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 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?
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.