Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world

The Road, by Cormac McCarthy

The Road is probably now Cormac McCarthy’s best known novel. It won the 2007 Pulitzer prize for literature, it’s had almost uniformly good reviews, it’s been made into a film starring Viggo Mortensen – it’s one of those occasional novels that cross over from the literary world into popular(ish) culture.

In some ways, that’s a surprising thing. It’s only a little over 300 pages long, but it has no chapters, no easy narrative, it has a setting of unusual bleakness and a dense and sometimes highly inaccessible prose style.

On the other hand, it is in the main beautifully written (though at times the writing I think goes a little overboard, something I’ll return to) and it has an emotional core to it that will resonate with a great many readers. It’s a spare novel, stripped back (save sometimes for the prose) and at its heart it’s focused on the relationship between an unnamed man and his equally unnamed son, the two of them struggling through a desolate post-apocalyptic landscape that contains almost nothing living except themselves.

It’s unlikely anyone reading this doesn’t know essentially what The Road is about but, just in case, I’ll quickly set it out. The novel takes place some years after what appears to have been (it’s never clearly specified) an all-out nuclear war. The world is shrouded in nuclear winter, the sun barely visible through permanent heavy clouds of ash and dust, the cities are burnt and filled with corpses and the country is denuded – the trees dead and clogged with ash and the animals gone with them.

Among the few survivors are a man and his son, the boy born shortly after the apocalypse and so never having known the world before. The mother is dead, all that is left is this pair, and all they have is each other. They push their meagre possessions ahead of them in a shopping cart, heading for the coast where they hope to find life and something more than the desert that the world has become, but the impression is that they are moving because they have to, and because there’s not enough food left to make it feasible to stay put in any one place.

As they progress, they avoid other survivors, many of those who are left have resorted to cannibalism and food is so scarce that anyone met on the road is more likely to kill them than help them. The man lives to protect his son, to keep the flame alive as they both often say, and in this country of the dead there is plenty to protect the boy from. The world is full of dangers, full of those who would harm his child, with the mother gone he is all that stands between his small son and the horrors of an existence utterly indifferent to his child, sometimes outright hostile.

The power of the novel, of course, is that parents today feel this protective love, this sense that they are all that stands between their child and an indifferent world full of danger. Parents always have felt that, likely because it’s often true. The Road succeeds not because of the particular facts of its characters’ situation, but because those facts set out in relief a common human emotion. The knowledge of the fragility of something you love more than your own life, the desire to keep it safe, the knowledge that you will not be able to forever.

The Road didn’t start well for me, or rather it started well but quickly alienated me. By about half way through, that alienation ceased and by the end I enjoyed the novel and was glad I’d read it, but for a while it was touch and go. The problem was the language and, to an extent, the premise (which is unfortunate, because the premise doesn’t matter).

Early on the man and his son pass through a derelict city filled with mummified corpses, “discalced to a man”. The sentence goes on to explain what discalced means, it’s not a common word after all (shoeless, generally used in a religious context in relation to orders that walk unshod), but it threw me out of the novel. Firstly, I wondered what discalced meant, the sentence explains it but it’s not often I encounter new words so I took a few moments to look it up anyway. Secondly, the sentence goes on to explain that all their shoes were long stolen, and I found myself thinking, by whom exactly? There are hardly any survivors, the dead vastly outnumber the living. I can accept that the men’s shoes would all be gone, years have passed and shoes can’t be repaired after all, but the women’s? In the grim post-nuclear future are there really people stealing pairs of high heels? The women with sensible footwear would have bare feet, sure, but that still leaves an awful lot whose shoes would I think be left in place.

It’s a petty point, and I was annoyed at myself for being jarred by it, but I was jarred by it. And as the novel continued, more discrepancies struck me. Put simply, the setting doesn’t entirely work. The thing is, that doesn’t really matter, because the novel’s not about its setting, it’s not an attempt to create a credible and worked-up post-apocalyptic environment. It’s a setting that is there to cast the relationship of the central characters into relief. If I hadn’t grown up with science fiction, I doubt I’d have noticed or cared, however I did and throughout I found myself troubled by things which seemed contrived more for effect than plausibility.

