In Brief : The Road

As I’ve read various everyman reviews for Cormac McCarthy’s celebrated novel, The Road, I’ve realized that it can be a polarizing story. There are those who see it as a marvelous tale of sacrificial love and hope. There are others who can’t stand the abandonment of punctuation and the repetitively repetitive nature of it all.

The Road is a post-apocalyptic story of survival featuring a nameless man and his nameless son in an ashen and dreary world. Without crops, animals, or even the sun, the world is on the brink of extinction. The two travel the road in search of life and survivors, though trust is also in short supply as many have turned to crime and cannibalism.

The Road won the Pulitzer Prize for literature in 2007, so it must get something right. But to be honest, I can sympathize with the detractors. Since I finished it this weekend, I’ve come to call it the best worst book I’ve read in a long time. My thoughts are all over the map here, and I could write for days… but since the title says In Brief… 

The Best

Cormac McCarthy drew me in deep with his mastery of English vocabulary. In a world that is gray and barren, he unearths a great variety of words to communicate grayness and barrenness. He draws on language to reveal depths of despair and courage, and for that I am in awe. His prose is elegant.

The dialogue between the man and his son is often cold and distant like the world they traverse – serving a thematic purpose – and is apparently drawn from McCarthy’s own personal relationships.

Given the dire situation, there is no shortage of suspense as they come upon decrepit dwelling after dwelling. The man’s deliberate drive to find sustenance in sketchy places alongside the boy’s hesitation and fear at what else they might find create a fantastic tension both in the story and in their relationship.

Providing contrast and complexity in the characters, the man looks upon every surviving human with skepticism, the boy with compassion. This creates an internal/emotional tension that nicely expands the situational elements.

The Road contains the elements of greatness… which is why it is the best worst book that I’ve read in some time.

The Worst

The artist in me wants to believe that McCarthy left out the punctuation used in the top half of the line (quotations & apostrophes) in order to highlight the glass being half. Half full? Half empty? I suppose that’s a matter of perspective.

The writer in me wants to believe that he left it out in order to blur the lines between the man, his son, and anyone or anything else they happen to encounter. Why attribute words to particular persons when all are simply seeking survival in a blurry world?

The reader in me thinks his prose is strong enough that the lack of punctuation is annoying. McCarthy’s writing doesn’t require tricks. If a device must be overlooked in order to enjoy the book, it’s not worth including.

The characters, while complex, are also quite flat. Just like the world they inhabit, the characters encounter little growth or change (which, I know, is probably the point). I might have enjoyed this aspect more if McCarthy had explored the past a little more or further utilized their dialogue/dreams/flashbacks/thoughts to a greater extent.

I was losing heart in the middle of the book. I really didn’t want to finish. But I read a few reviews (without spoilers) that said, I’m so glad I stuck with it to the end. And so I persisted.

Love and Courage Without Hope

McCarthy’s man embodies sacrifice and survival. He lives for the boy’s wellness. The barren world places them in a situation where flight is not a viable option (from the situation or the accompanying suffering), and so the beauty of his love is that it gives all in the face of insurmountable odds.

McCarthy’s boy is the image of cautious trust, wanting to see goodness yet painfully aware of the reality of evil. He possesses an appropriate and surprising childlike faith, both in his father as protector and provider, and in an uninformed notion of God as a grounded source of black and white amid the world presented as eternally gray.

But while I applaud the complicated relationship of father and son, I diverge from the multitudes in the misguided notion that there is any lasting hope on The Road. McCarthy gives no room for ultimate hope. There is no food. No sunshine. No possibility of growing or cultivating livelihood. Mentions of an eternal reality are hollow at best. Everyone will die, and soon. The only revealed mission of every living human is to consume what remains.

The Road is hopeless. The man’s love has no ultimate relevance because it serves only to prolong both his and the boy’s pain in a world which boasts not even the slightest glimpse of light. The boy’s trust is charming but McCarthy gives no reason to believe he’s accomplished anything but finding a bigger family to die alongside.

Through his apocalypse, McCarthy lifts the veil of worldly distraction and comfort, and exposes the emaciated core of a materialistic worldview. On The Road, it doesn’t matter where we came from or how we got here, because ultimately we’re not going anywhere and so it doesn’t matter which way we go. Love merely serves to make the hopeless tolerable.

If the story meant to convey hope, the least the man could have done was tell the boy about love, beauty, and the colorful world he once knew. Instead, he suppressed it all as dangerous. He prepared the boy for an eternally ashen existence of militant survival.

I might like to ask Cormac McCarthy why he would bother to compose such aesthetic prose to tell the story of a man who refused to allow his son to even imagine color.

There is a journey. But without an anchor upon which to rest questions of origin, meaning, morality, and destiny, The Road leaves us only to eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.

Best worst book.

 

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