Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Road

The Road, by Cormac McCarthy
2006, 287 pp.

Ten years after some undescribed global calamity, a man and his son follow the road south and try to survive. The world is dark and cold, covered with billowing ash. The cities are destroyed, all the animals are dead, and the human survivors have long since become roving bands of murderers and cannibals. Together the man (called only "the man") and his son ("the boy") walk south to the ocean. The Road is a stark, desolate book, a minimalist modern take on the old post-apocalypse genre, and a surprisingly intimate story of paternal love.

The book consists of short paragraphs and episodes lasting a page or two. The man and the boy walk along the road. They hide from roving bands of cannibals. They search ruins for food. They get hungry, they get cold, they get wet. They camp under a tarp and make a small fire. This is the book. Much of it is given in barren passages of dialogue, full of repetitions, okays, yeses, and nos, devoid of quotation marks or commas. This is a representative:

"Did you have any friends?
Yes. I did.
Lots of them?
Do you remember them?
Yes. I remember them.
What happened to them?
They died.
All of them?
Yes. All of them.
Do you miss them?
Yes. I do.
Where are we going?
We're going south.

McCarthy is known for his thick, gnarled prose with its Biblical cadence and peculiar antique diction. Here he is mostly quite restrained, grudgingly giving up very few sparse words on big empty pages. He gets a lot done with very few words, almost entirely nouns and verbs which do a lot of heavy thematic lifting. His descriptions are terse and efficient:

"The grainy air. The taste of it never left your mouth. They stood in the rain like farm animals. Then they went on, holding the tarp over them in the dull drizzle. Their feet were wet and cold and their shoes were being ruined. On the hillsides old crops dead and flattened. The barren ridgeline trees raw and black in the rain."

He delivers several simple, but apt descriptions, mostly of the endless dark and cold, sometimes both. "That cold autistic dark" for instance, or "the ancient dark," or one of McCarthy's favorite images conflating the shoulder blades of someone starving with razors. One readily forgives the Ptolemaic error in the lovely description of how "the banished sun circles the earth like a grieving mother with a lamp." This is a case study in the unity of content and form: McCarthy sketches a barren, empty world, with barren, emaciated prose. It is true that his usual tropes are not far away: as James Wood pointed out in the New Republic, he still has “a reliance on gnomic utterances by cameo prophets” and his habitual bursts of sudden horrible violence punctuate the narrative. At times he does wind himself up into a passage of rhapsodic, frothing prose, like this one:

"By then all stores of food had given out and murder was everywhere upon the land. The world soon to be largely populated by men who would eat your children in front of your eyes and the cities themselves held by cores of blackened looters who tunneled among the ruins and crawled from the rubble white of tooth and eye carrying charred and anonymous tins of food in nylon nets like shoppers in the commissaries of hell. The soft black talc blew through the streets like squid ink uncoiling along a sea floor and the cold crept down and the dark came early and the scavengers passing down the steep canyons with their torches trod silky holes in the drifted ash that closed behind them silently as eyes. Out on the roads the pilgrims sank down and fell over and died and the bleak and shrouded earth went trundling past the sun and returned again as trackless and as unremarked as the path of any nameless sisterworld in the ancient dark beyond."


But aside from the craftsman’s impressive fashioning of the mechanics of his art to suit his purposes, The Road has a few interesting structural nuances. It could most obviously be classified as an entry into the post-apocalyptic genre, but it resolutely defies most of the conventions of that dubious category. Most post-apocalyptic books have the actual calamity as a centerpiece, since that allows an easy before/after dichotomy, some noisy set-pieces to get through the middle stretch, and a bit of moralizing about the cause of the disaster. The Road takes place ten years later, with the apocalypse itself barely explained. The man has memories of the world “in that long ago,” but the boy does not, and the man is unable to communicate his memories, because the world is so different: “He could not construct for the child’s pleasure the world’ he’d lost without constructing the loss as well and he thought perhaps the child had known this better than he.” Most post-apocalyptica is created for the purposes of social commentary. It is designed as an allegory for contemporary problems, a reductio ad absurdum argument against the author’s pet fears. The Road is nothing of the sort. Like the great prison literature, The Road is purely material, concerned only with how one would live in a world without people, commerce, production, infrastructure, organization, social groups, safety, or a future. This is the really affecting core of the book: the man is totally devoted every moment of every day to survival, and we are carried along with him through the hard details of that struggle, but he has no answer for the struggle against the last problem. Survival may be the only thing that matters, but why bother surviving in such a world? Why bother keeping your child alive, if you know that his only future is to continue living in such suffering? We learn in flashback that the boy’s mother killed herself rather than live only to be killed and quite probably raped and eaten.

With the conventions of the post-apocalyptic genre stripped away, what remains is that quintessential American motif: the road or river novel. Transit down a road or a river has been a stirring metaphor since at least Mark Twain, and seems to be deeply ingrained in the American psyche. I’m certain Joseph Campbell had all sorts of theories about it. It remains here, when all the rest of civilization and culture is gone, and it works as an animating force to push the novel along.

All of that said, the end is a problem. Throughout we get a deep emotional sense of the man’s commitment and devotion to his son. “If he is not the world of God God never spoke,” the man thinks early on, and as the book continues, he gets increasingly theological. The man kills several people and refuses to help several more out of the necessity of survival, but the boy always objects, wanting to help anyone he can. The boy increasingly takes on a sort of child-saint aspect, including a passage in which the man tells one of McCarthy’s “cameo prophets” that the boy is a god, the last god on earth. The prophet takes this a bit humorously, but the point remains whether the boy is meant literally to be seen as a redemptive godly figure, or if the man’s monomania has proceeded to such an extent that he really believes it and is effective at persuading the reader. The final pages strike an incongruous note of religious consolation, with solemn talk about the fire of God being passed from person to person and even a bit of downright deus ex machina which casts much of the rest of the novel into an entirely different light, opening up interpretations in which the man was far more paranoid and violent than previously considered and the world not quite so badly off. Many reviewers found the last pages uplifting and hopeful. I found them false and disingenuous, and had McCarthy not been quite so fortunately terse with them, they could have ruined the novel entirely. Instead it is a good book with a false ending, but still well worth reading, particularly for aficionados of Cormac McCarthy or of post-apocalyptic fiction.

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