I didn’t like the character Robert Neville, but I don’t suppose I have to. Not every protagonist has to be someone I’d have a beer with. Neville reminds me of the guy two cubicles down from you in your office who has a Sinatra poster tacked to the wall. He’s not particularly interesting. He’s even a little annoying, especially when he talks about how much more than you he knows about music. He drinks too much, and excuses it away as a connoisseurship, or a response to hardship (fair enough). Beyond these things, he is a blank canvas. There’s no beautiful soul or latent talent brewing beneath the surface. He exercises basic compassion, he hurts when he’s wounded, he celebrates when he succeeds. He eats. He doesn’t particularly like to shave. Few things can be said of Robert Neville that cannot be said of any man with a family.
In fact, we are asked to stew in the screaming normalcy that is Robert Neville for a large portion of the book. Like usual, I missed the point of this. I got bored. There are rich characters in literature history that make you imagine great and interesting pasts. They make you believe that they are qualified to undertake the unique journey that lies ahead. Robert Neville is a surly, drunken post of a man, devoid of feature beyond a lackluster white-guy description. He does what he has to do. He sulks. He fixes the boards on his house. He carves stakes. He mourns for his lost loved ones. He throws fits. If you are in the right frame of mind, it is riveting. I wasn’t, and so it took some time for me to appreciate what Matheson is trying to do here.
Robert Neville is kept generic on purpose. This is a tactic I’ve seen used in too many modern dystopian epics, especially in trilogy format. The reader is meant to insert himself into Neville’s shoes. When I first noticed it, I rolled my eyes. Then I remembered that this book was written in 1954, and the cliché became forgivable, up to a point. So we sat together, Neville and I. We read books about bacteria. We shuddered every time Ben Cortman screamed “Come out, Neville!” through the peep hole in the front door. It is when one gives into the gimmick, when one shoves aside the feelings of “I’ve seen this trick before” that one falls into Matheson’s trap.
I began to feel claustrophobic. This is not a small house, but it began to shrink in my mind. The outside in the daytime is just as bad. Loneliness and claustrophobia are closely akin. How can we get out? I’m more than halfway through the book, and we’re no closer to leaving than we were at the start. But we grow complacent. It is then that I began to wonder what it is that Matheson is trying to get across here. There was a dog. There are the vampires. There is research being done, but it is frantic. Neville begins to think he can cure the disease, cure vampirism. This idea is never given much purchase and feels deluded, like a grasping at straws. It is when this delusion is strongest, when we feel most sorry for Neville, now a hulking hermit, that the book turns. The vampire’s numbers begin to dwindle, and there is an encounter that completely shifts everything. Neville may be the protagonist but he is not the hero.
I usually try to end these reviews with a pithy line or clever observation, but the ending of this book left me slack-jawed with realization. I find myself devoid of clever lines. I can say only this: Matheson is masterful in his execution, and if you are anything like me, when the end comes and the true meaning of the title is revealed, you, too, will feel as though the proverbial rug is jerked from beneath your feet. You lie on your back, your notion of heroism through adversity shattered like a cheap mirror. Everything had a point, and it was pointing to something inside you. It was pointing to the idea that you are the normal one, that those who are different are somehow wrong, that it is your job to shape the world in your image even as your image begins to fade. It is pointing to something in you that is wrong and may never be righted, and that is okay. We are all relics of something, some past that is still present to us when we close our eyes, but if we listen, we still might survive.