The Road by Cormac McCarthy
Posted on July 8, 2012
Yes, this book is by the author of No Country for Old Men; yes, this book was chosen for Oprah’s Book Club; and yes, those two things are apparently not mutually exclusive. If you’ve had a chance to watch the Coen brothers’ film adaptation of No Country for Old Men–a moody and brooding (broody and mooding?) cinematic love letter to Texas topography and pneumatic weaponry–you know that McCarthy doesn’t pull punches when it come to grisly details. Which is why I find it odd to think of Oprah liking The Road. I certainly can’t imagine her giving away The Road on one of her “Favorite Things” episodes: “Everyone in the audience is getting a paisley food processor and a copy of this novella about post-apocalyptic heartbreak!” Even more unlikely is the possibility of Oprah inviting her posse of television acolytes to do a special The Road style episode: Nate Berkus giving us tips on decorating in an ashen netherworld, Dr. Oz warning against the dangers of eating too much potted meat, and Dr. Phil offering some no-nonsense commonsense horse-sense about how we should get excited about our lives, apocalypse or no.
But I jest. The Road is a seriously moving novella. It’s heartbreaking. Actually, it’s heart-shattering. The narrative revolves around the efforts of a father and son (referred to only as “the man” and “the boy”) to survive in a post-apocalyptic world. Dust in the air has made it impossible for crops to grow. The majority of the earth’s human population has perished, and those still alive have joined together as groups of marauding vigilantes. The man and the boy are traveling to the sea because the man is certain that an opportunity for a better life awaits them there.
McCarthy often writes in non-grammatical sentences. Verbs go missing in his fusillades of unrelenting and epigrammatic imagery. He writes as an artist might sketch with charcoal, roughing out the semblance of a figure or a place–shading an outline with just enough detail to communicate loss and despair. Sometimes he lets slip a dash of color (a smile, a warm memory), only to let it fade in an all consuming gray. And it is this gray that seeps into you like a cancer, bludgeoning your optimism with its consistency. Gray is the color of death is the color of gray.
As a work of science fiction, The Road is conspicuously free of the conventional gadgetry. There are no phasers, food fabricators, or jet packs. There is little of anything that might be deemed a modern convenience, much less a futuristic toy. Even the event which brings about the apocalypse is never explained (though we can assume it probably has something to do with nuclear war). None of this is necessary, as the story needs only the man, the boy, and desolation to propel it forward.
In a sense, The Road is sort of the poster boy for a recent trend of apocalyptic fiction. As professor of creative writing Ben Marcus claims in his article, Living in the End Times,
“Yet, in American fiction at least, the end times has graduated into de rigueur subject matter. Increasingly novelists cut their teeth on it and it’s starting to look like a rite of passage. Long a preoccupation of science fiction and horror writing, the apocalypse, as it looms closer, has become more intriguing to writers of literary fiction, more necessary to address.”
Television has gotten in on the act too (see AMC’s superb The Walking Dead for proof). Are we experiencing some collective subconscious Mayan 2012 hysteria, or have we all simply grown weary of Desperate Housewives?
I don’t claim to know the answer (though I do claim to have watched only one episode of Desperate Housewives). All I know is that you should read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. There was a film version of The Road made in 2009, but you should (obviously) read the book first.