Thursday, October 25, 2007

Cormac McCarthy's The Road

Popular fiction about the end of the world can be epic (Stephen King's The Stand and Robert R. McCammon's better Swan Song) or awful (King's Cell). Thus, a reader should always raise an eyebrow upon learning that a popular novelist has taken on the Armageddon genre, as that is usually a cue for very bad genre fiction. Cormac McCarthy's The Road, a post apocalyptic novel, succeeds in a way that places it in a class of its own. McCarthy, author of All the Pretty Horses and No Country for Old Men, did not prepare us for the marvel that is this very grim book.

At only 241 pages, the book is -not- one of those epic, 1,000 page tomes in which a miscellaneous group of "good" people link up and combat a miscellaneous group of "bad" people who have linked up after America has collapsed. (An aside: Really, when did the definition of "epic" evolve in literature to mean a book of more than 850 pages and in film to mean a work with a running time of three hours or more? Scope is irrelevant.). What impressed me about The Road was its intensely dark and gritty nature. As the novel begins, a number of years have passed since some cataclysmic event, which is never directed explained but is obviously a nuclear holocaust. A nameless man and his young son (who has no memory of the world as existed before its fiery end) are making their way southward through the United States and attempting to avoid any trouble they might encounter along the way. They worry about shelter and starvation and do all that they can to avoid murderous road agents. They see only decay and death and the results of same. Their fate is to live and exist day by day in this world.

McCarthy is not writing about good versus evil or action adventure. He chronicles the struggle of a man and his son to survive in a world which cannot by its very nature survive. The man, obviously, has some difficulty reconciling this new world with the old. One particular passage , in which he fleetingly recalls his long gone wife, resonates with readers:

Rich dreams now which he was loathe the wake from. Things no longer known in the world. The cold drove him forth to mend the fire. Memory of her crossing the lawn toward the house in the early morning in a thin rose gown that clung to her breasts. He thought each memory recalled must do some violence to its origins. As in a party game. Say the word and pass it on. So be sparing. What you alter in the remembering has yet a reality, known or not.

See p. 111 (emphasis added).

There's a joy in revisiting a place like that which you have not seen (or sometimes even thought of) in a decade. But, if you do so often enough, you do indeed commit violence to your memories. The past is, after all, a place which should be only occasionally conjured up in one's mind. But, sometimes, we cannot resist the temptation to revisit it even when we should not. When nostalgia forces us to do so again and again, we begin to remember our subsequent visits, and not the original, which imbued the locale with meaning in the first place. That is why, at least for now, I have no immediate plans to reread this book which I so enjoyed.


gaijin said...

Funny; I had the same reaction. Great, chilling book, but almost as soon as I put it down, it occurred to me that I probably wouldn't be reading it again, at least not for a long, long time.

Steven said...

I will continue to assert that over half of what makes that book such a chilling experience is the voluminous amount of white space that the typesetters let the prose have. It's simply majestic.


Anonymous said...

Funny that my reaction after reading The Road was to immediately re-read the book and write down the most thought provoking statements for further study, yet 5 months later I haven't done so. The book made me feel really lonely, which I imagine is the effect McCarthy was going for, which given my current depressed state is likely why I haven't gone back to it. I did get my 14 year old son to read it so he could understand the lengths a father will go to in providing for and protecting his son. A very moving book, even for a cynical, agnostic, 39 year old ex-Marine like me. --R

Unknown said...

I have rarely been so moved by a work of literature. To call this the most important novel of 2006 is an understatement. Read it and weep. Read it and be uplifted. Just read it--before it's too late.

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