That issue was I suspect a fault in me. The other issue I found though was more problematic, on occasion The Road is simply overwritten. Here, the man remembers a conversation he had with his wife, after the bombs fell but before her death, he is trying to persuade her not to kill herself:

I dont care. It’s meaningless. You can think of me as a faithless slut if you like. I’ve taken a new lover. He can give me what you cannot.
Death is not a lover.
Oh yes he is.
Please dont do this.
I’m sorry.
I cant do it alone.
Then dont. I cant help you. They say that women dream of danger to those in their care and men of danger to themselves. But I dont dream at all. You say you cant? Then dont do it. That’s all. Because I am done with my own whorish heart and I have been for a long time.

Put bluntly, nobody talks like that. A woman considering suicide, considering abandoning her husband and newborn baby because she is filled with utter despair, does not talk about her “own whorish heart”. That’s blatantly a novelist writing for the effect of the prose, utterly unconvincing. The whole passage reminded me that I was reading a novel, a conceit, again it threw me bodily out of the sitatuation and the characters.

Also, reading the above section, you may notice the use of apostrophes. In brief, where a contraction ends with a t, McCarthy doesn’t use an apostrophe. Hence dont, cant, wont. Where a contraction ends with another letter, he does use one. Hence you’re, I’m, it’s. I’m not quite sure what the logic of that is. I can understand using apostrophes properly, I can understand omitting them entirely. McCarthy though creates a new grammar, where they are used correctly save where the word ends in a t in which case they are omitted. That’s regular enough a rule that I thought about it, and it became a distraction.

So, what did work for me? If the dialogue, grammar and sometimes even the writing jarred, why am I glad I read it? Well, because that’s far from the whole story.

Firstly, although McCarthy does sometimes lapse into portentousness, mostly he avoids it and he can capture scenes with a subtlety and power that is quite breathtaking. This scene, earlier than the one quoted before, captures I thought with understated grace the horror of the end of the world (which, as one character argues at one point, from your own perspective is no different at all to your own end, the boy is perhaps the man’s refutation of that argument).

The clocks stopped at 1:17. A long shear of light and then a series of low concussions. He got up and went to the window. What is it? she said. He didnt answer. He went into the bathroom and threw the lightswitch but the power was already gone. A dull rose glow in the windowglass. He dropped to one knee and raised the lever to stop the tub and then turned on both taps as far as they would go. She was standing in the doorway in her nightwear, clutching the jamb, cradling her belly in one hand. What is it? she said. What is happening?
I dont know.
Why are you taking a bath?
I’m not.

Why are you taking a bath? I’m not. Marvellous. McCarthy packs a lot in here, we see that the man understands what the flash of light means and that now water will be hard to come by. In a moment, he has seen what is happening, what it will bring, and what must be done to have any hope of survival. It’s a wonderfully understated and subtle moment, terrible in its many implications.

Equally, the new and morbid landscape through which the man and boy travel is often wonderfully evocative. They sleep in a forest of petrified trees, which suddenly start to collapse around them. Snow falls on paths already clogged with ash. The sky is dreary and occluded, and all the birds are dead.

And, above all, there is the relationship between the man and his son. This is beautifully captured, it is the book. They tell each other that they are the good guys, that they are keeping the flame alive. The man teaches his son to fear the bad guys, cannibals and casual killers, and seeks to instil in him some form of morality. But the boy is more moral than the father, when they encounter (as they sometimes do) others worse off than themselves, the father fears them as potential competitors for resources, the boy feels compassion and wants to help them. The boy is innocent, the father isn’t, but the boy’s innocence exists in part because the father sacrifices his own in order to preserve it.

