The Road, one of the most critically acclaimed books of the decade and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction 2007, has left me somewhat nonplussed; what was it about? And why was it about whatever it was about in the specific way it was about it?
When I heard it was the story of a father and a son travelling across a post-apocalyptic wasteland, I was sure it would be about McCarthy’s post-apocalypse, with the father and son providing an emotional centre a la Ladri di Biciclette. The initial pages confirmed my opinion, and on my first try – sometime in 2008 – I only read around thirty pages because I thought it was getting too repetitive.
When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him. Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world. His hand rose and fell softly with each precious breath. He pushed away the plastic tarpaulin and raised himself in the stinking robes and blankets and looked toward the east for any light but there was none. In the dream from which he’d wakened he had wandered in a cave where the child led him by the hand. Their light playing over the wet flowstone walls. Like pilgrims in a fable swallowed up and lost among the inward parts of some granitic beast. Deep stone flues where the water dripped and sang. Tolling in the silence the minutes of the earth and the hours and the days of it and the years without cease. Until they stood in a great stone room where lay a black and ancient lake. And on the far shore a creature that raised its dripping mouth from the rimstone pool and stared into the light with eyes dead white and sightless as the eggs of spiders. It swung its head low over the water as if to take the scent of what it could not see. Crouching there pale and naked and translucent, its alabaster bones cast up in shadow on the rocks behind it. Its bowels, its beating heart. The brain that pulsed in a dull glass bell. It swung its head from side to side and then gave out a low moan and turned and lurched away and loped soundlessly into the dark.
Notice, apart from the obvious melancholy, the number of sentence fragments in the piece. That is an obviously ‘artsy’ attempt at bleakness, which I don’t think generally works. Well, in this case it does, but this book is littered throughout with sudden onslaughts of description using these fragments which tend to be poetic descriptions structured without consideration for any narrative rhythm. Which is a pity, considering the quality of the rest of the prose. Another problem with this attempt is that these two characters are at a point beyond the ability to feel bleakness, where their life is basically drudgery, with occasional poignant reminiscences.
But the real point I was trying to get at using the extract was how much this sort of thing added to my puzzlement about the book; if the point of the book was its vision of the future, and this attempt at bleakness supports this idea, why was its vision nothing more than a generic one, an aftermath of floating ash a la the Triassic and no surviving food sources?
Okay, so maybe it’s not about that. Is it, then, about the complete lack of real hope in this world – in other words, an environmental message? The ‘bleakness’ would support this too, and I can see how some people might have taken it that way, but isn’t it the wrong point of time to capture this lack of hope, when the basic idea of hope has gone out the window and blown up in the nuclear blast? What I’m trying to say is, isn’t it a better idea to capture a moment while it’s still slipping out of their hands and heading for the window, giving some real room for poignancy in the bleakness rather than this plain, simple – I’m going to have to repeat a word – drudgery?
Then, I’m led to remember these passages, conversations between the father and the son:
He woke whimpering in the night and the man held him. Shh, he said. Shh. It’s okay.
I had a bad dream.
Should I tell you what it was?
If you want to.
I had this penguin that you wound up and it would waddle and flap its flippers. And we were in that house that we used to live in and it came around the corner but nobody had wound it up and it was really scary.
It was a lot scarier in the dream.
I know. Dreams can be really scary.
Why did I have that scary dream?
I dont know. But it’s okay now. I’m going to put some wood on the fire. You go to sleep.
The boy didnt answer. Then he said: The winder wasnt turning.
I’m forced to conclude, that is, that the book is about the relationship between father and son, the father’s fears for his son, and the world is merely a device to accentuate it.
Well, shoot me for being puzzled.
Also, the themes weren’t the only thing puzzling me:
- The usage of obscure words. It was completely and utterly inorganic to McCarthy’s style. It completely contradicted his hopes to achieve bleakness by cutting his sentences up. He should have at least caught itself when he used one and had to explain it. “They were discalced to a man … for all their shoes were long since stolen.”
- The need for editing. There were sentences where both the father and the son were ‘he’, and one had to stop reading and think to find out which was whom. And there’s two – exactly two – passages written in first person, inexplicably breaking from the third person of the rest of the narrative.
- The need for copy-editing: There’s a sentence which starts with a small letter and, like that’s not enough, is very mysteriously butchered. Spelling mistakes I’m comparatively fine with, but this is totally unacceptable.
But all this is making The Road sound like a bad book. By the heavens, that it is not. When McCarthy isn’t describing anything, his prose has a level of mood and force few people can match. Not to mention that it did actually bring home the realities of living in a post-nuclear world, from the constant uncertainty about the next supply of food (there’s a beautiful bit where they stumble into a vault full of it) to the constant need for new shoes. All in all, however, I have higher hopes of the movie, which may be able to break free of McCarthy’s distracting obsession with his son and simultaneously bring home the reality of the world that McCarthy’s hackneyed method of description couldn’t.
Other interesting reviews of the book and movie:
Max Cairnduff of Pechorin’s Journal had feelings in many ways similar to mine, but for different reason.
William Rycroft of Just William’s Luck loved the book, found the relationship thing completely fine, and included it among his best of the decade.
Trevor Barett of The Mookse and The Gripes loved the book and was rooting for its Pulitzer win that year.
Roger Ebert loves the book and appreciates the movie.
A World Literature Forum member hates its very guts.