"The Road" by Cormac McCarthy

[The following review may contain some spoilers, the most extreme of which (dealing with the book's ending, will be marked. But there is this to be said: it is not really a book one reads for the plot.]

Query: How does the never to be differ from what never was? (27)

An apocalyptic world, shrouded in an ashy haze that blocks out the sun, populated by cannibalistic cults and terrified stragglers. A man and his young son (unnamed, everymannish, distanced by third person narration) follow the road, the remnant of a civilization that disappeared within the last few years, towards an unknown hope. It seems they might be seeking others like them, for whom there are still basic laws of morality (you shall not steal from the living, you shall not eat human flesh), but every encounter with another human being sends them spiralling into violence and terror. They scavenge for food, struggle to stay warm, try to keep moving, and the father is coughing up blood.
Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it. (110)

This is not, I must warn you, a jolly book. It is a book about survival, and the remnants of morality in an apocalyptic landscape. It is an exploration of how one negotiates love amidst hopelessness. McCarthy's prose is plain and action-oriented - the majority of the novel is taken up by flinty, curt descriptions of the basic actions of life: searching the surroundings for danger, acquiring food and water, protecting yourself and your family from cold and detection, trying to read the landscape for any indication of where you are or what to do next. From time to time, a surreal (and often dream-based) passage will burst forth, but to be honest, these sections are not as beautifully written or as gripping as the intense focus of the plainer prose.

But even more striking is the almost choric use of dialogue: father and son say little to one another, but they retread the same conversational ground repeatedly, in exchanges which point to the uncomfortable impossibility of ever really knowing someone else's interior life. What are you thinking? -the father repeatedly nudges - Aren't you going to talk to me? And from the son: Are we going to die? [No.] Are you lying to me? [No.] Would you lie to me about this? [Maybe.] Which is kinder, the novel asks us, a lie which comforts in the moment, or a harsh truth that prepares you for the future? The son, who stands in for an absolute, naive, and implacable moral idealism against his father's pragmatism, would have the truth. When they encounter others on the road (a man who has been hit by lightning, a little boy among the ruins of a city, or - most horrifyingly - a cellar-full of people caught by the cultish cannibals), the son is the voice of empathy (against the survivalist demands of self-interest), the morality that asserts the absolute necessity of acts of kindness and altruism for the survival of humanity. And it is this voice which is always disappointed, always crushed, but always willing to remind the father of the compromises he has made in his soul to gain the questionable gift of survival.

The plainness of McCarthy's plot and language make this into a modern allegory, in which the Road comes to play the same fraught and contradictory symbolic role (it is destiny, leading on to a hopeful future, rewarding their devotion with the promise of enlightenment, but it is also fatalism and entrapment) as it has in stories going back to the works of Chaucer, Bunyan and Spenser.
I think we're about two hundred miles from the coast. As the crow flies.
As the crow flies?
Yes. It means going in a straight line.
Are we going to get there soon?
Not real soon. Pretty soon. We're not going as the crow flies.
Because crows don't have to follow roads?
They can go wherever they want.
Yes. (132)

His prose is plain, but shows the almost baroque love of unusual and archaic language amidst this plainness that I have always heard associated with him (this is my first finished McCarthy novel). At a certain point in the novel, it was teaching me an average of one new word per 8 pages: discalced (unshod!), fire-drake, lave, mastic, rachitic, siwash, skift, claggy, quoits. The boy picks up clichés out of nowhere, it seems, magically resurrecting conventions of language that died in the cataclysms of his pre-speaking life. From time to time, a turn of speech will seep through from our time, revealing the possibility that this is an allegory for our politically embattled world:
[Speaking about the possibility of meeting other fugitives]:
And they could be carrying the fire too?
They could be. Yes.
But we don’t know.
We don’t know.
So we have to be vigilant.
We have to be vigilant. Yes. (182-3)

You can see here the trace of an aspect of the novel that made me slightly uncomfortable: the religious overtones that drive their survival. Why keep going in a world of suffering? To “carry the fire.” (At one point – p.143 - they encounter a sort of a holy man named “Eli” on the road, devoid of all sympathies and beliefs, pure in his faithlessness. He tells them “There is no God and we are his prophets.” Which seems to me to be an apt summary of the book.) Is this religious striving simply a self-deluding justification for the callous acts that guarantee each day of continued life? Or is the father’s belief that his son has this flame, and must survive to carry it on, more than just an evolutionary imperative, a reflection of the boy’s supernally keen empathetic abilities?

The stripped down quality of the language yields a sort of interpersonal blurring: long patches of dialogue yield no character attributions (i.e. “the boy said”) to guide us, and because virtually all the characters are male, pronouns frequently seem self-reflexive when they are not. How much distinction is there between the man’s sense of self(-preservation) and his sense of his son?

At its best, this stripped-down, hard-as-rocks language, focusing on the most basic actions, gestures of survival, yields a cynical philosophical symbolism that recalls Beckett:
What if I said that he’s [the boy] a god?
The old man [Eli] shook his head. I’m past all that now. Have been for years. Where men cant live gods fare no better. You’ll see. It’s better to be alone. So I hope that’s not true what you said because to be on the road with the last god would be a terrible thing so I hope it’s not true. Things will be better when everybody’s gone.
They will?
Sure they will.
Better for who?
Everybody. (146)

These moments are my favorite ones, the ones I have most often quoted throughout this review; instants of perfect mundanity, and perfect poetry.

“The Road” (USA 2006)
Cormac McCarthy

More encounters on the road:
  • Wikipedia has entries for The Road and Cormac McCarthy, the latter including a quite snazzy picture of the author giving the camera a suspicious glare
  • Malcolm Jones writes a review for Newsweek that is somewhat optimist (or even simplistic) about the book's moral quandaries, but amusingly summarizes the entire range of the book's concerns using the Library of Congress subject headings from the copyright page.
  • Alan Cheuse's review from NPR can be found here...
  • ...and Janet Maslin's for the New York Times here.
  • You can examine or buy McCarthy's book at Amazon: The Road.

And now, a few questions for those who have also read “The Road.” In other words, glaring SPOlLER ALERT from this point until the end.

1) On p.74, there is a sudden shift in narrative voice – while the rest of the novel is in the third person, a single paragraph at the top of the page is in the first person, in the father’s voice. What is odd is that this passage deals with memory and seems to “correct” the central narration: “He doesn’t remember any little boys.” What is going on here? Does this happen at other points in the novel, points that I just missed?

2) What did you make of the ending? I must admit that I found it slightly disappointing (all but the last paragraph, about brook trout, which was so spontaneous and unaccountable that I found it oddly thrilling), rather too steeped in the scantily fleshed out religious component of the novel, and rather too pat (as if it were just the playing out of the man or the boy’s fantasy of a happy ending). Also, if the road has a larger allegorical (or spiritual, or historical) significance, what does it mean that someone has been following them, and that the boy turns back and retraces their steps. What does it mean that when his father dies, he does not keep going? What does it mean that he identifies his father (who was loving to him, but uncomfortably harsh with others) with God?