Saturday, March 08, 2008

Cormac McCarthy, "The Road" (2006),

Although I make a serious effort to spend as much time reading as possible, it's very rare for me to read an entire book in one day. Besides the fact that I have more responsibilities and priorities than ever, I am a notoriously slow reader. I'm usually satisfied if I get through 100 pages over several hours. So it's notable that I completed the entire length of Cormac McCarthy's The Road in a single day. I'm certain that it's partially attributable to my appreciation for the author's previous works. I've gotten through almost all of them. And I was particularly looking forward to The Road, because of its post-apocalyptic theme. But I also found it eminently readable, despite its relentlessly bleak tone.

The Road is the tale of the relationship between a father and his young son, and their struggle to survive a harsh world. Something has occurred to make living on the Earth virtually unmanageable. McCarthy never explicitly outlines the cause of the transformation, but certain clues suggest that it might have been the result of a nuclear war. There are ashes over everything, and the sun is perpetually obscured by the particulate matter in the atmosphere. Naturally this means that all plant life is either dead or extremely unhealthy. Without feed animal husbandry is impossible, and so food supplies are almost non-existent. People aren't able to rebuild from the ashes of civilization because agriculture is seemingly impossible. The survivors are left to salvage the remains.

McCarthy increases the mystery and tension by leaving out the exposition that most writers would be tempted to include in the book's early chapters. We don't know who the father was before the disaster. We are told that he once had a wife, but she couldn't bear life without hope. Their boy was born after the key transformational event, and he knows nothing of what society used to be like beforehand. His father realizes that those "old days" are slipping away forever, and exist only in his receding memory. It's for this reason that he chooses not to talk too much about the past to his son. We don't know exactly how long the pair has been wandering, but we know that it's been at least several years. It is obvious that love for his boy represents the only reason for the father to stay alive.

The descriptions of their surroundings are concise and matter-of-fact. This is unexpected considering the author's usual penchant for long, meandering, occasionally indecipherable paragraphs. For the first time in my experience with McCarthy's work, I was actually propelled along by the rhythm of his writing. The horror is explicitly drawn whenever the father and son encounter something new. Meanwhile we are aware of much unspoken nastiness that they have apparently become desensitized and detached from. The reader is often asked to consider the plight of the main characters, and ask him/herself whether or not he/she would continue on, or just give up altogether. As our heroes search through the ruins of one tableau after another, it's quite clear that a commitment to persevere has to be renewed daily.

The Road would be nearly unbearable if there weren't such a tender relationship at its core. The depth of feeling exchanged between Papa and "the Boy" is clearly evident, and the dialog between them makes up a large portion of the book. In fact there are very few other characters that McCarthy introduces directly into the narrative. When the few exceptions occur, these figures are usually employed merely to advance the understanding we have about our protagonists. What degree of humanity have they been able to preserve despite the unthinkable pain that accompanies them? How do they relate to others when the inexorable message of life is "kill, or be killed"? If this incredible work doesn't evoke both dread and introspection in its readership, then the scenario it's based on is probably inevitable. This is a tremendously important book, and a true classic in every sense.

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