The two reassure each other, the boy is terrified whenever his father has to leave him, to search a building for supplies or to scout the road ahead. He seeks comfort that they are still the good guys. He asks questions with no answer. And, since I shared some not so good dialogue earlier, here’s a passage which I thought captured brilliantly the way children sometimes think and talk:

Do you think there might be crows somewhere?
I dont know.
But what do you think?
I think it’s unlikely.
Could they fly to Mars or someplace?
No. They couldnt.
Because it’s too far.
Even if they wanted to.
Even if they wanted to.
What if they tried and they just got half way or something and then they were too tired. Would they fall back down?
Well. They really couldnt get half way because they’d be in space and there’s not any air in space so they wouldnt be able to fly and besides it would be too cold and they’d freeze to death.

I don’t want to speak to the ending, but it has an emotional and metaphorical logic that gives it tremendous power. The point of The Road is the journey the man and boy undergo, a journey that all parents undergo. The man protects his boy, pretends that things will be ok, warns him against strangers. The boy in turn understands more than the father would like, for all the father tries he cannot wholly preserve that innocence.

The man’s greatest problem, worse than starvation and predatory strangers, is that without him the boy is often too trusting and too unaware of the dangers around him. The boy though, unburdened by the father’s crippling fear for his survival, sometimes sees some things more clearly, understands that life is more than one’s own survival.

In large part, this is a novel about hope. The father’s hope is all in his son, an object of perfect love, everything he lives for. The boy’s hope is a broader thing, he hopes not just for them, but for others they see who may need help themselves. The flame is alive because the father holds it for the boy, keeping it alight until the boy can keep it going on his own.

There’s a lot to be said about this novel, certainly more than I have here (and this is already a long writeup). I’ll leave then with one final quote, an example of imagery both terrible and beautiful, a combination that McCarthy is no stranger to.

The melted window glass hung frozen down the walls like icing on a cake.

Trevor, of The Mookse and the Gripes, wrote up The Road here in a review which picks out its key elements with great accuracy. In particular, it’s easy when reading about how the novel is about the love between a father and son to fear that it may be mawkish, sentimental. Trevor brings out why that is not so, and quite how true the capturing of that relationship is. Trevor also didn’t get bogged down by setting as I did, and brings out nicely the references to the way the world is becoming something primal again, pre-civilised. His take is well worth a read.

Edit: I forgot to link to Kerry’s review of The Road, here, which is excellent on the religious symbolism of the novel and the importance of keeping going as part of being human. There’s already some discussion of the end over at Kerry’s, so I’ll likely post my own thoughts on the final paragraphs over there.

The Road


Filed under McCarthy, Cormac, Post-apocalypse, SF

21 responses to “Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world

  1. Max, I loved your review because it got me thinking about one of my favorite books. I’m glad that in the end you enjoyed it more than you were.

    I’m going to respond to some of your hangups, not because I want to convince you that you’re wrong — you’re not — but because those are some of the things I find particularly interesting with regards to McCarthy.

    First, his apostrophe usage. McCarthy holds to the belief that writing should be as free as possible from punctuation. A sentence should be rewritten in such a way that the punctuation, other than the spare comma and the necessary period, are not necessary to convey the meaning. In such contractions as “dont” or “wont,” the appostrophe is not necessary. In such contractions as “I’m” or “he’d,” the appostrophe is necessary; if they were not there we’d stop and wonder for quite a while what Im or hed were. I’m definitely not saying that everyone should write this way — I love someone who can arrange a long sentence with commas just as much as I love someone who can arrange the sentence without. However, I feel like in this particular book the technique works very well as a indication of the world we are reading about — all excess is gone, even from the writing.

    Which, of course, is contradicted by the excess inherent in McCarthy’s prose — all of those strange words and unlikely dialogue. For this, I have no real response. I know that Melville and Shakespeare are big influences when it comes to McCarthy’s dialogue, and they certainly weren’t realistic when it came to dialogue — then again, they were very accurate when it came to conveying feeling and tone. I’ve never been one to get hung up over unlikely dialogue — which is why I can read Roth and never once feel thrown when the rants he writes are far too eloquent and rhetorical to be realistic. That said, I hate it when an author is being florid just to be florid. I’ve never articulated my view before, but perhaps it has to strike me as real either in form (it must sound real) or in substance (it must feel real). And I’m not sure I’d say that doing both all the time is the best option. I think McCarthy exemplifies doing both (as you show in your examples of good dialogue above) and in going for feel rather than form (as perhaps is shown in your bad example — though I agree that that particular quote is jarring and a bit self-indulgent).

