to debase themselves through cold-blooded murder and cannibalism. The moral dilemma facing the protagonist is as plain as it is wrenching: to continue the probably futile search for some vestige of civilisation, or to put his last bullet through his son’s brain then somehow do for himself. And the cop on Jericho thinks he’s got it tough deciding whether to stay with his wife or continue shagging the town's barmaid.

What drives the man and his son on are the stories they tell themselves. The man comes to realise that there is no point telling stories about the pre-nuke world, not only because the boy never experienced it, but because it is irrelevant. The names of places, of people and things are stripped of meaning: what good does it do to label that blackened mass “Knoxville”, or that lifeless swell “the Pacific”? The mythology/morality the man develops is likewise stripped back, black-and-white for a blackened world. There are good guys and there are bad guys, and the goal of the man and boy is to find other good guys in the hope of transcending the Hobbesian “state of nature” they find themselves in. Note that this has nothing at all to do with patriotism or small-town values or any of the sentimental notions one finds in Jericho. Rather it is pragmatism infused with empathy, a spiritual commonality – “the breath of God…[that passes] from man to man throughout time” – that is sought as a final resort by these people who refuse to turn towards darkness.

The Road is bleak, but it is also touching. The relationship between father and son is extremely well developed, and despite the occasional shocking depictions of (in)human depravity the novel ultimately highlights the better nature of humanity. This in itself is tragic, because the consolation for not becoming inhuman is not much of a consolation at all in a world without any obvious future. The best you can hope for is not to get eaten by cannibals or have some other terrible death befall you. Jericho, on the other hand, sees survival as an adventure, a new chapter of the story of humanity rather than the last page - or the first page of a very different book. Jericho is predicated on the lie of post-apocalyptic historical continuity; its characters need not negotiate with a changed world because, fundamentally if not totally, their world remains the same. The Road refuses to offer this consolation, depicting instead a world renewed, but renewed unto death. McCarthy’s vision is disturbing – one particular scene is unlikely to be forgotten, once read – but perhaps more disturbing is the success of Jericho, a show that is not only riddled with cliches and stock characters, but which dares to put a cosy spin on nuclear holocaust. I know which vision I’d prefer Americans, who currently sit atop the world’s largest stockpile of nuclear warheads, to contemplate.
We're not survivors. We're the walking dead in a horror film. (The Road, p. 47)
Cross-posted at Sarsaparilla.

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