In 1994, Oprah Winfrey attended the premiere of the film adaptation of Anne Rice's Interview with a Vampire. It's not exactly clear what happened to her in the dark, watching a befanged Tom Cruise, but she walked out of the movie. When reporters asked her why she left, she replied that the movie was "way too dark" and that, essentially, life was too short to focus on those things—Oprah wanted her life to be about finding the good. That mediocre movie inspired the Oprah Winfrey that we know today—before 1994, Oprah was the most popular talk-show host in America, it's true, but in the mid-'90s, when she changed the tone of her show to an overwhelmingly positive and vaguely spiritual quest for the secular good, Oprah became the queen of America's hearts and minds.
This 13-year quest reached a kind of climax last month when Oprah endorsed The Secret, a mind-numbingly stupid book about cocooning oneself in nice, pretty things and selfishly ignoring the bad. It was a kind of goodness waterloo, the apogee of everything Oprah had been building toward since that fateful Interview with a Vampire. There was nothing else for the poor woman to explore but nihilism, and there is nowhere else for Oprah's Book Club to go than postapocalyptic hell.
The most recent Oprah's Book Club selection is Cormac McCarthy's The Road. Never mind the fact that McCarthy has only given a handful of interviews in his entire career—the best was published in the New York Times Magazine. In 1992. Never mind that McCarthy doesn't do book tours or, really, any sort of publicity. If Oprah tried hard enough, she could probably get Thomas Pynchon on her show, albeit in silhouette and with his voice distorted.
No, the real eye-opener is that The Road is the most depressing book that McCarthy has ever written, which is saying an awful lot. It's about a father and his son wandering across America after an unspecified apocalypse. It's fabulously well written—a friend of mine said, "It's like someone asked Shakespeare to write a whole book about the color gray." Ash falls from the sky and covers everything. People are dead or dying on almost every page. One of its most colorful scenes involves a baby being roasted on a spit, for Christ's sake. And, thanks to Ms. Winfrey, it's probably going to be the best-selling and most widely read novel of the year.
One has to wonder how Oprah's book club will take this selection—will soccer moms across the country slit their wrists after being exposed to McCarthy's Mad Max–meets–The Sorrows of Young Werther magnum opus? Even the book club questions on Oprah's website are depressing: "How is McCarthy able to make the postapocalyptic world of The Road seem so real and utterly terrifying? Which descriptive passages are especially vivid and visceral in their depiction of this blasted landscape? What do you find to be the most horrifying features of this world and the survivors who inhabit it?"*
Never fear. According to the Oprah message boards, it looks like the American reading public is gonna be just fine, thanks to their uncanny ability to make any reading experience wholly and utterly about themselves. One woman offers this critique: "My initial thought was, I love how the book is blocked into short paragraphs. This makes it easy to read in the bathroom, during commercials, between innings in baseball games... I am only on page 40 and I already feel more appreciative of the view out my window." Another woman decides that The Road must lead to Jesus Christ: "I kept thinking while reading... this would suck, but God would be with you and whatever the outcome, it would be God's. Being able to trust in God makes any trouble easier to get through and if I were ever in such a situation, I think it would be comforting to know that you are nestled in the hand of God no matter how bad the view."
Actually, who cares about the average American reader? The real question is, how is Oprah feeling? Going from The Secret to The Road within a month of each other must provide the literary equivalent of whiplash: Is this a cry for help? Or could it be that, over a decade after shunning the faux "evil" of pop-culture pap, and with the help of one of the greatest living American novelists, Oprah has finally learned that there's something to be gained from staring into the darkness?
* I'm going to go out on a limb and provide the answer to all three of these questions: "A baby being roasted on a spit."