    Anyway, I always enjoy thinking about this book. And one thing I continue to think about is that last paragraph. To me it suggests the book doesn’t end as hopeful as people think. Or, at the very least, that McCarthy is bridling that hope with some ambiguity.

  2. I tried reading No Country For Old Men and failed….

  3. Great review, Max. I always enjoy reading reviews of Cormac McCarthy.

    That bad dialogue you quote has the feel of the Man’s bitter interpretation of what was said, rather than the actual words, but it is a long time since I read the book, and I don’t know if that would make sense in context.

    As for the shoes; if you were desperate you might snap off the heels, or burn them… I think anything would be reviewed as a resource.

    These are quibbles from someone who has never had the courage to tackle a review of this book.

    I liked your observation that the Man sacrificed his innocence for the boy, which isn’t something I registered. But were you interested in the religious themes?

    Finally, I love McCarthy’s prose indiscriminately, in anticipation that I will one day be able to decipher the more problematic parts. Your position may be more realistic.

  4. Here’s my take on Cormac McCarthy: he is a top-flight genre writer who somehow was allowed to rise above the genre ghetto. I don’t know the actual mechanics of how it all went down, but it was some kind of a collusion between him and the literary, publishing and critical establishment. His role was to do things like take apostrophes out of certain words and never use quotation marks for dialogue (this infuriatingly pretentious habit, above all, almost makes him impossible for me to read) and include every now and then the kind of blistered dialogues you quoted in your review. The establishments, in turn, gave him grants, allowed his books to be published in trade paperback form, had them marketed and displayed as literature, got him a movie deal and so on.

    This used to bother me at first, but once I realized the game, I was able to just appreciate the great stories and characterizations he writes. Strip away his punctuation techniques and his westerns are basically Elmore Leonards, his contemporary crime Charles Willeford.

    It’s not his fault, but his very existence, when viewed in this light, exposes the immense snobbery and insecurity of the North American (and possibly english) field of literature, where great crime, western and science fiction authors are dismissed as “genre” books while dated, adolescent pap like John Updike is considered classic.

  5. I’m sure you’re right about the use of apostrophes Trevor, sadly on this 0ccasion it just didn’t work for me. I think because it was inconsistent it caused me to think about it, to work out the rule, all of which took me out of the novel.

    I’m also not sure Im is any worse than cant, but I could be wrong on that.

    One thought I had was whether the intent was to create a new grammar, to imply that our structures were breaking down, even language, and new structures emerging – more primitive ones in part. But that may be overthinking it.

    Your form or substance analysis with dialogue is interesting, I do know what you mean. Here, I thought he just took it too far, but certainly there can be dialogue which though unconvincing as reported speech is nonetheless effective in terms of tone and purpose within the fiction. That’s a good point.

    I’ll return to that last paragraph in a bit, I have to think how to talk about it while disguising spoilers a bit.

  6. I preferred No Country for Old Men actually, I thought it overall the better novel. What didn’t work for you Guy?

    Sarah, the man’s bitter interpretation didn’t occur to me, you could be right though, certainly as the later quote shows it’s not as if McCarthy doesn’t know how to do dialogue. He may still have overdone it, but plainly it was never meant to be wholly naturalistic (well, I certainly hope it wasn’t).

    You could be right on the shoes, to be honest though a lot of small setting details didn’t quite work for me, I just didn’t want to get too hung up on that as it’s not at all what the novel’s about. The point of that scene is I think the image, the discalced dead, rather than the logistics of post-apocalyptic footwear requirements which is where I sadly got bogged down…

    I picked up religious themes, but they’re not my strong point to be honest, particularly Christian ones (I’m stronger on classical references). That said, you shouldn’t be afraid to write a review, I’d read it with interest and as that question shows it’s not as if I’ve addressed everything the book has to say (not even slightly). I’d be fascinated to see your take, particularly if you brought that angle out.

