Novembers “Books Without Pictures” book was I Am Legend by Richard Matheson. I originally read this book years ago, not long before the Will Smith movie, so its been I’ve enjoyed going back to it, particularly as I’d somehow managed to blur the lines between some of the events of the book and the film, though, I must point out, that doesn’t include either ending, which I won’t discuss here.
I’m going to go out on one here and say that I Am Legend isn’t a book that an individual enjoys. That’s not so say it’s not an excellent read, but to enjoy it would, in my mind, kind of miss its point? Well, I think so.
The reason I say this is that it’s so unbelievably bleak, which you’d expect as post-apocalyptic vampire filled piece of literature. But its not just these elements that contribute to its bleakness, as many other authors have had fun with such concepts over the years.
No, what makes it so bleak is its leading character, Robert Neville, and his utterly white aggressive attitude towards pretty much everything. Throughout the story, its driven home that Neville lives in Compton in the 1970s (though the book itself was written in the 50s) and the impression is given is that Neville is a typical blue-collared White American male just trying to go about his daily routines but is afraid to go out after dark because of the number of vampires in his neighbourhood, many of whom gather on his lawn at night trying to goad him into leaving his house, a former colleague calls out his name constantly whilst “the females” all try and gain his attention via their sexuality.
Neville’s actions really drive home the Nuclear Family father figure element, pre-outbreak, he goes to work and comes home to his wife and child, the feeling is there that when he gets home he puts on his slippers and his dutiful wife brings him his evening meal. Post-outbreak, he’s reluctant to really do any standard household chores, these things are a distraction from the “Man in his shed” system of him throwing himself at his hobbies (researching how he can rid the world of the so-called vampires), there’s absolutely no change in his behaviours throughout the book and he is shown to be an absolute dinosaur right to the end.
But that’s not why it’s so bleak.
Why then, do I keep saying its bleak? Well, because the world that Matheson has created seems to revel in being consistently cruel to Neville from the very beginning. Each and every time there’s the hope that something will happen that may help change him, that may help allow the character to grow, its ripped out from under the feet of both Robert and the reader, every bit of research he does leads to a dead-end, each time you think he’s finally got someone to offer him companionship, be it the dog he tries to befriend or Ruth, its literally torn away by the end of the chapter that Matheson introduces it, and yet somehow, after a period of drinking himself stupid, Robert Neville gets back up again, dusts himself off and goes for yet another round.
It’s like a Rocky movie, but without the knowing that despite being absolutely beaten up, the lead characters going to turn out okay, he’ll learn along the way and defeat the mountain in front of him, instead, he relents, he decides to try and fit in with the new world presented to him by Ruth, and guess, what… that’s ripped away from him too.
It’s an absolute car crash of a book, and by that I’m not criticising the writing at all, you find yourself reading to find out just what will happen next to this character, this sole individual who, lets be honest, doesn’t really have any redeeming features, I’m definitely not of the mind that we’re supposed to like him. But at the same time, we don’t really want him to be floored over and again before the referee awards the victory to his opponent, that’s not how we consume our media, certainly not in 2019 where even the anti-hero (such as the Joker in Todd Phillip’s recent film) gets their day, Richard Matheson’s Robert Neville never gets his moment (unless you watch the movie).