Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Road - Cormac McCarthy

How to describe The Road? It’s as brilliant as it is harrowing; as tender as it is brutal…

The overwhelming sentiment of McCarthy’s award-winning masterpiece is best summed up in one of the book’s many insightful lines: “The frailty of everything revealed at last.”

But, despite its bleak premise, The Road is ultimately a story of hope.

It’s the story of a father and son (known only as “the man” and “the boy”) trekking across a post-apocalyptic America in a desperate struggle for survival.

Every waking moment in their scavenger existence is consumed by the need to find food, clean water and dry shelter.

Whatever event is responsible for the destruction of civilization – evidently man-made – was so devastating the ash is still falling years later, contaminating water, blocking out direct sunlight and creating a perpetual winter.

Early on, we know there are threats from unseen strangers in this bleak landscape, and when the reality of that threat is revealed, it is shockingly clear just how barbaric the world has become.

Disaster has brought out the worst of human nature among survivors. But it has also brought out the best.

In the midst of this horrific, nihilistic existence, the father and son share an unshakable bond. The man’s love for the boy is so tender, it’s palpable. As is his desperation to protect him. And the boy returns that love unconditionally, despite his almost constant state of fear.

As the full extent of their plight becomes obvious, you can’t help but question why - in the face of such a seemingly senseless struggle – do they keep fighting to survive? Why care for each other? Why keep living?

If the question is how to be human in an inhumane world, McCarthy answers it through this relationship. The pair share a tenderness that’s illogical and impractical in their brutal world, and yet neither questions it. It is what helps them “carry the fire”.

Even as they scavenge, the man and boy retain a sense of dignity and morality. Or at least, the boy clings to his father’s moral code tightly enough that it reminds the man how he should be.

Like All the Pretty Horses, The Road looks at the duality of human existence.

McCarthy’s vision of a post-apocalyptic world – where cities lie in ruins, medical care is non existent, starvation is a very real threat and the rules of civilization have collapsed – is frighteningly believable. Like, just how dark the night would be with the sky hidden behind ever-present clouds, and the fear of the most simple of illnesses.

Most frightening is the fact this vision of the future is perhaps not so far-fetched…

McCarthy’s sparse prose sets the perfect tone for this story and, as always, he offers up evocative imagery:

“By day the banished sun circles the earth like a grieving mother with a lamp.”

I finished The Road a week ago and I still can’t get it out of my head. Not because of its bleak brutality – although some of that imagery will linger for a while too – but because of its beauty.

The Road is heartbreaking and heart-pounding. The tension is at times unbearable. And yet, ultimately this is a powerful story about love and humanity that moved me to tears. I couldn’t put it down, and I can’t recommend it enough.

(So yes, Ink-stained Toe-poker, I get why you love this book so much. I wish I’d read it years ago.)

One last thought: the film version of The Road is due out on DVD in coming weeks, and I can’t wait to see Viggo Mortensen in the lead role. I suspect he will be perfectly dignified and heartbreaking as the man.


Charley said...

Wonderful post! I took so much away from this book, too. My favorite line is: "This is my son, he said. I wash a dead man's brains out of his hair. That is my job." Even though the image is gruesome, I think of that line often. The father is so clear about what it means to be a parent, and I love that McCarthy is able to capture an enormous love in such simple terms.

Paula Weston said...

Thanks Charley. Yes, I loved that line too, for the same reaons.

Placey said...

Cormac McCarthy is great, isn't he. I've read and loved two of McCarthy's books: ‘All the Pretty Horses'and 'No Country for Old Men'. I felt like I had to work hard reading these novels: there was minimal punctuation which took a while to accustom to, and McCarthy has a knack for keeping you on your toes working out what is going on plotwise, like a great suspense movie.
I look forward to reading 'The Road' and watching the movie (I love Viggo's work, am sure he won't disappoint).

I look forward to reading 'The Road' and watching the movie (I love Viggo's work, am sure he won't disappoint).

Placey said...

Back again. Having now read 'The Road', you can put this down as my favourite Cormac McCarthy novel so far.
You hit the nail on the head with your questions about survival, caring and living. In those circumstances is choosing to continue the fight for survival (and thus suffering) the most caring or loving thing a parent can do?
While I found the mother/ wife's character written quite unsympathetically, I think she expressed the fears that many people might feel in their situation. What if death looks like the least worst outcome?

And in amongst this desperate environment is the tenderness of the man and boy's relationship.

In high school, I read Nevil Shute's 'On the Beach'. It was first published in 1957 and was set in the near future - the 1960s - after WWIII has wiped out most of the Northern Hemisphere. Like 'The Road', its focus is not so much on the catastrophe, but on the characters dealing with survival - and the iminent prospect of death - after it.