  7. Walkerp,

    I was going to talk about genre actually, but the piece was already getting overlong so I culled it. Oddly enough, my take is a little different. I think he’s a genre writer who also writes literary prose, and moreover I think he’s a bad genre writer but a good literary writer.

    He’s basically a writer of westerns, this still isn’t that far from that, but if you compare him to an Elmore Leonard (a writer I almost cited in this writeup oddly enough) or Zane Grey, he’s terrible in that field. He doesn’t write thrilling, gripping westerns. He writes bleak and horrible westerns with sickening levels of violence and in No Country for Old Men has a sudden late-novel change of tack so abrupt I know many readers were deeply alienated by it.

    What he is good at though is prose, that line I use as the title for this blog entry, that’s fantastic. Leonard’s prose is stripped back and efficient, as it should be, he’s about the story. He writes the bits readers read, to quote his ten rules. I’ve only read Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage, but his style isn’t his strength (though I did greatly enjoy that novel). With McCarthy though, really it’s the prose that makes it worth reading.

    I don’t think there is any collusion, or indeed an organised literary establishment. I think there is a snobbery which acts to deny the genre nature of genre writers who are also writers of excellent prose. It comes up in SF all the time, with the best writers suddenly being categorised as speculative fiction, when really they’re just SF authors with a literary style. I do think though that the demands of genre fiction, and of literary fiction, often conflict. I think with McCarthy they do actually. His twist in No Country makes it great literary fiction, but terrible genre fiction. If the prose becomes the point, that can get in the way of plot and pace, which are much more important in genre. If plotting and pacing are put up front though, then overly styled prose becomes a distraction and best avoided. Leonard’s rules work best when applied to genre fiction (though they’re good rules for any new writer to start off with).

    That said, I don’t personally have a hierarchy of form, I don’t regard literary fiction as necessarily superior to genre, most literary critics do but most literary critics frankly haven’t read much genre and commit the classic error of confusing their preferences with objective facts.

    Have you read any Chabon? He’s a very unusual example, a writer of literary fiction who has consciously and openly moved to genre, where I think his true talent probably lies.

    Oh, on a final note, my only real concern with McCarthy is that some critics may be mistaking unrelenting grimness for maturity, it’s a mistake many of us make as adolescents but I think sometimes it can carry over into adult life too. The fact something is horrible, doesn’t necessarily make it truer, but so much of what we’re fed in the media is relentlessly positive in message sometimes it’s easy to see the grim as somehow more accurate – it may just be as inaccurate but in the other direction.

  8. I really enjoyed your review, Max. And you’ve sparked interesting comments, which is always a good sign.

    I did enjoy the Road, as I wrote on my own blog, but do not think it deserves quite the hype it gets. It is another book that I would say is very good, but not great. On the other hand, every time I think about it, my mouth feels dry and I taste ash.

  9. I’ll follow up over at yours Trevor’s thoughts regarding the ending, as that’s already being discussed there. I note on rereading your review that you thought the setting contrived too. I very much agree with your take actually, it was good to read it again.

  10. I remember reading the first thirty pages or so, and thought it was getting a bit repetitive. I would have finished it anyway, but didn’t have time.

    The guys over at WLF hate it.
    No, hate it.

  11. Really? I’ll have to head over and read the relevant threads.

    I’m still wondering if I let my own desire to like it overinfluence me, I’ll just have to wait and see how it matures in memory for that one.

    It gets a lot better around the midway point, for me anyway. But it’ll be interesting six months from now to see what I think of it then.

  12. leroyhunter

    An interesting review, Max. I must confess that the elements that you found distracting / irritating didn’t occur to me when I read the book, nevertheless I enjoyed your exploration of them here (and am glad you overcame them to enjoy the book).

