Tuesday, March 27, 2012

I Am Legend

I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson.

Publisher's blurb:
Robert Neville may well be the last living man on Earth . . . but he is not alone.

An incurable plague has mutated every other man, woman, and child into bloodthirsty, nocturnal creatures who are determined to destroy him.

By day, he is a hunter, stalking the infected monstrosities through the abandoned ruins of civilization. By night, he barricades himself in his home and prays for dawn.... 

I chose to read this novel for a variety of reasons.  I'm on something of a post-apocalyptic / dystopian / zombie novel kick, and I'd seen this title listed as a masterpiece of the genre.  Also, I've seen the most recent film adaption (the one starring Will Smith) and was curious how the novel differed from the movie.  (The answer to that question is that there are far more dissimilarities than commonalities-- most noticeably in the ending of each.)

The (somewhat) condensed, non-spoilery portion of my "review":

I find myself better pleased with the novella toward its end than I was through most of the book-- and yet I don't exactly like the end, either... (Read it; you'll know why.)

I was frequently frustrated or repulsed by Robert Neville-- his drinking to excess, his apparently nearly-uncontrollable carnal impulses, his inability to hope for or seek out a better life for himself.  (Yes, he had lost everyone in his life and was continuing to live through a nightmare... but I can't help being frustrated by him any more than the character could probably help being frustrating.)

Then there were some things I can't really go into without spoiling the book... but basically it felt like the author was occasionally offering up a tempting little bit of hope, only to snatch it away at the last moment.

I won't pretend to completely understand all the "science" of the plague.  I can't decide if it was poorly written or if I merely failed to see its brilliance.  In the end, it doesn't matter; you simply have to accept it-- and I'm ok with that in this kind of novel, so long as the author keeps it somewhat consistent-- but in this case, the science is dwelt on repeatedly, so it's harder to just "let it go"...  

I suppose that I Am Legend was groundbreaking for its time (the 1950s), but as a modern reader, I didn't feel as impressed as I'd hoped I would.  It does seem more literary than the run-of-the-mill modern horror story, though, and if you're interested in this type of novel, I'd suggest reading it.  It's a short, quick read, in any case-- and by the end, it's given you a different perspective on post-apocalyptic plagues / vampires / zombies. 

A few spoilery bits:

•  Ach!  The dog!  That's the most painful part of the movie, I think, and the book's treatment of the subject was just as bad.  Not the dog!  C'mon, man.  (Why is it that pet death scenes are frequently more wrenching than those alluding to dead people?  I hardly felt a twinge over Neville's wife and daughter.  Maybe it's the way they're presented... The author dwells on the dog in such depth.  We "see" the action firsthand, too, whereas the scenes with his wife are all flashbacks-- and are more dread- and horror-filled than emotional.  Or maybe it's just easier to connect with a helpless animal character-- which we associate with our own pets past and present-- than with the generic wife/kid...)

•  I mentioned it before, but Neville's hypersensitive "sensuality" really gave me the creeps and made it hard for me to sympathize with him at times.  Ok, so the guy has... "needs"... and it had been half a year or so, but still.  Ick.  He feels the urge to go out and "be with" a (monstrous, non-sparkly) vampire woman, knowing that all they want is to drink his blood?  Ewww. 

•  The science, again.  It makes no sense to me...  What did I miss?  How was there this "new society" of living infected without Neville realizing it?  If they're sophisticated enough to begin to form this new society-- or even before that, when they were just wandering around singly or in bands-- why were none of them sophisticated enough to communicate with Neville (during the night-- I realize that they were in a coma state during the day)?  Where were they all those years?  How did they go from wandering around like zombies at night to magically forming a new social order?  All this happened just a short drive from Neville's home, apparently.  I don't know... I guess you're just not supposed to question it.  "It happened, ok?  Deal with it." I try, but it's not easy. 

•  I took note of other things that irritated me or seemed unlikely, but at this point, with this type of novel, what's the point?  So there's a huge pit in town where they burn the dead... and the fire seems to keep going for years after everyone is either dead or in a daytime coma.  Well, sure.  I guess fires just go on burning forever, unless someone actively puts them out.  Fuel schmuel!  Who needs fuel for fire?!  (The only possible explanation is that Neville himself is keeping it going.  True, he throws a few bodies on it now and then, but I get the impression that it's supposed to be going constantly, even if it's been days since he threw anything in the pit.  I don't think that's likely.)

•  I wish someone with too much time on his hands would count the number of times the author wrote that someone's (usually Neville's since he's almost the only character) "throat moved".  Used sparingly, it's an interesting way to convey that someone is experiencing this or that emotion, but good grief, was it ever a crutch in this book!  Neville is sad?  His throat moves.  Neville is hesitant?  His throat moves.  Neville experiences any emotion you can possibly imagine?  Trust me, his throat is moving. 

•  Oh, and the end.  By the end, Neville is resigned to his fate.  He's tired of fighting to live-- and goodness knows, he's questioned that fight to stay alive all through the book.  He accepts that he has become the abnormality-- the anomaly-- in a changed world.  It is a depressing conclusion, of course-- much more so than that of the movie, so I imagine most people prefer the movie's end.  I'm still not sure how I feel... If he's really the only "normal" person left on earth (or the part of it he'll be able to reach), maybe it's just as well that he does die, but I always find that a difficult way to end a story, even when I don't particularly love the character in question.  The old "never give in" part of me doesn't like it.

Anyway, I've read it.  Now I want something different for my next read.  Lets' have more than one character, for starters.  ;o)  And maybe no vampire plagues, this time.