    I’d quite recently read Blood Meridian when I tackled The Road, and there’s an interesting contrast between the 2 visions of hellish journeys through hostile, unfogiving landscapes. The baroque, lunatic exuberance of Meridian is replaced by the intensity and narrow focus of the Man and the Boy. Both are compelling but I believe The Road has a more authentic and powerful core, not surprising given the genesis McCarthy has described in an epiphany about his own son. I agree with your commendation of how he avoids the mawkish or sentimental without losing the power of that central relationship.

    One thing I think is a particular strength of McCarthy (one he shares with LeCarre) is his ability to describe physical situations and events. The set-pieces in The Road (the truck; the cannibal house; the undisturbed bunker; the ship) are wonderfully memorable for the way they convey threat, uncertainty, revelation and consequence all through descriptions of action and setting. There is a clarity and efficiency to the way he unfolds these scenes, and he generally doesn’t clutter them up with the thoughts or reactions of characters who are involved in the sequence. It’s an effect he must work long and hard to achieve.

    I have All The Pretty Horses on the TBR shelf and I think it’s a perverse tribute to how much I’m looking forward to it that I keep postponing starting it. Thanks for the review.

  13. I linked to the thread in my comment. They thought it’s wrong to write a bleak book without humour, mainly.

  14. The bunker was where the book turned for me actually, I thought that whole sequence worked really well.

    On the plausibility issue I had, part of that may simply be that unlike most readers of the novel I grew up with SF, not general fiction, so there’s part of me almost trained to think about the setting – in SF doing just that is often the point of the book. In this case, it’s not a useful habit to have. That said, Kerry had much the same issue, so it may just be a personal thing to some readers and not others. As I said in my post though, the setting wasn’t the point, so I think you were better off not getting bogged down in it as I was.

    Interesting stuff about Blood Meridian. I’m looking forward to that and All the Pretty Horses.

    Ronak, I read the thread. I’m not sure I agree, I might prefer a bleak book to have humour (I generally do), but it’s not required. Besides, at risk of getting on to the ending (and I still need to nip over to Kerry’s to talk about that) I don’t think the book is entirely bleak. I think it’s bleak, leavened with hope. Humour might undermine that. Not sure.

  15. leroyhunter

    I haven’t read the thread you discuss above, but I think anyone looking for humour in Cormac McCarthy books is kind of missing the point. It’s like being disappointed by the lack of forensic science in Wodehouse.

    It will be interesting to see what you make of Blood Meridian, Max. There is something unworldly about it, a mythical quality to the language that belies the gruesome stream of transgressions the characters witness and perpetrate.

  16. Nice analogy Leroy, and yeah, one should I think judge books on what they aim to be, not what one would wish them to be.

    I will try Blood Meridian, but probably not for a while. As I mentioned above, I preferred No Country for Old Men to The Road, but with both I’ve found a little McCarthy lasts a fair while. It’s concentrated stuff.

  17. I saw the movie No Country For Old Men, and liked it, though would like to read the book too :)) it was pretty intense movie…

  18. I think you’ll love Blood Meridian because I’m convinced it is, in large parts, an homage to Lovecraft.

    There’s a similar prose style and a similar vision of the world… what I like to think of as “racist realism”.

    Personally, while I admire Blood Meridian a lot, I do not love it because I think that the plot is not sufficient to hold it together as a novel. The set pieces are great but the book itself starts to get a bit repetitive… which is, from a certain point of view, the point, but it’s still a bit frustrating.

  19. I thought it a wonderful book, the dialogue in places is superb. There are many examples, like the scene in the bathroom that you quote, which say much more than is written. I mentioned a similar moment with the Coca Cola machine in my own review here

  20. That does make Blood Meridian sound interesting, certainly, but then an HPL comparison will always draw me in.

    Respect but not love, not a bad summary of how I feel about The Road actually.

    Resolute, the Coca Cola machine scene was good, I’ll pop over to yours and read your review.

  21. Pingback: The Puzzling Road « Life as it ain't

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